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'Mayor Of Mogadishu': Symbol Of Hope Or Divisive Figure?


Mogadishu, Somalia, the city once synonymous with chaos, is slightly more functional than it used to be. And one reason may be the man we'll hear about next. He was mayor of Mogadishu from 2010 to 2014. Mohamoud Tarzan Nur was on this program a few years ago. Yes, Tarzan, that's his nickname. He spoke of his ambitions back in 2012.


MOHAMOUD NUR: Mogadishu used to be one of the most beautiful cities in Africa, and still, we can make it like that.

INSKEEP: Now, the mayor of Mogadishu is the subject of a biography called "The Mayor Of Mogadishu." The book is by Andrew Harding, who's a correspondent for the BBC based in Johannesburg. Welcome to the program, sir.

ANDREW HARDING: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's Tarzan Nur like when you meet him?

HARDING: Well, the first time I met him was in pretty unusual circumstances. Mogadishu was at rock bottom in 2010. It was about to experience a famine. The militants of al-Shabab controlled almost all of the city and almost all of the country. And there was this little pocket of stability, you might say, right by the beach in the center of town. And it was being guarded by thousands of African Union peacekeepers. It was this little oasis where dozens of members of the diaspora were coming back to try to nudge their country back to stability.

And I walked under gunfire. In fact, I ran under gunfire into Villa Somalia, this headquarters of the new government. Everyone looked terrified except for this one man who walked up to me like he was on summer holiday and said, I'm the mayor of Mogadishu. Welcome to my city. And it was Tarzan, and he jumped out at me as this guy with this extraordinary courage.

INSKEEP: Where's he from? What's his early story?

HARDING: Well, the interesting thing there is almost the very first thing he told me when I started to think maybe I could write a book about this guy was a lie. He told me he'd been born in Mogadishu in room 18 of a beautiful old Italian hospital right by the beach side. And when I called up his relatives, they kind of went, well, that's not strictly true. The truth, it turned out, was that he was born under a tree inside what was technically Ethiopia.

INSKEEP: Oh, so on the border between the two countries, OK.

HARDING: Exactly. He was born into a very poor, nomadic family, and during a famine, his mother was dying. His brothers were dying. He was dying. The father had already died, and an aunt was summoned. And there was this kind of "Sophie's Choice" moment where the mother had to select two kids to basically give to the aunt to give the rest of the family some chance of surviving. Tarzan and his younger brother were eventually chosen. And that was the moment his life changed because he was brought to Mogadishu, dropped off in a Dickensian orphanage in 1960 just as Somalia was gaining independence and just as this beautiful country was starting to really become the jewel of, well, you might even say Africa.

INSKEEP: Wow, what was it like in the 1960s?

HARDING: Well, you've got to picture this very cosmopolitan small town that was very influenced by its Italian colonizers. So people would walk along the beach after their siestas. They'd go and have a macchiato or a cappuccino, and they would go to open-air cinemas. I remember Tarzan telling me how he and his girlfriend then would walk along the beach and they'd be arguing about whether they'd go and watch a Fellini film at one cinema or perhaps the latest American Western at another.

INSKEEP: How did it fall apart?

HARDING: Well, there are many fingers pointing at an awful lot of people for that. I mean, there was the Cold War. They were caught up in the battle between the United States and the Soviet Union. And then there was the clan rivalries that were always lurking in the background, and they exploded when there became a political vacuum when the dictator Siad Barre clung on too long until he was forced out and was replaced by warlords and by nearly 25 years of anarchy.

INSKEEP: So there was this golden age of Mogadishu that began to fall apart as the country fell apart. There was civil war. The government collapsed, and for much of this time, Tarzan Nur is gone. He went off to Saudi Arabia, went off to London. What brought him back, then, in more recent years?

HARDING: Well, when you ask him that, he says rather grandly, well, I was the leader of the diaspora. And what he means is the diaspora tried to come up with ways to use their education and so on abroad to breathe life back into their country. And by 2010, a new transitional government was formed. And Tarzan was invited back to be the mayor of Mogadishu. And of course, in a way, he was the only one with a serious job. All the others were pretending to be ministers and prime ministers because they didn't have their own budgets. They didn't have any country to rule. So Tarzan was this one man who had a few city blocks where he could experiment and make a difference. And he got to work clearing away the rubbish, putting up street lighting at night.

INSKEEP: I love hearing you say this because there are so many government officials that people in the public aren't quite sure what they do but a mayor you know and a mayor anywhere in the world is expected to deliver. People know if the trash gets picked up or not. That's the position you're saying he was in in Mogadishu.

HARDING: Exactly. And he was lucky. There was a big push against al-Shabab, and so the rest of the city soon fell under the control of this new government. And Tarzan had more influence and more power and slowly more and more enemies, too.

INSKEEP: What sort of enemies?

HARDING: Some of it was clan rivalries. Some of it was mud being thrown at him, and some of it may be true. I mean, there were a lot of allegations of corruption against him. He vigorously denied that and continues to deny it. But a lot of that mud seemed to stick, not least in a country where it's very hard to prove anything. I mean, there are no courts still. There are no credible institutions that people trust.

INSKEEP: So what does Tarzan's story - Tarzan Nur - tell you about the arc of this country?

HARDING: Well, what I wanted to do with its story was find somebody who could remind people of here's a country that was once going somewhere better and I think allows people to kind of remember that and to celebrate that and, in a sense, to respect the nostalgia of so many of the Somalis I've met in the diaspora who feel like those days have been forgotten completely.

INSKEEP: Would you tell me one more thing? Why is his nickname Tarzan?

HARDING: (Laughter) Well, let me tell you about a morning at this Dickensian orphanage. Mohamoud, as he was then, jumped out of his window and swung on the branch of a tree just in his shorts, at which point the teacher came round the corner, looked out the window and saw this skinny little boy in his shorts swinging from a tree. And so he said, hey, Tarzan, get down from there. And in an oral culture like Somalia, nicknames are everything. And so Tarzan rather clung to his like somebody with a new passport, if you like.

INSKEEP: Boundary pusher from the very beginning then.

HARDING: Exactly. And a mythmaker, if you like, somebody who wants to reinvent himself.

INSKEEP: Andrew Harding is the author of "The Mayor Of Mogadishu." Thanks very much.

HARDING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.