Somali Women Watch Soccer as Mogadishu Defies al-ShabaabMohamed Sheikh Nor
Sahro Ali did something this month that she hadn’t dreamed possible for years: she and two female friends went to a soccer match between Banadir Sports Club and Elman FC in the Somali capital.
The match in the rebuilt Banadir Stadium was the third of the season that kicked off Nov. 8. That marked the return of competitive soccer to Mogadishu for the first time since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and the start of two decades of civil war. It’s a symbol of the state’s success in beginning to rebuild the city after its army, backed by African Union troops, drove out al-Qaeda-linked fighters in 2011.
“I was locked at home since the Islamists banned the mixing of sexes,” Ali, a 29-year-old primary school teacher, said in a Nov. 12 interview at the game, where she sat next to men. “But today for the first time in six years, I have managed to watch a match.”
The renovation of Banadir Stadium, complete with an AstroTurf field, is part of a revival of Mogadishu that includes the city’s first traffic lights, new beach-front restaurants and a 24-hour taxi service. Billboards advertise services ranging from banking to mobile-phone networks.
The 30,000-seat arena, originally built in 1956, was destroyed during shelling in 2009 by Somali government forces attacking fighters of the Islamist al-Shabaab group who used the stadium as a base and dug trenches to evade gun and mortar fire. It was rebuilt with the aid of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body.
While al-Shabaab is still capable of carrying out sporadic bomb attacks, Abdi Abshir Dhoorre, director-general of the Somali Chamber of Commerce, says businessmen are increasingly confident about the city’s future.
“The relative peace in Mogadishu has enabled the revival of the business sector,” Dhoorre said in an interview on Nov. 14. “Business in Somalia is growing very fast. Everyone in the country is thinking of starting their own business.”
The economy is gaining momentum, according to the Central Bank of Somalia, with annual growth of 3.5 percent to 4 percent in the first half of the year. Foreign investment and financial support for humanitarian and development programs helped the Somali shilling gain 32 percent so far this year to 1,215 per dollar, ranking it as Africa’s best-performing currency.
Improving stability and the nascent economic recovery are attracting members of the Somalia diaspora, such as Suleyman Jama Dharas, the 41-year-old manager of Mogadishu Taxi, the city’s first 24-hour taxi service, back to the country. The United Nations Development Program estimates 1.5 million Somalis, more than a 10th of the nation’s population, live abroad in countries such as Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.
“We formed the idea last year when we found out that security in Mogadishu is gradually improving,” said Dharas, who lived in Sweden for 16 years before returning to Somalia. “We realized there was an opportunity and we acted on it immediately.”
Dharas’s blue and yellow taxis ferry patrons to any destination in the city for a flat fee of $10, undercutting other services that can charge as much as $30, according to Isse Ali, a client. Restaurants on the city’s Lido beach are a popular destination, such as the newly opened Beach View where customers can spend more than $50 for a lunch including crayfish, lobster and oysters.
“I am happy with the number of restaurants that have reopened in Mogadishu in the past two years, but the price of their food is excessive, mainly because the owners are from the diaspora,” Muhyadin Aynte said as he ate lunch at the beach-front venue.
Yet Somalia’s transition to a stable economy remains fragile.
Spectators attending the match were subjected to full-body searches by policemen wielding AK-47 assault rifles. A car bombing at a hotel in the city center killed five people on the day the season started, underlining al-Shabaab’s enduring menace. Yesterday, at least 21 people died in a suicide-bomb attack on a police station in the central town of Beledweyne, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Mogadishu, that the authorities said was carried out by al-Shabaab.
“Threats are imminent and we expect an attack at any time,” said Abdikadir Ali, a Banadir Sports Club supporter, in between hurling insults at the Elman players. His team won 3-1.
Somali Football Federation Secretary-General Abdi Qani Said Arab said soccer “is the only tool to bring people together” and can take people’s minds off the recent conflict.
“I really feel comfortable with where I am today,” Ali’s friend Nima Hussein said as she sat among the 20,000 people who attended the game. “You can see I am watching the match without fear and turmoil. The atmosphere is amazing.”