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Mogadishu

The Phoenix City of Mogadishu Somalia - Can the city hold on?



When I began working with the government of Mogadishu, I was deeply optimistic about the future of the city.  The city was at a turning point and was gaining momentum in a positive direction.  At this very moment, as I have returned to Mogadishu for another project, I have much less certainty.

What the hell happened?

For a little background, Mogadishu has a long history of ups and downs. In 1992 the city imploded upon itself with the fall of the Soviet Union combined with bubbling local tensions. After more than a decade of civil war, the rise of the Islamic Courts in 2006 gave it a chance to recover. When the courts collapsed, a radical offshoot of its police force established al Shabaab which then squeezed much of the country with a crushing grip of violence and intimidation for 5 years. In 2011, Mogadishu got its second chance as Shabaab withdrew from the city under pressures of drought, finance, and foreign military pressures by Kenya and AMISOM.

About 90 days later, in December 2012 I was contacted by the city government of Mogadishu and I boarded a plane. Over the next couple years I was living in Afghanistan and periodically traveling to Mogadishu to conduct evaluations, pitch new solutions, and augment existing efforts. You can think of this as consulting, but with teeth. This was truly a satisfying experience because using urban planning and design strategy to stabilize and rebuild a city like Mogadishu is a highly creative effort. While the profession contains a vast wealth knowledge and expertise on how to run a city that is already functioning, there is very little on how to pull one from the ashes.

Throughout that time, the city government was led by Mohammud Nur, also known as Tarzan.  Tarzan is an inspiring man. He grew up in Mogadishu as a homeless orphan, and received his nickname because of the way he would climb buildings to evade local police for acts of petty theft. When Tarzan had the opportunity to relocate to to the UK as a refugee in the early 1980s he saw much his community living on welfare and doing little with their lives. Motivated for change, he went to school to learn new ideas and skills - I believe eventually earning an MBA - and founded one of the first internet cafes in London in the early 1990s. This single business venture expanded to include others, and along the way, he became a leading figure in the Somali diaspora as an outspoken activist and community leader.

When he was appointed Mayor, the city had no electricity, garbage collection, or sanitation services in over two decades. The city government only controlled about 4 blocks and the majority of the city was controlled by al Shabaab. It was the bleakest landscape and Tarzan likely had the hardest job in the world.

With the withdrawal of Shabaab, he jumped to the opportunity and began seeking resources, strategies, and tools for rapid change.  He wanted new ideas (thus my own modest contribution). Much happened and fast.  At the time I believed this was a historic turning point for the city, as evidenced by this video I produced during that time on the reconstruction of Mogadishu.





Fast forward to today and the future is not so certain. Tarzan was fired  in February of 2014 by the president, who cited security concerns, but there is a general consensus in Mogadishu that it is because the Mayor's popularity overshadowing his own. Shocked by the sudden dismissal, Nur left his office in prime condition as the the city government had over $100,000 USD in assets for investment (acquired primarily through the 15% airport tax). For the first time in the history of Somalia, the city was not sitting in deficit.  

The new mayor, Hassan Mohamed Hassan Mungreb, formerly held a position at the Somali Army's war college.  He came into office saying he would have Mogadishu safe within 30 days. Given the deep history of insecurity in the city, I feel little need to give commentary on the capability of the Somali military.

Also, upon entering Benaadiir, Mayor Hassan fired everyone. There is nearly zero carry over knowledge from one administration to the other. Every clerk, speaker, project manager and account were dismissed. The Deputy Mayor Iman Icar survived the purge, but he was removed from his seat as Head of Finance and put in charge of Civil Services.  Now it is three months later and the $100,000 USD is gone.  The city is again in the red.  It is also the most dangerous in the last three years with almost daily attacks.

Mayor Hassan also fired all the district representatives. This has had a mixed effect. For years, Nur struggled with many of the district representatives because many of them were longtime warlords with significant power. His strategy was to slowly push these guys to the edge, to make them less significant, ultimately by awarding promotions into superfluous positions wherein their power base would erode. He would then replace them with younger, better educated, and capable individuals. The former district commissioner of Hamar JibJib is a good example of this change.

Under Hassan all the old regimes are gone and in many ways, that is promising. Yet he personally appointed new Disctrict Commissioners that have no following or reputation. Today, Somali citizens do not know their local leaders, creating a new level of chaos. Worse, the former DCs have now become targets for al Shabaab.  With no government protection, they have built their own personal militias, again, distorting the landscape of power away from centralized governance and into fractured chaos.

As a whole, the problems of the Somalia government are not restricted to the municipal level.  I am not as intimate with the individuals holding federal office, but I do have some knowledge of the mechanics. For example, when Parliament passes a motion - perhaps a new law? - the motion is not written down or archived in any fashion. There is in fact no written record or knowledge management system within the government. Obviously laws are made and forgotten or applied inconsistently because there is no basic platform for communication.

I wish communication and information management was the biggest problem, because it is easy to fix. Parliament is a big building. You could probably run the country using a wall full of colored post-it notes with much success.

Yet a bigger problem exists in the substructure of the government, and community, that is common within all fragile states but acute within Mogadishu.  In a society of scarce resources,  perpetual state of crisis of dominates all actions and within Mogadishu. It create fear and paranoia and here, this mode of thinking is entrenched.  In a state of emergency, everything is about "me first" thus negating opportunities for creativity and reason. As long as Mogadishu is always a city of emergency (by the residents, the actors, and the outside community), the political will and collective action will remain fractured by the myopic fight-or-flight sensibility of emergency thinking. When your leader's actions are founded on "me first" impulses, then your own only response becomes "me too," and no one can win. Binary conditions give no room to consider the greater good.

In 2012 and 2013 I cautiously walked the streets of the city, if only for a few minutes, hopeful that in a year I could soon walk them freely. I travelled freely in a car from one destination to another, sometimes with armed guards and sometimes not. Now, while I'm willing to venture past the airport (why are there so many white people at the airport? what could they possibly be doing?), I can't actually leave the hotel. Because of the extreme level of suspicion dominating the community, I can't even conduct business in the lobby or have a lunch meeting in the restaurant. Even worse, this sort of restricted mobility does little to improve security. Sunday, when the parliament exploded in chaos, the ground shook with explosions and stray bullets bounced off the walls (listen to an audio recorded moment of the event below or here). Everyday there has been some kind of attack and the population is tense. The majority of Somalis I meet are afraid to walk down their own street.



What is next?  I don't know. I want this city to succeed.

Most people I know, from my upbringing in the US, think of a place like the city of Mogadishu the far edge of the world. But I disagree.  A city like Mogadishu is the center.  It is in Mogadishu that the smallest changes can have the biggest impact on the global community in terms of creating a safe and free world void of suffering or one that is distressed and painful. If a day goes without a gunshot in Detroit, it is novel, but if it happens in Mogadishu it creates entirely new possibilities for the future.  A thriving Mogadishu opens trade and creates new markets for western business.  A stable Mogadishu can build more jobs in America or send more goods into Europe.  If you don't believe me, then why did Somali piracy cost the world 18 Billion Dollars? If Mogadishu, and the greater Somalia, can continue to push through and establish itself on stronger footing, it won't just change the lives it's people, it will change the world.

A Simple Solution to Mogadishu's IDP Problem

A Pathway to Ownership for IDPs can Change Mogadishu Forever. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.
After every war, cities are burdened by many of the same problems.  The infrastructure is destroyed, there is a lack of money, a culture of violence, and a fear that war will return.  But another major obstacle is the heavy numbers of internally displaced persons who left their homeland elsewhere in the country and sought refugee in the city.   They sought safety, employment, and a chance at a better life.  They also frequently have little to offer, having abandoned everything with the move, and frequently coming from rural villages, lack the skills necessary to compete in the urban marketplace.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are typically seen as a burden, and city officials want them to go home.  With no money, IDPs frequently seek shelter in abandoned buildings or in impoverished, make-shift camps.  The UNHCR also encourages they return to their place of origin as UNHCR tends to advocate return as the only durable solution.  But at other times UNHCR will recognize that many IDPs cannot return home, as their homes have been destroyed and all that was abandoned is now completely lost.  In these instances, UNHCR and UN-Habitat will construct IDP displacement camps.

In Mogadishu, IDP camps are scattered throughout the city.  They are renown for being dangerous and unhygienic.  Murder, rape, and disease are common.  IDPs also inhabit many buildings throughout the city with no right to ownership.  When the original owners return to reclaim their property, conflicts frequently ensue.  As the city has no surviving property records from before the war, arguments over property rights are common and the courts get clogged as people fight for rightful ownership rights.   This problem is expensive and slow.  To make the changes in Somalia sustainable, it is necessary that change also takes place quickly.  I wrote about this before in a previous article on the importance of speed for land use rights in post-war reconstruction.

Think Different - Live Different in Mogadishu. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.

Solving the IDP Crisis in MogadishuSomalia

To solve the IDP situation in Mogadishu, the issue must no longer be seen as zero/sum.   Many want the IDPs to leave or to suddenly have money to purchase housing.  But this is clearly unrealistic.  Rather, the problem must be considered in relation to time, space, resources, and the greater good of the city.

The best solution would be a "right to ownership" policy.  The Right to Ownership Policy could work very quickly and effectively if the following steps were pursued.

1. IDPs are provided a temporary identification number for the property they currently inhabit.  A record is made containing a description and possibly a photo of the space.

2. Each year the IDP/Occupant must invest a particular amount of money and time into the upkeep of the property.  This could consist of digging better quality latrines, constructing more permanent housing, painting walls, repairing concrete, clearing debris, installing doors and so on.    Notice that many improvements can initially be done at no cost.

3. If no one returns to make claim on the property in 5 years, the temporary identification number becomes a permanent record of ownership for the occupant.  

4. If another person returns to the site and claims the property as his own, and can provide at least 5 articles or witnesses as evidence, the returnee will acquire the property IF compensation is provided to the IDP resident for each year of invested ownership.


Why this IDP Solution can work.

1. Extensive research has shown that formal ownership of property provides economic leverage to residents.

2. The IDP acts as a caretaker for the property until full ownership is approved.  Thus streets are rebuilt which also reduces crime.

3. This policy is consistent with the principals of xeer, the traditional/informal legal system that is still used among many nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes in Somalia.  Consequently such a policy would be innate to those who would be affected by it.

4. IDPs who do not achieve full ownership leave the property with a sum of money reimbursed by the legal owner and are thus in a better position to acquire housing or even return to point of origin.


Why this solution to Mogadishu's IDP problem will not happen.

I have promoted this solution to several members of the Somali government, but it has gained no support.  Certainly, it is not perfect, but with tweaking, a right to ownership is far better than court cases which may go on for decades.  Many officials claim a desire for innovation and radical change, but are not willing to take the dramatic steps necessary to be truly innovative.  Rather, all politicians continue to see the problem in the same manner of the UN, even if they are not happy with the UN approach to solving the problem.

Unfortunately this policy means that many returnees will lose ownership of their property.  But five years is a long time and many Somalis have no interest to return anyway.  The bigger problem is among government officials who cannot presently prove ownership of their own family estates, and thus refuse to pursue policies for the common good because of their own selfish interest.

Another reason that the policy will not happen is because it will require that the city lose ownership some some property to IDPs and that vacant lots currently inhabited by turkels will need to be considered property of the IDPs.  What officials do not realize, is that letting informal settlements become formal is an advantage - not a loss - as these settlements will quickly transform to have permanent buildings, lower crime, and create new market opportunities.  It would actually expand the city!  

Lastly, from a planning perspective, formalizing a pathway to ownership for IDPs would reinforce the power of the government and provide an opportunity to build necessary infrastructure in the currently existing squatter camps.  Providing roads, sewers, communication and water to these sites will encourage the construction of permanent housing and improved living among residents.


Final Thoughts
I have travelled all over the world, and Somali people are perhaps more resourceful than any other group of people I have encountered.   If a clear policy is made which can provide an opportunity for property ownership among IDPs, while current land/housing owners will need to make a decision among reclaiming property, then people will jump to the opportunity.  The right to ownership should not be reserved for only the diaspora.  Public policy needs to be made for the interest of everyone, not just those who have power, and more than anywhere else, Mogadishu's leadership needs the vision to pursue the right path.  

Change is Possible in Mogadishu. Image: Sutika Sipus 2013.

Stories of Change in Mogadishu Somalia


When you hear the word Mogadishu, what do you think?  Probably nothing positive.  Perhaps violence, pirates, child soldiers, and a desolate wasteland.  But is this accurate?  Does your idea of Mogadishu match the reality of the city today? I am pleased to launch the site, rebirthofmogadishu.com, a collaborative effort between myself, Urban Interactive Studio, and the Benadiir Regional Administration.

Through this site, those who have been to Mogadishu, plan to visit, currently live there, or simply maintain an interest in the city have an opportunity to participate in reshaping its perception.  Journalists are not always accurate, nor are governments, so this is a way for anybody and everybody to contribute to redefining the city.

 So visit Rebirth of Mogadishu and spread the word! You can also find us on twitter or on facebook.

Yellow Mogadishu

Central Mogadishu.  Image by Sutika Sipus 2012.
While still struggling to balance time and return to writing more posts, I have taken a moment today to compile a few photos from Mogadishu, Somalia.  This particular set consists entirely of images in which the yellow color is a dominant element.  The photos are in no particular order but taken from the last year of working in Mogadishu, Somalia.  You can see the images below or use the link to Flickr.


Back from Mogadishu - The Fastest Changing City in the World

New Construction Underway in Mogadishu, Somalia. Sutika Sipus 2012.
I always intend to write at least twice a week, but lately there has been a delay as I've been on the road.  I recently returned from Mogadishu and am amazed by how quickly the city is changing.  Although journalists continue to tout it as the worlds most dangerous city, I believe it is time to shift the title into something about how the city of Mogadishu has undergone the most radical transformation in the world.  It hasn't even been one year since my first visit, and yet many parts of the city are unrecognizable today.  And new construction is everywhere!  Hotels, travel agents, import/export businesses and even a new petrol station are up and operating.

In the past, the only way to secure fuel for automobiles was through sharing containers of poor quality fuel, now today a modern petrol station is under construction with modern functioning pumps.  A mall constructed in the 1970s was recently renovated, and the Somali National Theatre, the site of a violent suicide bombing last spring has been restored again into a magnificent state.  Certainly problems within the city remain however if the pace continues and can expand throughout the region, the problems have a limited future of influence.

Somali National Theatre. Sutika Sipus. March 2012
Somali National Theatre. Sutika Sipus. November 2012.


After the War: Why Inflation in Mogadishu is Not a Problem

Rapid Development in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Mitchell Sutika Sipus. 2012.
Over the last 24 hours, the interwebs have been buzzing over an Al Jezeera Report about the disproportionate rise in property values in Mogadishu.  Suddenly, after months of positive gains in Somalia, there is panic that those who have suffered so long at the expense of war and poverty will again be abused, but now by the forces of capitalism.  Returnees and speculators are blamed for rapid inflation, making housing and property costs far from accessible for displaced and impoverished populations.  This is a valid concern given that free markets typically facilitate the accumulation of capital faster than the distribution.

But this criticism is wrong.  Inflation is not a problem in Mogadishu.

Certainly many are returning to invest and property prices are rapidly changing.  This is necessary.  The only way for Somalia to rebuild from 21 years of war is for outside investment to facilitate change and for the quality of life to improve, so does the price tag.  

While Somalia does have some natural resources, its greatest asset is its location between the Middle East, South Asia, and all of Africa.  It was founded because it was an important link for international trade, and in recent years Somali pirates were able to poach billions of dollars from international markets because they exploited this strategic location.  With a geography founded on international trade, the recipe for Mogadishu to become a successful city and for Somalia to become a stable nation is to rebuild accordingly.

After the Transition
Rebuilding from the War. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
Within every post-war reconstruction process, rapid inflation occurs.  The sudden influx of foreign money distorts local markets and in most cases creates a two-tiered economy.  Typically, as in the case of Kabul Afghanistan or in Phnom Penh in the 90s, you will find a wealthy foreign class paying exorbitant prices, a rapidly growing class of wealthy business owners, and the bulk of the population stuck with low incomes, low prices for basic goods, high prices for real estate, and an increased ability to acquire luxury goods.  When the wealthy foreigners leave the cities struggle to adjust, and in the best circumstance, distribution of capital becomes a little more even.  This scenario is brutal as the intentions of reconstruction are only partly established and the process is economically painful to local populations.  But Mogadishu has multiple advantages.


The Mogadishu Advantage

1. Lack of High-Level Foreign Interests
There is evidence that Mogadishu will not follow the typical same formula as other post-war cities. Foremost, the collapse of al-Shabaab is the consequence of many different phenomena  some being military, but many also are economic and environmental.  The concluding war in Somalia is not entirely due to outside actors.  

Likewise the reconstruction process taking place has very little to do with outside actors.  So far I have yet to encounter another westerner while walking down a street in Mogadishu, unless the person has returned from diaspora.  I have met many people who work in Somalia with NGOs or foreign aid agencies, but compared to most global development hot-spots, there is barely a humanitarian/development presence in Somalia.  In that same regard, there is funding from EU, Turkey, USA but the budgets are far smaller than for other countries, so at the political level there is limited foreign involvement.

2. Investment by Somali Returnees not foreign expats
Mogadishu at Work. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
At the local level, the situation is similar as outside investment is obtained primarily through individuals who have a committed personal interest in Somalia.  These individuals will not disappear from the landscape with their pockets full of war profits, nor will their presence create a dual economy.  

3. Reclamation is first issue among returnees
Many of those returning to Somalia are less interested in buying new property and are more interested in reclaiming the property they owned prior to the war.  This becomes contentious with the massive quantities with internally displaced persons occupying many of the homes.  There are no property records and the result is clogged courts over property ownership disputes, not rising costs of land.  However I have been working with the Benadiir Regional Administration on this issue and have a feasible solution, it is just a matter of working with the proper ministries to implement the program. Notably, speed is a critical factor in this area.

4. Broad Multi-sector growth and regulation offset inflation
Inflation is only an issue if there is no access to employment or no means to regulate the growth so as to make the benefits accessible throughout the population.  But this is not a problem in Mogadishu.  While Al Jezeera argued that there is an "emerging economic divide" in the population and referred to a single estate at the cost of 8,000 USD per month to rent as evidence. the reporter had the situation backward.  
Within a conflict, there is always rapid rise in prices for luxury housing, because there is so little of it.  In the case of Mogadishu, there are were maybe 5 available properties like this among thousands of bombed out buildings, so 8,000 USD per month is actually  a real deal!  

Now that other housing options are emerging, supported by the construction boom (employment), luxury estates will cost less and populations will have more options.   The widespread economic growth is evident in other sectors, such as the increase in internet access, and there are ongoing efforts to regulate growth, such as the developing initiative to register automobiles.  In Mogadishu, rapid property adjustments is offset by widespread economic gains in employment and improved governance.  As long as the rate of inflation is consistent with overall growth trends (assuming the distribution remains similar to now) an improved quality of life will be attainable to most the population in a matter of years.

Naturally there are other problems.  Lack of maps, no land titles, no business registration, no functioning tax system.  But these are on their way and will be implemented over time.  Trust me, I'm working on it.

Ahmed Jama's Village Restaurant and the Future of Mogadishu Somalia

Ahmed Jama, owner of The Village Restaurant in Mogadishu. Photo Sutika Sipus 2012.
The Village Restaurant.  2012.
A few days ago I learned about a suicide bombing killing 15 people at my favorite restaurant in Mogadishu and I've been wrestling with a terrible feeling since. “The Village” is a popular destination for journalists and repatriating Somalis, owned and operated by a British Somali Man, Ahmed, who also owns a successful London  restaurant the same name.  

Ahmed attended culinary school in the UK and is a good natured, savvy, and considerate man.  The few times I’ve been to his restaurant in Mogadishu he has made a point to introduce me to anyone and everyone nearby.  I’ve met local politicians, entrepreneurs, and a man who was a truck driver in the United States for 20 years.  Bursting with energy, a melodic cockney accent and glassy eyes, this tall slender man seems like someone you would discover in a Charles Dickens novel.  Had Dickens been recounting tales of working class Mogadishu and not industrial London, he would have immediately recognized Ahmed as a robust protagonist, whose disposition and hard work were directly changing the lives of those around him and facilitating the interests of the greater good.  His optimistic nature quickly spreads to everyone around him.  He also frequently refuses to charge me for my meal, no matter how much I protest.


Ahmed's Charcoal Heated Espresso Machine. 2012.
When I learned on twitter that a young man had entered the restaurant at 6 pm and detonated a suicide vest with another attacker at gate, my stomach dropped as I immediately worried about his safety and that of his family.  

What happened was devastating, but Ahmed survived the bombing and he vows that he will not stop trying to pursue his goal to lead Mogadishu, alongside others, into a new era.  He has told me many times that he lives and works in Mogadishu because he is motivated by a goal of broad cultural change and social reform.   He has been a leader in the city's radical transformation.  He also makes an amazing cappuccino. 

Ahmed has been a great contributor to a project I've been doing with the City of Mogadishu for the last few months, and I hope that when we launch or upcoming initiative in the next 6 weeks,  it will provide something to help leverage all the work this man has done, if anything to inspire others to likewise pick up the torch and move the city forward.   We need more people like him in the world and it is imperative that they have all the support we can provide.

Rebuilding Mogadishu with Lessons From Kabul

Before : Mogadishu April 2012
It has been difficult to find the time to do any blogging lately.  There has been quite a bit of work to do in Kabul and I've been travelling often, so it is difficult to balance all obligations.  However last week I spoke at a conference at Oxford University, the 3rd International Conference on Space and Place, with a paper entitled "Rebuilding Mogadishu with Lessons from Kabul." 

After : Mogadishu July 2012
The concept is basically drawn from daily experience, as I witness the classical defense structures such as walled perimeters and police checkpoints throughout Kabul undermine the local economy and reinforce some of the root causes of insurgency.  How then can Mogadishu develop in a way that remains secure yet avoids consolidating infrastructure into a tightly wound and repressive fortress?  The answer of course, or at least a proposal for an answer, is yet to be published, but is just around the corner. 

Psycho-social healing as Urban Reconstruction and Planning in Somalia


For the last several weeks I haven't been regularly posting here on the humanitarian space, but with good reason.  I'm working on a series of projects right now that have occupied all my attention.  However, I have also been writing and submitting work for online and print publication throughout the fall. 

Today I have a new article coming out over at the Polis Blog, a collaborative blog about cities across the globe.  The article, A city in healing after two decades of war,   introduces the notion that post-war reconstruction isn't just about rebuilding streets and buildings, but is about healing and overcoming trauma.  This is specifically highlighted by the last 21 years of violence that has consumed Mogadishu, Somalia. 

Mogadishu as Future Tourism Destination


A lucky aspect of my work in Mogadishu is the ability to travel freely throughout the city.  With 16 districts in the city, many of them retain their own unique characteristics either inherited from history or newly developing amidst the current revival of the city.  A couple days ago, while meeting with members of the local business community, a successful restaurant owner showed me some of the other ventures he is developing.  One in particular had already caught my eye while rolling down the street.


The zebra-stripped facade stands boldly from the ruined landscape.  In the neighborhood of Liido, across the street and down a ways from the restaurant Indian Ocean, the Safari Classic Beach Resort is a visionary step toward a future tourism economy.  The owner returned two Somalia from many years in Canada in 2009 and said that these days everything is dramatically different.  When I asked him if he ever plans to bring his children to Mogadishu he looked at me with a smile and said "they will be here in two days!"


We walked around the grounds of his new establishment toward the ocean.  The sand was covered with boys playing soccer while young girls ran into the crashing waves.  The air was warm and the water was cool.  Apparently where we stood was once occupied by some of the largest mansions in Mogadishu, and today, it is simply a popular place for recreation.  I have no doubt that this can become a big tourism hotspot.  

Rebuilding Mogadishu Somalia


A couple days ago I got off the plane in Mogadishu.  Its nice to be back.

In the time passed since my last visit, I've worked hard to develop a pool of new resources for the city.  In addition to the  welcoming support of the Benadiir Municipal Government.  

I'm only here for a week this time before moving on to visit another project, but fortunately current my list of objectives here is concise.  I have three primary goals to accomplish in the next 5 days, but if done well, the repercussions of those tasks will carry on for some time.

I look forward to churning out some high quality products over the next few days.

Why is Post-war Reconstruction and Conflict ignored by Urban Planners

Informal housing adorns Kabul's mountains, complete with no water, no sanitation, and no roads (Photo: Sutika Sipus)
A quick look at some of the more popular urban planning websites and forums, such as Planetizen, Engaging Cities, Cyburbia, or the American Planning Association, and one will discover  articles on a vast array of issues such as rehabilitating industrial sites, methods for inclusive public participation in urban design, suburban sprawl and conservation, and occasionally the generic term "international development."  While I occasionally search these forums to see what new ideas have popped up, its disappointing to find that little of the content relates to my own daily work in cities like Kabul Afghanistan or Mogadishu Somalia, or within future projects in Libya and Nigeria.

Yet whenever I look at these forums, the same question always crosses my mind:

Why are conflict and post-war reconstruction not central to the discussion of 
 Urban Planning as a profession or Urban Planning education?

The Recently Completed Darulaman Road in Kabul (Sutika Sipus)
The topic is rarely discussed, yet reconstruction has been a mainstay of the planning profession throughout history.  One can quickly cite examples of planning and reconstruction, such as the rebuilding of London in 1666,  the rebuilding of Europe after WWII with the Marshal Plan, or the current reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.  Throughout each example there has been a massive demand for skilled individuals with the balanced knowledge of design, infrastructure, economics, and social sciences to design and implement sustainable initiatives.  In Afghanistan alone, USAID has spent 7.9 billion dollars on reconstruction efforts over the course of 10 years, with large portions of that funding directed toward road construction, agricultural development, and education.  Yet where is the discussion of Afghanistan on popular planning forums?  


So who is rebuilding cities in conflict?
In the 6 years that I've been working in urban planning, most of that time has been spent in conflicted or complex territories such as refugee camps, urban slums, or conflict cities.  Throughout this process, I've encountered only 4 other urban planners working in these environments!  There are always plenty of engineers, former military, active military, or aid/developments professionals with social, legal, and political science backgrounds but I've found that planners maintain certain advantages.
  • Planners are trained with a balance of contextual and technical knowledge that promotes clear communication between team members.
  • Planners have an innate understanding of  administrative and management skills
Defensive Perimeter, Kabul Afghanistan (Sutika Sipus)
  • Some consulting firms like to market themselves as skilled in "strategic design" but actually have little or no ability with design-thinking or the design process
  • Architects and engineers rarely have the ethnographic research skills to recognize and integrate subtle social processes into their design
  • Many architects and engineers do realize the value of basic site visits and create plans that are not consistent with the local economy or patterns in land use
  • Most professionals in social or political skills have the research skills, but are weak in areas of communication, presentation, and further more do not have the hard skills to design solutions from the research.  At best, they can only advise on policy or suggest solutions for others to design.
Because urban planners have so much to offer, I've found those working in the field of post-war reconstruction quickly gather respect by their employers and colleagues.  Sure, the sample pool is small, but it has been consistent enough to make me ask, so where are all the other planners?


The career track for most urban planners
Understandably, many graduates from urban planning programs are going to work for local or regional governments or private sector architecture studios.  I know a lot of planners who work for cities like Houston or Portland, and they spend most of their time sitting in public hearings, debating the merits of city zoning changes or traffic plans.  Often this was not the career path imagined while in school, but rather it was the mundane reality they discovered upon graduation.  This isn't unusual as graduate school frequently gives one a false sense of global influence, as if the future of humanity were dependent upon the outcome of your thesis research, but if planning education is so dynamic, why is normative planning practice so dull?  In this case, we as urban planners can blame no one but ourselves.  With so much training and capacity, not to mention an understanding of organizational structure and project management, only to end up working in a field overflowing with of boiler-plated building codes? No one else is at fault.

The more interesting work in the planning profession is frequently undertaken from an architectural perspective, but again, limitations arise.  The world continues to lust for new urban forms and beautifully rendered master plans.  Not a problem.  Yet where is the broader disciplinary attention to healing traumatized landscapes, rebuilding war torn cities, and nurturing emerging economies with scaled, responsive infrastructure?  Typically these sorts of plans are more glitz than substance, and lack the relationship to local informal economic structures or conflict remediation options to be viable.


The Planning Advantage
Art Deco Architecture in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Having started my career as an artist and designer, before transitioning into architecture, planning, and refugee law, credit my foundation in creative problem solving as my greatest asset. Working in conflict cities and post-war reconstruction as an urban planner is not a simple task.  It requires flexibility, creativity, and long hours.  It carries personal risks to myself and my family and demands great sacrifice.  

Yet it is also the most rewarding capacity in which I can apply my abilities to facilitate the collective interest of communities around the world.  By working in challenging conditions, I actually have the opportunity to do far more than my teachers in grad school ever suggested was possible.  I have the daily opportunity to work with all facets of planning, to work with people from many different backgrounds, and to creatively explore options for development that might be otherwise quickly tossed out the window. 

Sure, sometimes I have to sit in long meetings, but rarely is it over something as droll as stoplights.  I hope as more planners discover and read this blog they will be compelled to expand their own definition of the urban planning, and in the near future I will have the chance to find more individuals in the field with the sophisticated training necessary to solve some the worlds greatest problems.

Mogadishu's City Hall Leading the Way into the Future

city hall, mogadishu, somalia, sutika sipus
The Historic City Hall of Mogadishu Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
The rebuilding of Mogadishu may be faced with a multitude of obstacles, but there is no doubt about about the power of its beauty.  I'm not referring to the exotic fascination many have over its ruins, but rather am pointing toward the poetic architecture and rich, vibrant street life.  It may not yet have all the amenities of wealthier cities, but it contains a brilliant charm magnified by the frenetic energy of all those returning to take part in the historic reconstruction of the city.  

The historic City Hall captures the essence of this beauty.  Presently it is occupied by displaced families, yet its stunning white facade adjacent to the ocean, beside a recently restored arc d'triumph, is evocative of all the opportunity that lay ahead for the city.  The architecture is grande and dignified, with broad sweeping archways referencing the influence of Italian colonialism and the cultural leanings of the Swahili Coast.  The building is long and flat, wrapping itself around a large central courtyard with a fountain in the middle.  Ringed by large trees and beneath the canopy of rippling clouds, the City Hall stood strong before a visage of destruction as if the quality of leadership was hewn into its stone foundation. 

Mogadishu, City Hall, Sutika Sipus 2012
City Hall, Mogadishu Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
Before the front of the city lay the ruins of the a cathedral, once the largest in all east Africa.  Waylaid by the war, the walls still stood strong, though they supported no roof.  Though looted and abused, the church gave testament to the days in which Italian architecture and influence reigned throughout the city.  It was not a sad place however.  Children laughed and played on the steps, and while standing where an alter once stood, I looked upward to see a flight from Turkish Airlines descending to land at the Mogadishu airport.  With flights three days a week, direct from Istanbul to Mogadishu, the service is fully booked for months with returning Somalis and business investors. Mogadishu is rapidly changing, and I was only moments from discovering just how much this was happening.

Mogadishu Market, Somalia, Sutika Sipus 2012
Bustling Market in Mogadishu, Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
When I walked around City Hall to the rear of the building, I found it already part of a flourishing community.  In the rear of the building a group of volunteers were providing vaccination services to those in need.  And just meters away, I walked into a flourishing market full of t-shirts, tomatoes, steel buckets, furnishings, and the most delicious lemon juice I have ever tasted.  The market wasn't reserved only to one street but seemed to go on forever, with side streets equally packed with goods and people.  Banks and money wiring services dotted the sides, crammed in between restaurants and vendors.  

Mogadishu Market, Somalia, Sutika Sipus 2012
Everywhere you look in Mogadishu, business is happening
(Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
From the periphery of City Hall, the streets did not merely point toward a better future for the city but resonated with the fruits of the present.  All through the city, businesses are popping up and people are returning to take advantage of this moment.  For 21 years Mogadishu was bombarded with the explosions of war and only in the dark corners could one hear the whisperings of hope. But today it is filled with the explosions of opportunity and light, electrified and optimistic, Mogadishu is tomorrow in the making.

An Optimistic Future for Urban Planning in Mogadishu

Mogadishu, Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Tomorrow I head back to Kabul.  This morning I had the opportunity to discuss with the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, and other upper administration how to streamline existing operations and opportunities for new projects.  As the Urban Planner for the Benadiir Administration, Mohamed Ahmed has already accomplished a great deal in the short time he has been here.  Consequently, I made a point that my urban planning solutions all accentuate  his own work, but also introduce new assets and opportunties.   I've already started some of these projects, but I look forward to returning to Mogadishu in about 6 weeks to continue focusing the ground implementation.  I am grateful to the opportunity to work together with the municipality and hope this partnership is long lasting. 

The Youth Volunteers of the Mogadishu Benadiir Adminstration (Sutika Sipus)
What really stood out today was meeting with the Mogadishu Youth Volunteers.  At a total of 200 volunteers, these youth are high school and college students who grew up in Mogadishu while faced with civil war and the threat of al shabaaab.  After shabaab withdrew from the city, some of the young people from different districts started working together and were surprised by how much they could accomplish.  The group quickly grew and became more sophisticated in organization, capable of taking on large projects.  It blew my mind how hard these kids worked in the hot sun, with no water or shade, picking up trash, cleaning out overgrown brush, and burning rubbish.  If the people of this city can continue to dedicate themselves to the common good like these kids, then the future looks bright.

Local Cafe in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
I also had the chance to visit a cafe with some friends.  The owner lived in the UK for many years and has opened a couple businesses since returning.  The kitchen standards, the food quality, and the service are all top notch. There are lots of great things happening in the city of  Mogadishu, yet where are the news agencies covering it?  Of course upon returning back to the administrative offices, I did happen to see a foreign television crew.  And what were they filming?  The armed guards.  No surprise.

Another Day in the New Mogadishu

One of the new flights between Istanbul and Mogadishu cuts across the sky from a bombed out cathedral (Sutika Sipus)
Everything has been non-stop. 

I spent the morning down at the port, speaking with local fishermen about their industry and trying to learn how the fishing economy has changed over the last 10 years.  I was curious if all the piracy along the coast had affected their livelihood, and they said they sometimes get hassled and search when far out at sea, but typically the piracy hasn't had any impact in their lives good or bad. Their biggest issue was the lack of refrigeration and storage options, so at the end of the day, anything not sold fresh at the market goes bad and much is thrown away.  Occasionally they have a good day wherein they catch a lot of fish yet manage to sell all of it, yet this doesn't happen enough.  It seems that right now business is good and they are selling more with the stability and rapid growth of the city, yet until they can refrigerate their catch, they will always be stuck losing money.

Morning at the Port of Mogadishu (Sutika Sipus)
I also attended a large meeting between the heads of all the district leaders and AMISOM.  The AMISOM mission to Somalia has seen recent successes, but as the city is no longer a major conflict zone, they are striving to keep local peace.  There is a municipal police force, yet the force is too small and underfunded, so the Uganda contingent is now trying to fill this role.  District leaders expressed concerns passed to them from their neighborhood residents about the infiltration of al shabaab and about the circulation of unregistered weapons.  The AMISOM Colonel did his best to work with the leaders to develop pathways to solve these problems.  

After the meeting between AMISOM, all District Leaders, and the Municipal Government (Sutika Sipus)
At the meeting, a new district commissioner explained that his district contains a very beautiful beach and on fridays, many thousand people visit, yet there are no life guards and children have died from lack of supervision.  He explained that on most days the local fishermen are sufficient to handle the problem, yet as al shabaab forbade swimming, many people want to exercise there new found freedom and thus the crowd is too big for locals to monitor on the weekend.  The AMISOM Captain addressed the issue, hoping to coordinate the coast guard to address the problem.

I left the meeting greatly impressed by the role of the local district leaders in expressing their communities.  The Mayor gave an impassioned speech about the necessity of them being ever close to the eyes and mouths of the citizens and he further chastised the leaders to enforce strict oversight regarding fighters in their neighborhood.  He argued that AMISOM cannot control the rise of warlord, yet the community can, so it is essential the youth are going to school and not getting involved with gangs or militias.  It is essential that the local leaders push this policy throughout their districts.

When the meeting concluded, the Mayor asked what I think about the events of the day, and I responded that it is truly sad the UN doesn't see these processes.  Democracy and local level governance are daily ongoing within the city, yet when I had a meeting at the UN the day before, I was personally distraught over their poor knowledge of the geography, their ignorance about local governance structures, and their complete lack of understanding about the local channels of communication.  

I realize that those working within the UN must work within an exceedingly narrow framework, as this framework is necessary for such a massive institution to function.  However for the individuals to not see outside the framework, and thus do work not informed by the urban reality, is truly sad.  It is like doing urban planning without a site visit or writing a biography without meeting the subject.  There is only so much information one can absorb from a distance.  If you want to know how water tastes, then you must dive in and drink it, as standing on the shore will never leave you the wiser.

Post Conflict Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia

The former Parliament Building, devastated by war.  Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

Today was a massively busy day for meetings.

I had a meeting with the Mayor and Govener of the Benadiir Administration, Mohamuud Ahmed Noor. We discussed his primary vision for the city and regional development, his trials and efforts in the past and the obstacles he faces today.   Around this time I also met some traditional leaders and members of the Benadiir council working on a variety of USAID projects.  I've been greatly impressed by his efforts and those of the Deputy Mayor, Iman Noor Icar with whom I've been meeting regularly.  Aware of the issues of corruption in their country, they continually work with international donors so that no cash transactions take place, rather the donor has full responsibility for handling the funding while the administration simply provides the needed manpower to implement the projects.  With this model, various initiatives in partnership with Turkey and USAID have been seeing great success.

Last night the urban planner working with Benadiir, Mohamed "Shaan", and I discussed at length the obstacles concerning data collection and mapping of the city.  Although UN-Habitat has a large collection of data, unfortunately they are not willing to share direct shape files and thus their information is of no real use to the municipality.  It is truly unfortunate that a UN body would pose such a hinderance to the efforts of the municipality.  Yet thanks to open-source mapping technology and the efforts of my friends at Somalia Report, I believe I can thoroughly solve this problem so that we simply side-step the UN and do the work that needs to be done.

Mitchell Sutika Sipus, Mohamed, and Abdul on the Somali Coast

I also had a chance to explore some of the historic district of Mogadishu.  We were escorted by a Captain in the African Union's peace keeping force and I was able to talk to him about his experience of fighting in Somalia.  The wreckage in this area from 20 years of war is truly profound to see, but it left me thinking a great deal about all the other images of Mogadishu that never come out.



Business is booming in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

While the world constantly sees the destruction in Mogadishu, they don't get a chance to learn about the dynamic change abreast, the massive return of Somalis, the economic explosion taking place from new investments and the visionary work of the municipal government.  Just today I had a cappuccino at a cafe founded by a Somali who lived for a long time in the UK.  It was delicious.  Things are happening and they are happening fast. This is story that is worth telling, it must be told.

Travel Businesses on Mecca Marena Road. Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

Arrival in Mogadishu

The Former Parliament Building of Somalia.  Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus.

This morning I arrived in Mogadishu.

I wasn't exactly certain what to expect, although I thought I had a general idea. Somehow some major details slipped my mind.  I knew after departing the plane that there might be some suspicion about who I am, but I didn't expect so many military and police to try to stop and question me.  Tough looking soldiers from the African Union were all around and it was difficult to avoid generating interests.  Fortunately I was immediately accompanied by my security escort within 2 seconds of stepping off the plane, and a moment after by my host, a member of the Benadiir Administration.  They had with them a letter from the mayor explaining my purpose and were kind enough to manage all the border issues, including passport control and visa acquisition.  

The other thing that really jarred my mind is the heat.  It is seriously hot here.  Like Cairo in August hot. But there is a constant steady wind from the ocean which is soothing and it also reduces the dust.  The heat is also offset by the generous hospitality of my hosts.  Over the years I've had the fortunate to learn firsthand about the wonderful way that Somali people treat their guests, and today definitely the people I met all certainly lived up to the reputation.  As the hotel doesn't often have western guests, the kitchen made a kind gift of presenting me with a delicious grilled lobster with dinner.  Cups of strong sugary tea are ever-present as are piles of fish, freshly caught and served with a spicy lime sauce.  I could totally get used to this.  

Today was mostly a day for long meetings and brief introductions.  Soon more serious work can begin as there are a great deal of issues to resolve but in the first 24 hours I hope to simply learn as much as possible before I propose any ideas or tools.  The city is faced with a vast array of obstacles including conflicts over land title claims among returnees, issues of economic development, public health, education, historic preservation and so on.  The city is faced with the challenge of reinventing itself, yet only now that I am on the ground can I begin to see the miasmatic web of complex social and political dynamics that also restrain it from moving forward.  But hopefully in time we can loosen the knot by focusing on simple solutions to widely agreed upon problems. There is a great deal to be done, and somewhere admits the chaos are a few areas of mutually agreeable issues.  And as we uncover these small points of objectivity, we also can uncover the small points of light to widen the window of opportunity that will change the story Mogadishu.

En Route to Mogadishu


I will step off the plane in Mogadishu in one week.  Under most circumstances that would be a strange experience, but coming from Kabul it is all the more unusual.  I hope to make the most of my layover in Dubai to freely wander around the streets, enjoy the feeling of entering a restaurant without being checked for weapons, or having to analyze surrounding buildings for sight lines and escape routes every time I sit in traffic.  Kabul isn't all that dangerous, but one has to be constantly vigilant of their surroundings and Mogadishu isn't really all that different.

The other strange thing has been the experience of thinking about Kabul within my pre-departure ritual.  Over the years I've developed a process to prepare mentally and physically before entering complicated places.  I like to take up an exercise regimen, consume copious amounts of powdered weight-gainer from the health food store, and spend weeks slowly packing my back before departure.  I start by accumulating everything that I think would be worthwhile, from flashlights and pocketknives to socks and candy bars, then over the last few days chip away at that pile to determine what is essential, what is not, and how it all fits in my bag.  I like my back to be no more than 50% full, leaving room to pick stuff up on the way, do my best to keep it light. But Kabul has me questioning the necessity of this whole process.  After all, I can find all of those things here, so why did I bring any of them in advance?  It has me questioning what to bring to Mogadishu, and what to leave at home.  Especially strange since this time home is Kabul.

For years I've dreamt of working in postwar reconstruction and urban planning in Mogadishu, but I always imagined it would be far into the future.  I am grateful to my project partners for the opportunity, and while wide-eyed at timing, I feel good about it.  I look forward to working with local officials to solve various infrastructure and population problems.  Right now the issue of land ownership claims among returnees is a major issue for the city and I look forward to tackling this problem among others.  Will definitely update the blog a couple times before leaving but the story doesn't end there.  If this first visit goes well, I'll be back quite a bit over the course of the year.

Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia: #urbanplanning, #mogadishu, #somalia, #design4dev

Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu
For the last 7 years I have labored to understand as much as possible about the city of Mogadishu and to determine viable strategies for reconstruction when the opportunity is presented.  I now have the opportunity to implement these concepts and look forward to introducing simple, yet tangible solutions to many of the city's complex urban planning problems in cooperation with the city government.  Some of the solutions are dependent upon traditional planning and humanitarian initiatives such as concerns with historic preservation and sanitation.  Other concepts are far more innovative, relating to processes in data collection, crowd-sourcing, and GIS.  My business partners and I are presently developing a series of phased low-input, high-input initiatives for the city and will begin implementing these projects in the streets of Mogadishu this March.  I look forward to the project unraveling with some fantastic partners at every step and sharing our progress online.

Yet when I tell others about my work, they often ask, "why Urban Planning in Mogadishu, Somalia?"

The answer goes back a few years to 2004, when I spent 90 days hitch-hiking across Northern India, where I lost my money and acquired malaria in the swampy state of Bihar.    I chose to commit my life to reducing poverty, not with a vague belief that I can make the world better, but rather with the sense that I can make it less inequitable through precise, technical solutions.  It was from that experience I was determined to work in development and to build upon my initial training in art and design through the study of architecture.  After I began my studies, I met Aarati Kanekar, an architect who had worked in post-war reconstruction in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Upon meeting her, I expanded my studies to go beyond architecture, and to focus on urban planning.

In 2005, I completed my first year of graduate school in Urban Planning and Architecture, and was faced with the seemingly massive task of choosing a thesis topic.  Overwhelmed by the task, I thought hard about my essential priorities and determined that I should attempt to locate, define, and focus my lifework upon the world's most difficult problems, to work for the interest of the world's most marginalized and vulnerable populations as this is where the utmost improvement is needed.  Uncertain how to proceed, I turned to Google.  

Concise and innovative urban planning solutions
 are in clear demand in Mogadishu Somalia 
I more or less typed all of my priorities into Google in hope that it would reveal something new to me. Success.  It was from that simple search that I first learned of the Dadaab Refugee Camps.  Embarrassingly, at 23, I was quite ignorant to the problems in Somalia and knew next to nothing of the decades of violence, famine, poverty, and displacement.   As I began to invest more time into learning about the situation, I came to two conclusions. First,  I decided that I would find a way to go to Dadaab to research and work directly with the problems of refugee camp design and planning. Secondly, I also decided that eventually, one day for whatever reason, that circumstances in Somalia would change and the city of Mogadishu will need to rebuild.  

After decades of conflict, it is difficult to be entirely optimistic, but in many ways, the prediction from 6 years ago has begun to manifest.  After al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu several months ago, they have had little success in a multi-front battle against AMISOM/TFG, Kenya, and drone attacks from the US.  Although other forces may have strategic limitations, the fact that Shabaab has continued to change their tactics is evidence of continuing instability on their end.  For the first time since its founding, the Transitional Federal Government has full control of the city of Mogadishu.  With al-Shabaab primarily limited to the Kismaay region, there is even an effort underway to begin relocating refugees from the Dadaab camps back to Somalia.

Mogadishu is an ancient city.  Since the 14th Century it has flourished from its strategic location, an epicenter for trade between the Gulf and the Swahili coast.  It is this strategic location that also facilitates regional piracy.  It also serves as an ideal conduit for the trade between internal production and export.  Although dominated by an array of colonial powers over time, from Oman to Italy, it nonetheless retains an internal, structural capacity to again become a major economic hub.  Its urban density, coastal location, european roadways, and interconnection with other cities such as Afgooye or Kismayo have contributed to an urban resilience of the city.  Perhaps one could conjecture that so much physical destruction has taken place in the city because the structural resilience made it too difficult for armed groups to conduct combat, and consequently only through degrading the city could military accomplishments take place.

Now that city is beginning to stabilize and the Somali people are beginning to return to Mogadishu.  With the massive influx of returnees, the city is faced with new tasks.  Jobs need to develop, roads need to be cleared and repaired, sanitation improved, access to water, and systems need to be developed to deal with property ownership and acquisition.  Without the funds to cover the costs, and with the lack of urban planning for a city in conflict, it will require creative and innovative efforts to stabilize and rebuild.  Of course there are greater regional challenges, as many are also returning to Mogadishu because they fear the dangers of living outside the city.   Obviously the key to the success of the city is connected to the stabilization of the region as well.  But for the first time in decades, there is a chance that something can change.  There is an opportunity.  

Analysis of #alShabaab withdrawal from #Mogadishu; #Dadaab pushed to the Edge


Quite a bit has taken place within Dadaab and Somalia in the last few weeks and it is  difficult to summarize everything.  The Dadaab camps have received a great deal of media attention while the regional draught rages.  Somalia has a long history of internal strife, yet arguably the current draught is far more damaging than past instances as the country no longer contains sufficient infrastructure for aid agencies to deliver services.  The inadequacy of infrastructure prompts dramatic repercussions, not only in terms famine relief but also through the inability to provide broader public health support.  With the surge of displacement, many have been refused admission to the camps, as there are not enough resources available.  The constant influx of refugees also continues to place great strain on the local communities.  

Within Somalia there have been a variety of reports on al Shabaab preventing the delivery of aid.  In addition to reports of fake NGOs attempting to take advantage of the incoming aid money, Shabaab has also listed several agencies to be banned with the area for attempting to do more than deliver basic assistance.

Most notably, al Shabaab has withdrawn from Mogadishu. There are still reports of fighting, yet the group publicly announced its withdrawal, citing a change in tactics and to save civilian lives.  The city is not yet safe for return as the group has established checkpoints outside of the city, intercepting returnees for money and recruitment.   It is suspected Shabaab has been heavily affected by the drought and cannot sustain combat within the capital city while some analysts argue that Shabaab suffers from divided leadership.  This is similar to the 2009 when the group withdrew from Kismayo, abandoning training camps and strategic points. 

I suspect the withdrawal may be a true change in tactics rather than a sign of loss or weakness. Considering that Shabaab fighters have ambushed AMISOM soldiers sweeping into newly vacated areas, taking advantage of the urban terrain, this may be a legitimate attempt to maximize available resources and keep AMISOM forces off-balance.  

Shabaab's quick acquisition of power within Somalia was possible because Shabaab groups concentrated their forces in urban areas where they could utilize transportation and communication resources, tap into ports and markets, and tax local populations.  As the Somalia conflict developed and became more binary between Shabaab and the TFG, Shabaab's approach to conflict became less networked and more one-dimensional.

Since the TFG is a major supplier of arms to non-state groups within Somalia and that unpaid soldiers often sell ammunition for goods, there is a sufficient flow of arms and ammunition throughout the region for Shabaab to continue its military objective yet there must be an adaptation to the changing geography.  Somalia presently has 5 major cell phone providers, populations have shifted from the urban core to the corridors between towns and scattered among IDP camps and Mogadishu only contains a small fraction of its original population. 

 
al Shabaab Supply Trench in Mogadishu, Somalia
Amid the geography transformation, Shabaab has grown and annexed territory yet not adapted to the changing resources.  Simultaneously, the conflict has slowly become more symmetric, with Shabaab and the AMISOM forces fighting along a frontline in Mogadishu, utilizing a mixed combat method of hit-and-run tactics and trench warfare.  AMISOM has been working to cover the trenches before any future return by Shabaab troops.

The sudden withdrawal may be a sign of weakness.  Yet it may also be an indicator that the conflict is about to change abruptly, to become something far more unorthodox and challenging than the TFG is equipped to confront.

**Update: Just a few hours after posting this reports have rolled in that multiple attacks have taken place in Mogadishu with al Shabaab utilizing hit and run tactics and hidden explosive devices.