In the spring of 2013, during a lull in Somalia’s near-ceaseless violence, I flew into Mogadishu aboard an aging Boeing 707 operated by one of the country’s struggling private airlines. Al Shabaab, the radical Islamist terror group, had pulled many of its fighters out of the city, and members of the Somali diaspora were beginning to return home.
Traveling through the bullet-pocked, bombed-out remnants of the capital, I noticed a striking sight: two policemen in white uniforms proudly directing traffic at the busy K4 roundabout, long a target of suicide bombings and other attacks. Solar-powered streetlights, a gift from Norway, had been strung along the main avenue, providing illumination at night for the first time in a generation.
Yet the city’s recovery was a work in progress. Hours after I flew back to Nairobi, a squad of nine militants wearing suicide vests attacked Mogadishu’s supreme court, killing 35 and injuring dozens.
In “The Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Redemption in the Ruins of Somalia,” the veteran BBC reporter Andrew Harding tells the story of the man largely responsible for those streetlights and traffic cops: Mohamud (Tarzan) Nur, a scrappy street kid turned businessman and political activist who fled Somalia before the country collapsed into civil war in 1991. After becoming a leader of the Somali community in London, Nur returned home in 2010 at the height of a terror campaign waged by al Shabaab. Soon afterward, he was appointed Mogadishu’s mayor.
Harding, one of a handful of foreign reporters who have visited Somalia on a regular basis in recent years, followed the charismatic Nur as he braved death threats and tried to revive the ruined city.
Part on-the-ground war reporting, part investigative biography, Harding’s book captures both the fragile hopes and the appalling violence of Somalia. It also conjures the ambiguity of its central character, a self-mythologizing showman trailed by a whiff of corruption and not averse to shading the truth.
Nur’s rise to prominence resembles a Horn of Africa version of the Horatio Alger story. Born in 1954 in a nomadic camp in the Ogaden, a desolate region in what is now Ethiopia, Nur wound up homeless and starving alongside his four siblings and mother after his father perished during a drought.
A well-to-do aunt in Mogadishu took custody of the children, but Nur wound up in an overcrowded state orphanage, “a military-style concrete barracks” crammed with castoffs and misfits. There he earned a reputation as a brawler — even losing part of his ear in a fight — and a rebel. A teacher designated him “Tarzan” after finding him hiding half-naked in a tree during an unannounced dorm inspection.
Harding vividly describes prewar Mogadishu, a city permeated by an Italian flavor long after these colonizers pulled out in 1960. “People would surface from their siestas at about 5 p.m., stroll along the seafront, eat some stew with flatbread made from maize flour at a local restaurant, and then stand at the counter at a cafe for a macchiato,” he writes.
“After that it was time to catch a film. The cinemas would be open from around 6 each evening, and for one Somali shilling you could stay until midnight.” (In one memorable scene, Harding takes an excursion through one of the city’s ruined theaters, a place much like those where Nur and his friends would watch Fellini films and Italian-dubbed American movies like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”)
In 1969, the army’s commander in chief, Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre, seized power in a coup, the first step in Somalia’s disintegration. At first, the dictator devoted himself to the country’s development. Nur — by then a star on a state-run basketball team and a prominent figure in Mogadishu — had met his future wife, a beautiful and brassy young woman named Shamis, during a successful literacy drive led by the young urban elite. But Siad Barre soon turned the country into a police state, awakened clan rivalries and assassinated political opponents.
A 1988 bombing raid on the northern town of Hargeisa, a stronghold of the rival Isaaq clan, opened the door to civil war, famine, anarchy, the Ethiopian invasion, the rise of Islamist radicals and Mogadishu’s descent from offbeat tourist destination into Hobbesian hellhole.
By the time of Somalia’s transformation into a failed state, Nur and his family were living abroad — first in Saudi Arabia, then in a council flat in the Belsize Park neighborhood of London. Harding skillfully evokes the bifurcated existence of the diaspora community, seeking to build new lives yet drawn back psychologically to their homeland and shadowed by its conflicts. Nur studied for a business degree and organized the Somali Speakers Association, a group providing guidance to newly arrived Somalis.
His children assimilated easily into British society, but Nur, who belongs to a branch of the clan that chased Siad Barre out of Mogadishu, found that many Somali expatriates clung fiercely to their clan identities. As al Shabaab recruited new members around the world, MI5, Britain’s domestic security agency, interrogated Nur’s oldest son, mistakenly suspecting him of having radical sympathies.
Harding struggled mightily to get inside Nur’s head, but his quarry remained elusive. Nur lied about the circumstances of his birth — telling Harding that he was born in Mogadishu’s “Martino hospital, Room 18” rather than in the bush — and evaded other questions about his humble childhood. Nur, Harding writes, conveys the “sense of a slate being scrubbed clean, a fresh start, a man choosing not quite to reinvent himself, but to grasp the opportunity to control his own story.” His persistent obfuscations obliged Harding to piece together his subject’s life from former classmates, a brother teaching at a college in Indiana, even a South Africa-based Somali whose nomadic childhood resembled Nur’s.
At times, these investigative excursions give the book a meandering quality, as do the narrative’s frequent geographic and chronological leaps — from Queen’s Crescent in London to the Indianapolis suburbs to the front lines in Mogadishu. Harding also glosses over the complexities of Somalia’s meltdown in the 1990s, paying scant attention to the rise of the warlords, the American misadventure and the apocalyptic destruction of Mogadishu by competing factions.
It was into these ruins that Nur plunged in 2010. In the book’s climactic section, Harding shadows the new mayor as he tries to rebuild the city’s cultural and economic life. Nur spent his days, Harding writes, “haggling with local businessmen about how to get the streets cleaned, reminding them that they’d paid no taxes for two decades and that perhaps it was time to think of the greater good.” By the time Nur was sacked in 2014 — driven out by a backlash against the diaspora and mudslinging by rival politicians — al Shabaab’s depredations had erased the mayor’s improvements. And Harding’s attitude toward his protagonist had shifted from admiration to ambivalence.
With Nur idle in Mogadishu and contemplating a run for the presidency, Harding meets a Canadian Somali who oversaw public finances before turning whistle-blower and fleeing to Kenya. He describes Nur as a “thug” who may have looted millions from the city’s budget. At the same time, the Canadian admits: “The guy has guts. He’s lived abroad. He’s enlightened. He’s someone I could . . . accept to be at the helm of the government.” As Harding’s fine book makes clear, morally compromised figures like Nur may be the best one can hope for in a country desperately short of heroes.