MOGADISHU was once known as The Pearl of the Indian Ocean, famous for its architecture, culture and nightlife. A civil war and more recently an Islamic insurgency interrupted that. Now, with elections looming, nightlife is returning to this former Indian Ocean entrepot. At the Late Night restaurant, there’s a palpable sense of hope, served up, along with each plate of Jabaati, by the manager himself.
It is almost midnight and along Mogadishu’s central Maka-Al-Mukarama boulevard, late-night restaurant patrons are coming and going. Three-wheeled “tuk-tuks” throng the area, dropping off customers or waiting for new ones. Judging by their numbers they are clearly doing good business. At the appropriately named Late Night Restaurant, Abduhab Mohamed Ali is busy ensuring that patrons are kept well supplied with cups of tea or coffee, or occasionally, a serving of the popular Jabaati, a meat dish with fish sauce and sliced Somali flatbread, or Sabaayad.
Whenever he gets a moment, Ali stops to chat with his more regular clients. Talk in the restaurant often turns to upcoming elections. In May, talks between the federal government and leaders of five federal member regional states and the Banadir region, which includes Mogadishu. led to an agreement that enabled elections within 60 days. Election could lead to greater regional cohesion – a watershed moment for Somalia.
Ali is among those determined to see the capital restored to its former glory as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”. A positive outcome to the talks was crucial to prevent the country from slipping back into regional strife. For the past few years, Ali has been seeing clear signs of positive change – enough to bet a business on. The Late Night opened two years ago and Ali is certain that the positive outcome of the talks is just one more step in the right direction.
“Some years back I used to see that immediately at sunset people used to go home. They went to sleep and nobody moved,” he said, adding that now, more and more businesses are, like the Late Night, remaining open well after dusk and some, like his establishment, even stay open all night.
Mogadishu has enjoyed periods of tenuous peace before but, this evening, residents seem almost defiantly optimistic.
“Late Night is my favourite restaurant at night and one of the reasons is that they made it possible to have something that other restaurants and cafeterias are not able to do, which is to stay open,” says Mursal Abdi Mohamud sipping away at a cup of coffee.
Mohamud said he was thrilled to be out at night and that he was clinging to the hope that gunfire and blasts, until recently a concern for all residents, would remain muted. Things are now pointing in the right direction, he said, asserting that the destiny of Mogadishu is now in the hands of his residents.
At the HORN Institute in Nairobi, International security expert Dr Mumo Nzau, said he believes that the calm in the capital is likely to hold but will remain precarious until it is further fortified.
“There is need to further build institutions in that country; to build consensus to rid that country of external interference, especially from actors who want to rip off resources from the sub-region and leave the people impoverished and more divided,” he said, speaking from Nairobi.
As the night wears on at the Late Night, customers continue to come through the doors. Few patrons, if any, patrons are wearing facemasks. Mogadishu, everyone says, is between COVID-19 “waves”. Should anyone want isolation, there is always the VIP room at the back of the restaurant. Besides isolation, it provides more luxurious trappings, including comfortable sofas, panelled walls, marble floors – and air conditioning.
On the street outside the Late Night, the signage screams, “Eat Late, Even Night”.
All along Maka-Al-Mukarama, Somalis young and old are to be found drinking endless cups of coffee or tea and chewing miraa – also known as khat – a mild stimulant popular in East Africa.
The road snakes through several districts in the city, starting from the older neighbourhoods like Abdi Aziz and Bondhere, through to famous government buildings and is dotted with cultural and entertainment centres such as the National Theatre. It is even host to Ex Fiyoore (ex Flowers), a residential area made famous by the iconic Somali musicians, the Waberi Band.
A stroll through some of Mogadishu’s old districts is enough for one to realise just how fast things are changing. The famous Lido Beach is full of families during weekends while cafes, football fields and park benches have proliferated in a peace garden at the city centre. People congregate in groups and one is able to catch up with the latest political developments, like the new election deal.
According to Nzau, however, while a political deal is crucial to stability, nothing is certain. Somali politics is extremely fluid.
“It is important not to ascribe too much optimism at this point in time. The various leaders in the federal entities that make up the Republic of Somalia are not as united and in-sync with the centre,” he said.
For the Late Night’s Ali, however, there is every reason to be positive. Born in El Waq, a southern city that borders Kenya, Ali has lived in Mogadishu since his high school graduation 30 years ago, a period that is now as long as the country’s conflict.
Ali has a picture of Mogadishu as a space of wide boulevards and of the architecture that once made it one of Africa’s most beautiful capitals. That ideal may be out of reach but with the increasing number of high rise buildings, the city is certainly being reborn.
For now, a tranquil atmosphere engulfs the city, as fear is transformed into fragile optimism. Night, at the Late Night, is turning into day… and Ali is still open for business.