What can you learn by walking? In this blogpost, Faduma Abukar Mursal explores the intricacies of life on the streets of Mogadishu.
As a previous blog highlighted, checkpoints play a pivotal role in Somalia’s sub-national governance. Here, Faduma examines the challenges and risks faced by urban residents navigating a city shaped by checkpoints, securitization, and privatisation, and sheds light on the economic and political implications of everyday activities and interactions.
At the beginning of my fieldwork in Mogadishu in 2015, I was ‘deeply hanging out’ in the tradition of immersive ethnographic practice. Mostly by walking from marketplace to marketplace, moving through main streets helped me get a sense of how to orient myself in the expanding city. In thinking of urban communities’ experiences with Somalia’s post-2012 government, my interest in urban marketplaces led me to consider main streets as an important aspect of Mogadishu’s urban life. Even though it seemed common to walk on these roads, my wanderings raised various kinds of reactions that ranged from surprised faces teasingly questioning my finances – ‘don’t you have enough money to take a car?’ – to simply worrying that I had lost my sanity. These reactions are to be understood as a commentary on the condition of urban life in Mogadishu that I reflect on in this short blogpost. They tell us something about some of the effects of the control exercised on the streets and at checkpoints in Mogadishu.
Walking relatively long distances across the city, or at least spending long periods of time on main streets, is risky for several reasons. Road accidents are common. As the only alternative to transport by air, main roads are key to the circulation of people and goods. Laid out in a regular grid, they connect port and airports to local marketplaces and the city to other cities and towns in the country and the region. Because in general, mostly only the main streets are paved, they tend to be overcrowded with cars, minivans, military vehicles, trucks, and three-wheelers, as well as people on foot and animals.
Aside from accidents on the road, passing the frequent checkpoints along main roads and junctions across several neighbourhoods can be a risky business. Pedestrians and vehicles alike adopt avoidance strategies such as slowing, changing routes, and taking the rocky and sandy side streets. Reflecting Jeganathan’s (2004) idea of a ‘double anticipation’ that takes place at checkpoints, urban residents avoid checkpoints to avoid both the soldiers posted there, and the potential attacks of the insurgents. Indeed, checkpoints, fortified blocks, and barricades are located at the entry of the city, and at particular sites such as government offices, non-government organization office buildings, hotels, airports, the port, and military bases. The control exercised at these checkpoints impose varying degrees of limitation on movement in the streets. This control impacts on the circulation on the roads, especially three-wheelers, and the minivans that are the main means of transportation. As they course through the city along these main streets, they pass various checkpoints, which also tend to be where daily taxes are taken and licences controlled.
Moreover, in the post-9/11 context, the presence of checkpoints and other securitizing measures indicate what Graham (2012) identified as an explicit urban dimension of security doctrine. Like in several other settings, checkpoints and other securitization measures are viewed as key privileged methods of countering emerging and anticipated attacks. Justified as part of counterinsurgency strategies, the fortification of the city aims to convey the message to users that cities are safe and impenetrable. For instance, the international recognition of the government comes with the multiplication of political events such as diplomatic visits, international conferences, and elections. In such instances, the securitization of the city imposes varying degrees of limitation on movement in the streets, often by immobilizing urban residents indiscriminately. For example, the permanent curfew between sunset and sunrise is extended to the whole day, vehicles are banned from the streets altogether, and most urban residents are confined to within walking distance of their homes.
Checkpoints are not new to the urban landscapes of Mogadishu. In contemporary political history, successive administrations segmented the city into territorial units and regulated the movement of particular people. Under the Italian colonial administration for example, the gates of the Old Town were closed to the indigenous population after sunset, and this restrictive regulation on movement was then abolished by the postcolonial government. Checkpoints and other securitization measures replaced the gates to delimit the spreading city during the postcolonial administration and under the military regime, and the segregation into even smaller territorial units reached a peak after the upheavals in the 1990s.
Mirroring the reactions that questioned my sanity and finances in the same breath, the segmentation of the city for security reasons overlaps with the privatisation of urban spaces. For instance, shortly before the overthrow of the military regime, Simons’ (1995) describes Mogadishu as a ‘city of walls’ in which checkpoints, soldiers, and barricades limited entry to the city and served to protect the assets of the political and economic elite. During my ethnographic wandering on the streets in post-2012 Mogadishu, checkpoints, fortified blocks and barricades, are placed at ever more and mundane areas of everyday life: beaches, restaurants, sports halls, book fairs, gardens, and supermarkets that typically animate main streets, and are privatized, fortified and guarded spaces. The securitization of the built environment appeals to those who abandon the streets to the ‘poor’, the marginal and the homeless as Davis (2011) observed. It concerns the people themselves that are left on the streets however, namely those who cannot or do not access these privatized spaces, and the various kinds of soldiers who regulate their movements. In this short reflection, I show how, when taken seriously, these everyday reactions can provide important insights on the economic and political implications of ordinary activities such as having a walk outside.
About the author
Dr Faduma Abukar Mursal works as senior lecturer and researcher at the Institute for Anthropology at the University of Lucerne, and is an LSE research associate. Her research examines the struggles for political change that occur in contexts of political violence and the militarization of urban space.
Graham, Stephen. 2012. ‘When life itself is war: on the urbanization of military and security doctrine’. International Journal of Urban and regional research 36 (1): 136–55.
Davis, Mike. 2011. „Fortress Los Angeles: The militarization of urban space“. In Cultural Criminology: theories of crime, edited by Jeff Ferrell and Keith Hayward, 154–80. UK: Routledge.
Jeganathan, Pradeep. 2004. ‘Checkpoint: Anthropology, identity, and the State’. In Anthropology in the margins of the state, edited by Veena Das and Deborah Poole, 67–80. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
Simons, Anna. 1995. Networks of dissolution: Somalia undone. USA: Westview Press Inc.