How a modest council worker from Camden came to be the Mayor of Mogadishu.

Halkaan ka akhri

Mohamed Nur is on a mission to clean up the world’s most dangerous city – and is using King’s Cross as his model for Mogadishu in Somalia, reports Colin Freeman

By Colin Freeman 9:00AM BST 15 May 2011

If any mayor in Britain fancies twinning their town with Mogadishu, now is a good time to apply. The war-torn capital of Somalia may not be as handy as some places in France and Spain, and exchange visits will involve donning flak jackets rather than touring vineyards. But they will be guaranteed a warm welcome by their opposite number, Mohamed Nur, who is not exactly flooded with offers at the moment.

“No other city is willing to twin with us at present,” complains Mr Nur, 56, who has arguably the most dangerous job in local government on the planet. “But if one did, we’d be very grateful. It’s all very well for wealthy cities to twin with other wealthy cities, but it would really be better for them to twin with a poor one.”

Should any bold civic leader ever find themselves in Mr Nur’s mayoral parlour, however, they will meet a man who is surprisingly fluent in town hall-speak, be it single regeneration budgets or “zero tolerance” zones. For unlike most of those who have lorded it over Mogadishu in the last two decades, he is not a gun-wielding warlord, but a former business advisor to Islington Council in north London, where and his family fled after the Somali government’s collapse in 1991.

In recent weeks he has been back in Britain, doing a speaking tour to encourage fellow expats to follow him home and help rebuild Mogadishu, where he himself took office last July. After 20 years of almost constant warfare and failed international peace plans, it is a task that the outside world has largely given up on; in the view of many of the weary diplomats who have tried, even a giant ASBO probably would stand little chance of containing Mogadishu’s warring clans. Yet despite having no experience of office beyond a failed attempt to win a Labour council seat in Camden a few years ago, Mr Nur is credited with making remarkable progress – bringing the city back to its knees, if not quite its feet.

Some, like his United Nations backers, think he is brave. Some, like his wife Shamis back in London, think he is mad. And some, like Somalia’s al Shebab Islamic group, think he should be beheaded. But whatever the odds against him, he is confident his regeneration program will succeed. After all, he argues, if it worked in London’s King’s Cross, it can work anywhere.

Hang on. King’s Cross in London? A model for Mogadishu? Very much so, says Mr Nur. The area around what is now the Eurostar terminal lies just down the road from his old council flat in Camden, and used to be one of the diciest in the capital, with drug dealers, muggers and prostitutes operating amid the squalor. But with the building of the new terminal came cleaner, better-lit streets, which flushed out the undesirables and tempted in smart new shops, restaurants and residents – a ruse Mr Nur is now trying in Mogadishu.

“I was living here when King’s Cross was very dirty, with houses that were empty and run down, and lots of drug dealing, crime and prostitution,” says the father-of-six, who gained British citizenship in 2001.

“But when they regenerated it a few years ago, all that disappeared, and hotels, restaurants and shops opened. I realised that if you keep an area clean and well-lit, then a lot of bad things will disappear.”

Those who know their town planning theory as well as Mr Nur does will recognise this as the so-called “broken windows” strategy, famously pioneered by New York mayor Rudolf Giuliani, which holds that the more run-down a city is, the less inhibited its resident criminals feel.

Yet even Mr Giuliani, who slashed crime rates in the 1990s, might have baulked at the task facing his Somali counterpart. The dusty streets Mr Nur now controls have long been a byword for urban anarchy, as dangerous and chaotic as Baghdad or Kabul at their worst, and without any Western superpowers trying to patch things up. The last time the Americans tried, it ended in the “Black Hawk Down” tragedy of 1993, with the corpses of US servicemen dragged through the streets by a mob.

Since then, Mogadishu has been a battleground for warlords, clan gangsters and now Taliban-style Islamists, with bombings, shootings, and kidnappings a daily fact of life. Today, the once-beautiful port on the Indian Ocean has not just lots of broken windows but an entire broken population, collectively traumatised by an all-too-unbroken conflict.

“Mogadishu is the city I grew up in, the place I love, and it always made me angry the way the warlords cut it into fiefdoms,” explains Mr Nur, who got the job after joining a Somali diaspora group trying to rebuild the country.

“The problem is that today, the people have simply got used to living in violence, dirt and fear, and they cannot imagine another life. I want to change that.”

Armed with a monthly budget of just roughly £35,000 – what some British town hall chiefs take home as a personal salary – Mr Nur has focused on small but visible changes, clearing the streets of garbage and setting up proper streetlights. Providing proper policing is important as well, of course, but the three are inter-connected, he argues. Less trash leaves fewer places for Islamists to hide roadside bombs in, while round-the-clock lighting lets shops and businesses open late – in turn creating jobs. In the past four months, he claims, there have been no suicide bombs or roadside bombs on his turf, “only hand grenades thrown into the streets”. Which, by Mogadishu standards, is pretty good.

“For 20 years nobody believed anybody could do anything,” adds the mayor, who, true to his grasp of town hall jargon, has urged fellow Mogadishans to “think outside the box”. “But security, clean streets and good lighting are all inter-dependent, and will build the morale and confidence of the people.”

Predictably, such benign intentions have not endeared him to everyone in the city, which remains divided between the forces of the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government and those of al Shebab, who impose a brutal Taliban-style regime in areas under their control. He received his first death threat from al Shebab on just his second day at work, having undiplomatically denounced them as “a bunch of criminals”. But he has also made powerful enemies elsewhere, from the town hall deputies he sacked for corruption, to the wealthy arms dealers who fear his plans for a safe city will put them out of business. Unfortunately, being the mayor involves plenty of meet-and-greet sessions with the public, where it is too easy to bump him off.

“When I first took the job, I told my wife to prepare for the prospect that I might be assassinated by the Shebab,” says Mr Nur, who is guarded by 15 bodyguards by day and keeps a pistol and Kalashnikov under his bed by night.

“But I also get threats by mobile phone from people within the areas that the government controls. They will let me know I am being watched by telling me what I am wearing and who I am sitting next to, and that I will be dead in a few minutes’ time. The first time I had that, I was so scared I couldn’t sleep, but after a while I just started laughing about it.”

In somewhere like Mogadishu, such threats are not mere bluster. Recently, Mr Nur staged an outdoor music festival – an idea borrowed from former London mayor Ken Livingstone, whose maverick political style he has long admired – only for it to be attacked by gunmen. Four people died, including the leader of the festival’s marching band. The chief suspect, moreover, turned out to be not the Shebab, who ban music in their fiefdoms, but another former mayor, who has since been arrested.

Despite such setbacks, Mr Nur claims to be on the way to turning Mogadishu around. As of now, the government and its back-up troops from the African Union lay claim to some 60% of the city, with growing numbers of residents flocking to their turf because it is preferable to life under the Shebab.

That in itself has caused its own mini-refugee crisis, not that that has stopped Mr Nur trying to get the little things in life right. True to the ethos of Mr Livingstone, whom he has met with during his visit, he now also has his beady eye on Mogadishu’s motorists, for whom a life free of traffic wardens has been arguably one of the few consolations of the last 20 years.

“From this month on, anybody who drives in the wrong lane or with heavy loads or without lights can expect a fine,” he warns. “I want Mogadishu to become like a normal city again, where people cannot just be allowed to drive however they want.”

Mr Livingstone would no doubt approve, and if he is re-elected as mayor of London next year, Mr Nur is quietly hopeful that he might give that town twinning plan some serious thought. The real benchmark of success, though, will be if he can ever persuade Mrs Nur to come and join him.

“My husband keeps asking me if I can go out there,” she says, cautiously. “But last time I went, I only stayed five days and couldn’t go out on my own. We will have to see how things go.”

Colin Freeman’s book about Somalia, “Kidnapped: life as a hostage on Somalia’s pirate coast”, will be published by Monday Books in June.

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