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Somalia rebuilds: Al Qaeda’s gone, soccer’s back

Peace and prosperity is returning to Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. The latest sign is the return of competitive soccer.

soccer_in_somalia
OMAR FARUK / REUTERS
Competitive soccer returned to Mogadishu in November 2013 for the first time since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA—Sahro Ali did something recently that she hadn’t dreamed possible for years: she and two female friends went to a soccer match.

When the season kicked off on Nov. 8, competitive soccer returned 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 an 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 the capital’s Banadir Stadium, complete with an AstroTurf field, is part of a revival of Mogadishu that includes the city’s first traffic lights, new beachfront 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 Shabab group, which 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 per cent to 4 per cent in the first half of the year. Foreign investment and financial support for humanitarian and development programs helped the Somali shilling gain 31 per cent against the dollar so far this year, 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. 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.

Yet Somalia’s transition to a stable economy remains fragile.

Spectators attending the soccer match between Banadir Sports Club and Elman FC were subjected to full-body searches by policemen wielding AK-47 assault rifles. A car bombing at a hotel in the city centre killed five people on the day the season started, underlining Al Shabab’s enduring menace.

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.”

Source: The Star