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Somalia receives a returning son

25 November 2016

Michael Doe reflects on the insights in an account of ‘Tarzan’


The Mayor of Mogadishu: A story of chaos and redemption in the ruins of Somalia
Andrew Harding
Hurst £20
Church Times Bookshop £18



WHEN Mo Farah won two more gold medals for Britain at the Rio Olympics, few people associated him with the country where he was born: Somalia, generally labelled a failed, chaotic, pirate, or terrorist state.

Mr Farah came to the UK at the age of eight, joining a diaspora of now well over 100,000 Somalis, driven here by civil war and the al-Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab back home. Among them was also Mohamed Nur, who spent 20 years as a community activist in north London, but, in 2006, returned to his native country and became the Mayor of Mogadishu.

The nomadic and clan-based history of Somalia continues to shape its future, as do poverty and militant Islam. Listeners to From Our Own Correspondent, on Radio 4, will recognise both Andrew Harding and the style of that programme, telling political stories through personal narrative.

Mr Nur grew up in an orphanage in Mogadishu, where his behaviour earned him the nickname “Tarzan”. Somehow, through prowess at basketball, negotiating his way after the Soviet-backed military coup of 1969, and making business links with the Middle East, he got his family to London. So why did he then return?

Harding’s research presents no easy answer to that question. Some accuse Tarzan of profiteering and corruption. Others recognise a more altruistic commitment to rebuilding his country. Perhaps both are true, as with many of our own politicians, sliding into overpaid private-enterprise jobs. Thanks to returning members of the diaspora, such as Tarzan, new political and other institutions are emerging; but, as the book ends, the Somali government is seeking to remove his political power.

There have been times when, as Harding puts it, Mogadishu had mutated into “something like a permanent battlefield, staffed by a cast of brutalised thousands who had come to see war not as a temporary aberration but as a way of life”. Certainly, Somalia is not as chaotic as it was, but whether the use of “redemption” is justified in the subtitle only time will tell.

A recurring issue is identity: loyalty to clan rather than country (albeit a nation state created by the Western powers); and the divided loyalties within the diaspora. Perhaps the issue for us, not least at Christmas, is whether, when we see countries such as Somalia on the news, we easily dismiss their problems as due to their own failures, or whether — as a book such as this helps us to appreciate — we see people with whom we can identify.


The Rt Revd Michael Doe is Preacher to Gray’s Inn, and a former General Secretary of USPG.

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