Thabit Abdi Mohamed, 39, the youngest Mayor of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu had barely been in office for seven months when a major test for his leadership abilities emerged suddenly in form of the worst terrorist attack in Somalia’s history plunging the city of 3 million into crisis.
Saturday afternoon of October 14 turned into hell on earth in Mogadishu when two powerful truck bombs ripped through a busy city intersection popularly known as Zoobe leaving hundreds of people dead, injured and missing, while many buildings, businesses and vehicles were reduced to rubble.
The horrific attack was described as Somalia’s 9/11 in reference to the September 11 2001 attacks in the United States in which at least three thousand people were killed and many others injured. “When we heard the news of the attack, me and my team rushed to ground zero, the site of the attack.
We were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of death and destruction. I knew at once that our emergency services alone could not handle it,” recalls Thabit who is also the Governor of Benadir Regional Administration where Mogadishu is located.
Thabit swung into action, using traditional and social media to mobilise residents of Mogadishu and Benadir region to rush to the attack site to help retrieve injured survivors and bodies as well as donate blood since hospitals in Mogadishu had run out of the precious commodity.
His moving appeals, some made in the middle of the night from the attack site, received overwhelming response as thousands of volunteers, mainly Mogadishu youths, joined him to enthusiastically lend a hand in the emergency operation.
The same volunteers helped to quickly clear the huge amount of debris strewn all over the intersection that is usually clogged with traffic, allowing it to be quickly rebuilt and reopened to normal traffic only a few days later after the attack.
In the aftermath of the attacks, which attracted global attention due to the horrific scale of death and destruction, Thabit quickly became the face of a city in deep mourning and anger but also defiantly seeking to quickly bounce back to normalcy.
A few days after the attack, Thabit mobilised and led thousands of Mogadishu residents for major street demonstrations and condemnation of Al Shabaab in a shoe of defiance and public anger against the group. Though Al Shabaab had not claimed responsibility, the Zoobe attacks bore the hallmarks of the group that seeks to topple Somalia’s internationally-recognised government.
Final casualty figures compiled weeks later would indicate the Zoobe attack killed 512 people and injured 316, while 62 people remain missing, making it one of the worst terrorist attacks globally in the recent history. When Thabit was tapped for the job in April by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo to help restore Mogadishu to its former glory, he had no illusions about the enormous challenges that awaited him, including frequent Al Shabaab attacks and a shoestring budget.
For him, Al Shabaab attacks on civilian soft targets are but tragic diversions from his agenda to rebuild the city’s shattered infrastructure, restore essential services and attract more local and external investments to create jobs and lift living standards of residents, especially the youth. “Mogadishu and its residents have been very resilient even in the face of security challenges posed by Al Shabaab.
They don’t feel cowed or intimidated by terrorist attacks. That is what I count on as I implement my agenda,” he says. Thabit says he’s keen to change Mogadishu’s image that is projected locally and abroad as part of his strategy to restore confidence in the city and draw more investments and people. He said terrorist attacks are not unique to Mogadishu but have affected many cities across the globe including in western countries.
“As the first citizen of Mogadishu, I would like the historic and ancient city to be perceived for what it is: a city filled with life despite the challenges it faces, a city of people willing to construct a different identity and with abundant potential to be the hub of commerce for East Africa,” he said. He adds: “While terrorist attacks in Mogadishu may dominate local and global attention and give an impression of an insecure city, the reality on the ground is that residents are going about their businesses normally and rebuilding of roads, schools, commercial and residential buildings is ongoing. Eventually, the terrorist threat will recede.”
Thabit says one of his biggest agenda is to tackle the crisis of youth unemployment in Mogadishu and Benadir region, partly to minimise risks of youths being lured by Al Shabaab or undertaking risky and often deadly journeys to reach Europe or western countries as economic migrants. Since he came to office, his administration has directly employed at least 3000 youths, with many from the vulnerable segments of Benadir’s population, including internally displaced persons (IDPs), persons with disabilities and women.
“We plan to expand that programme in the near future but we know well that government cannot employ every youth. The bulk of jobs can only be created by the private sector through investments and entrepreneurship. That’s why we are keen to create an enabling environment for business,” he says.
The young Mayor is also pushing for the creation of a special decentralised security force for Mogadishu and Benadir answerable to the Governor and Mayor, saying doing so will better tackle Al Shabaab cells operating in the capital. Currently, security agencies are under the direct control of the Federal government.
He also wants more investments in CCTV cameras, community policing and neighbourhood watch groups to keep Al Shabaab at bay. Thabit has also called for the Federal government to enhance disaster response system in the capital to better save lives and restore normalcy faster in case of terrorist attacks and other disasters.
He has suggested the creation and expansion of Mogadishu’s blood bank, introducing DNA technologies to better identify survivors as well as improve coordination of government agencies during and after disasters.
The game was attended by thousands of Mogadishu residents indicating increasing normalcy in the city. Since coming to office, the Mogadishu mayor has introduced a number of reforms in a bid to enhance good governance as well as the business environment and well-being of residents. Initially, the Mayor had his entire executive team replaced with a new one and for the first time, two women made their appearance in the team.
The diverse team was charged with institutional reforms and service delivery improvement. Similarly, 15 new District commissioners for Benadir region were appointed competitively including five women, the highest number in the capital’s history.
“Our aim is to build up institutions in ways that are transparent and accountable to enhance service delivery and we continue to strive to achieve that vision,” he says. As part of financial reforms, the city administration has for the first time put in place an automated public finance management (PFM) system to enhance planning and usage of public funds and cut wastage and graft.
“Investing in PFM reforms has provided us tools to achieve our vision of bringing services closer to the people by setting measures for accountability and transparency that helps us decentralize public services,” he says. Within his first 100 days, Thabit’s administration unveiled and published a US$8.7 million half-year budget, the move being a first for the Benadir administration since 1991.
“This budget was based on our priorities and focused on the provision of social services, employee benefits including health benefits and city services and infrastructure development. But it is still too small for a city of 3 million people,” he says. That’s why Mayor Thabit is now lobbying the Federal government to increase its budgetary allocation to Benadir administration and Mogadishu so as to deliver better services.
For instance, he is pushing to get 25 per cent revenue from the busy Mogadishu sea port up from the current 10 per cent. “We are in discussion with the Federal Government regarding the increase of budgetary support and the discussion is going well,” he says. His administration is also engaging international donors to support the city’s water systems, drainage, sewage, waste management, affordable energy, transport and overall institutional building.
“We expect to collect more tax revenue once we finalise automation of our revenue streams. This will enable us deliver more services to residents,” he says. Since coming to office in eight months ago, Thabit’s administration has begun rebuilding 4 key city roads with a total length of 30 kilometers to ease movement and boost business.
Some closed roads are set to be reopened to reduce traffic congestion, while trucks are to be restricted to designated routes. In addition, 2 public schools are being constructed in partnership with the business community and well-wishers, thereby increasing the number of schools in Benadir offering free education to residents up to secondary level.
In September, Mogadishu attracted global buzz when it hosted the first night-time football match in almost 30 years between local football teams, showcasing improving normalcy and security in the city.
It was a culmination of a football tournament of 16 to 18 year olds from different Mogadishu districts and was sponsored by Mayor Thabit as part of Benadir youth programmes Thabit says that in the first quarter of 2018, the Benadir Administration plans to expand e-government to citizens for obtaining public services such as IDs, birth certificates, business license, building permits and the like to the entire seventeen districts of Benadir Region.
To make himself more accessible to the public, he has set aside a day dedicated to meeting Benadir residents at his office, discuss issues of concern, share suggestions and work on the way forward. Salaries for thousands of employees are for the first time since 1991 being processed through banks to reduce delays and boost accountability.
The Governor says Mogadishu, Benadir and entire Somalia offer many untapped investment opportunities with good returns. He has stepped up campaigns to attract investors, including Somali nationals in the diaspora.
“The sectors that seem promising include livestock, fisheries, maritime shipping, banking, hospitality and other services, construction, import of commodities like machineries and construction materials,” says Thabit He adds: “We also see opportunities for external and internal investors in high skilled capacity in education, health, engineering, technology, security and banking industries,” he says Thabit says that in the next five years, he expects to see a substantial growth and development in city roads, waste management, and expansion on housing schemes by creating fund for affordable housing, upgrading of informal settlements, reduction of poverty through youth employment services and investment in human capital such as health and education.
by: ALLY JAMAH