The first courses had just been served when the war came to the country club in Mogadishu. Fifty guests, including businesspeople and government officials, were sitting at long tables laden with bowls of camel stew, goat meat, lobster and swordfish. When a van filled with explosives detonated in front of the gate, the resulting explosion demolished part of the protective wall, blew the second floor right off the villa and destroyed the building’s entire front.
Six weeks later, no traces of the attack remain. It is a Monday morning, and Manar Moalin is waiting for her guests. Standing on a turret by the entrance, the 33-year-old with red lipstick and golden eyeshadow watches as an armored vehicle drives around the concrete barriers while the heavily armed security guards in front of her country club relax in the shade and chew khat.
A wall of sand and cement 2.5 meters (8 feet) thick now protects the club while the villa is once again resplendent in fresh white. Coconut palms and rubber trees hem in two open-walled huts covered in palm fronds. Mogadishu’s country club is a cross between a palace, a fortress and a wooden shack, but above all else it is a refuge for high-ranking government officials, businesspeople and the city’s wealthy. It is perhaps the weirdest place in Mogadishu, capital of the most failed of states. For 27 years, the country has made due without a government able to exert its control across all parts of the country – and it has been at war for three decades.
Manar Moalin leaves her lookout point and perches on a kind of wooden throne in the garden. A pair of dwarf antelopes tremble in the wind, a giant tortoise inches past. Moalin has tied a blue headscarf around her head like a pirate and is wearing a cobalt-blue shirt under a black vest, tight jeans, a gold nose-ring. The dry sound of a machine-gun salvo drifts past. “This is how things go here,” she said, and points to the most recent traces of destruction.
Moalin’s voice sounds young, raw, like London’s West End. She grew up in Italy, studied economics in London, and went on to run a luxury spa in Dubai. It was a good life, but then her mother was drawn back to Mogadishu, and Moalin also began to feel like it was time to return to the city of her birth. She came for an initial visit, then came for weekend parties, then back forever. Almost three years ago, in December of 2014, she opened her club.
Her brother has come twice to try to bring her back to Dubai. Her children wanted her back, as does her husband. But Moalin remains. Out of defiance. And because she wants to help her homeland take a step forward.
“At this point, it’s less about money for me than about principles,” she says. Like many returnees, she doesn’t want to let herself be driven out again. But it’s also about money, of course. “You can get rich here like nowhere else,” she says.
Money also played a role in the attack on her club. Moalin says she doesn’t pay any protection money, which was one reason. The other was that businesspeople from the neighborhood wanted to take over her club, and supposedly hired the Shabaab fighters to stage the attack.
A Country that Doesn’t Exist
After rebels toppled dictator Siad Barre in 1991, a series of clans and warlords took power, ultimately followed by al-Shabaab. An estimated 2.5 million Somalis were displaced with about 1 million leaving the country. Up to 1.5 million died as a result of the conflict, mostly civilians. The country landed in the headlines due to piracy, kidnappings, terror attacks and famines. There really isn’t a Somalia at all, anymore – at least nothing that constitutes a state, like a judiciary, a police force or even taxes.
Since spring, though, there has been a new government here and European diplomats have started talking about a “window of opportunity” – even if the election was little more than a shifting around of bribes: A seat in parliament supposedly cost up to $1.3 million. Even if it wasn’t the citizens who voted, but rather 14,025 clan emissaries. And even if Mogadishu is the only place where the government exerts even a modicum of control, because large swaths of the country are still controlled by al-Shabaab.
The extremists were driven out of Mogadishu six years ago. But that doesn’t mean that the city is at peace. There are merely fewer deaths. The biggest danger is currently the car bombs. Entire neighborhoods are still rubble; facades are dotted with bullet holes; people live in ruins. But new structures have begun to appear next to the skeletons of the villas and the real estate market is growing, with new villas costing up to $1 million. Hotels are opening as are restaurants, taxi businesses and banks. Over 100,000 Somalis have returned from abroad in recent years.
It is early afternoon, and more and more armored Land Cruisers with tinted windows are arriving at the country club. Moalin stands by the entrance and greets her guests – members of parliament, businesspeople, the heads of state television. Gunfire can be heard but nobody pays attention. The escorts of two of the guests are shooting at each other due to a mix-up.
Moalin leads the men into a room lit by green fairy lights, the club manager walking like a boxer, wide and proud. Dolphinfish and linguini with a tomato-coriander sugo is being served. A businessman orders a lobster. The muezzin’s call of “Allahu akbar” drifts over their heads, but nobody cares. The country club is a space of freedom and refuge in a city that has been structured around religion and war.
“The Somalis,” says Moalin, “have lost a lot of things in the war, especially their soul.” When mortar fire sent the city up in flames, she says, its morale was extinguished. The only thing that remained, she says, was a naked will to survive and all traces of compassion and humanity have disappeared. Mogadishu became an unscrupulous financial capital of a different kind.
‘Everything in Mogadishu Is Business’
At a table in the far rear of the garden, where the hookahs are arranged in long rows, sits a stout man with a soft face and an American East Coast accent, plenty of pomade in his hair and a slim-tailored suit. Mohamed is a parliamentarian and advisor to the president of Southwest Somalia. He is in the club almost daily, and knows almost everyone in the government. He understands how the city functions.
“Mogadishu,” he says, “is still ruled by warlords.”
Today’s warlords, he says, don’t wear cartridge belts and no longer order around glassy-eyed child soldiers. No, he says, they are businesspeople. But they pursue their interests with the same methods, with weapons, car bombs, kidnappings and beheadings.
He lets his gold-rimmed glasses slide down his nose and looks into the smoke coming from the water pipe before beginning to speak quietly, like almost everyone in Mogadishu when they have something to say. To attract attention here can be deadly.
Business deals aren’t done in Mogadishu to finance the war, he says, nor is ideology fueling the conflict. Rather, he says, war is waged in order to ensure that business continues to boom.
More shots ring out, this time on the main street. Members of a powerful clan are protesting because one of their compatriots was sentenced to death for shooting the minister for reconstruction. The clan members claim it was an accident.
Of course, the lawmaker says, there is hope. “The new government is largely made up of technocrats who have returned from the diaspora and don’t have any strong clan associations.” But that, he says, is also a problem because the men who remained in the country have no respect for those who studied in the U.S., Norway or England.
And that’s not all, he says, because the true power still isn’t in the hands of the government. “The people who control the large companies for telecommunication, electricity and water are the real rulers of this city,” he says. And he claims they all have close connections to al-Shabaab.
Recently, he says, the government sought to impose an audacious plan: All those paying taxes to al-Shabaab were to be punished. But shop owners protested, he says, and the plan was thrown out. The lawmaker laughs – a high-pitched, uneven laugh. How can, he asks, the government threaten to do such a thing? Everyone who runs a business here pays taxes to al-Shabaab, he says. Those who refuse to pay run into problems like Moalin.
“You can’t demand an end to protection money, when you can’t guarantee security as a government,” he says. Then he flips the coal in his hookah, stirs his espresso and looks at his giant smartphone. Heels clack on the tile floor as a group of stewardesses from Jubba Airways walk across the courtyard. “Everything in Mogadishu is business,” he continues.
The country’s most important one: international aid. According to the United Nations, $1.2 billion pour into Somalia every year, but almost no international organization works in the south of the country, where al-Shabaab is in control. For that reason, local NGOs distribute aid supplies to the population there. “And precisely there,” the lawmaker says, “is where the money disappears.”
He’s interrupted by a muffled detonation. The lawmaker briefly looks up. A bomb, it later turns out, was apparently attached to a car at a wedding convoy. Supposedly a woman had had an affair and the groom had hired al-Shabaab to carry out the assassination.
“Some former warlords,” the lawmaker continues, “simply became religious leaders at some point. Primarily, because it made it easier to mobilize young people.” Over 70 percent of the population, he says, is under the age of 30, and many have never been to school. “They want to be part of something, and al-Shabaab offers that to them, unlike the government.”
He pays and walks to his Land Cruiser. Walkie talkies hiss and a Toyota pick-up leads the way, with five armed men on the bed. Once they pass through the gate, they rapidly accelerate and speed down the street. Driving slowly in Mogadishu can be deadly.
The Terrorist Business Model
The traffic rules in this city are simple: Whoever has the biggest escort always has the right of way. A traffic jam is dangerous because it makes you into an easy target. And the city is nervous these days, with attacks becoming more frequent and Al-Shabaab apparently launching a new fear-offensive. At the checkpoints, soldiers shoot at anyone who doesn’t follow their instructions. They pull tuk-tuk drivers from their three-wheelers and beat them with the butts of their rifles.
Not 6 kilometers from the country club, in the garden of the City Palace Hotel, waits a man who knows how al-Shabaab’s business operates, a man who has beheaded 35 men and women with a machete in the past seven years, and presumably shot even more. He is sitting at a blue plastic table and drinking cappuccino, the evening light is soft, the waiters wear white shirts and black pants.
Until one year ago, the 55-year-old was a commander of al-Shabaab in southwestern Somalia, an emir. He has asked not to be named. Last October, after he survived two attacks by competing wings of al-Shabaab, he made a deal with the government: freedom for information. Since then he has been in Mogadishu.
His face is covered in scars, his eyes behind his sunglasses are reddish and his fingernails have been gnawed to the quick. A white crocheted hat sits on his head. When the waiter walks by, he goes quiet.
The story he tells goes like this: He used to be a farmer and the chief of a village in the region of Lower Shebelle, where he owned plantations by the river and sold his fruits as far afield as Mogadishu. Then came the drought in 2006 and the melons shriveled, followed by the bananas, the mangos and the beans. One day, al-Shabaab men appeared at his door. Come to us, he claims they told him, we pay well. He says he hesitated, but they said come to us and we will pay you well. Or we will shoot you.
They made him the head of finance for the region and he quickly noticed that money was more important than God. “Al-Shabaab is a giant business,” the Emir says. He says they collected taxes and blackmailed businesspeople in addition to politicians in Mogadishu. Most politicians and all businesses, he says, pay protection money. Even telecommunications giant Hormuud, he says, pays $1,000 per day per branch. There are 17 branches in Mogadishu alone.
“They spread fear because fear is the foundation for their business model.”
In order to calculate the revenue of hotels and restaurants, al-Shabaab sends in spies and, depending on what they find, charge a few hundred dollars per month for smaller establishments and up to $50,000 for large hotels. Those who don’t pay, he says, are kidnapped and then given a choice: pay or be decapitated. They usually chose the latter.
“Al-Shabaab is making money across the whole country,” the emir says. “They are collecting tolls on the streets they control and some routes take in more than $50,000 per day.” On top of this, according to the U.N., they also control the million-dollar smuggling trade in charcoal and sugar in the south of the country together with the Kenyan army. They are also involved in smuggling ivory and rhinoceros horns.
But profit isn’t just being generated inside the country, he says. He maintains that al-Shabaab receives financial support from outside the country, mainly from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. He speaks of Qatari sheikhs having flown in $20 million to his region last year, though he has no proof. He says the money went into the bosses’ pockets, who used it to buy weapons, pay their fighters and fill their safes. He claims their families live in Europe and the U.S. and that their children attend the best universities.
He himself, he says, used to live in an eight-room villa on the seaside southwest of Mogadishu, drove two new all-terrain vehicles, had three slaves and 12 security guards.
Two U.N. helicopters climb into the sky over the airport. The emir follows them with his eyes.
He then says that humanitarian aid is a blessing. For al-Shabaab, at least. Especially this year, since more than 800,000 people have had to leave their villages because of famine. The terror group demanded 5 percent of the aid organizations’ budgets.
But that is a low estimate. According to a high-ranking employee of the U.N. in Nairobi who is responsible for Somalia, the U.N. sets aside as much as 10 percent of its budget – officially for “capacity building,” or something similar, but unofficially to pay al-Shabaab so that local U.N. partners can distribute aid supplies.
But because the U.N. cannot control the work of the local NGOs in the south, the employee says, nobody knows if the aid is actually reaching the people who need it. Another employee, who also wants to remain anonymous, estimates that it’s a good result if just 10 percent of the aid ends up in the right place. Even hunger, he says, is a business in Somalia.
Many U.N. employees say off-the-record that the war would have ended long ago if the parties weren’t all making so much money. One of them explains that even security firms working for the U.N. have paid al-Shabaab to stage attacks so that they could later demand higher rates. Ultimately, everyone profits from the atmosphere of insecurity, including, they self-critically admit, themselves.
They claim that things will only change when the aid stops, because the money only feeds the corruption and instability.
Evening has fallen in the country club. The smoke from the hookahs hangs over the garden, the sky is clear and a crescent moon sits low. The guests have spread out across the garden in small groups. Moalin smooths a tablecloth and says that many people in the government really want peace, an end to corruption, but that they lay low because if their colleagues knew what they thought, they would be thrown out. Because anyone who questions the status quo represents a danger for business. “They meet here and talk about it, but they don’t dare revolt.”
Two Turkish businessmen sit in a pavilion next to a rubber tree. Neither of them is in the mood to talk. Of course not. Because the Turks play a unique role here. In 2011, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first non-African head of state to visit the capital in almost two decades. Turkish companies tarred the roads, established a hospital and built an airport that is being run by a Turkish company named Favori LLC ,which is suspected within the U.N. of having ties to Erdogan’s son. A Turkish company runs the harbor.
According to studies, Somalia might sit on top of enormous oil reserves and the Turks could be looking to make money off of them. For this reason, it also makes sense that Turkey is building a military base on the outskirts of Mogadishu. In diplomacy circles, people claim that a thousand Somali soldiers are to be trained there every year and would remain under Turkish control. According to confidential U.N. reports, Turkish Airlines is regularly flying in coffers of money that go to the president’s office and high-ranking politicians, and are meant to guarantee security and a free hand for the Turks.
The Turks, says Manar Moalin, are taking over the country.
She mingles with the guests as her club fills up. Night has settled over Mogadishu. Moalin is tired and her nerves are frayed from the constant sense of danger these days. Ricky Martin is blaring out of the loudspeakers. And once again, a detonation tears through the night. Probably a mortar shell.
A man sits alone at one of the tables dressed in a bright blue suit, a Rolex on his wrist and welt-sown shoes on his feet. Mac, as he introduces himself, is one of the Somalis who didn’t flee from the war, one of the city’s dubious dealmakers, a mixture of middleman, smuggler and businessman. He became rich from diamonds in Congo and now he is growing his fortune here. Uranium mining, he maintains, is the next big thing.
He says he just had a meeting with the Chinese and that they’re after the sea. Somalia has 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) of coastline and an endless amount of fish. He says they’ve already made various fishing agreements with warlords in the north and are now talking with the government.
Somalia, Mac says, is a country in which almost everything is broken, where almost everything is in short supply, a “virgin state” without security, without structures -the best preconditions for business.
“It is,” Mac concludes, “fantastic.”