Somalia is a failed state. But its Aden Abdulle international airport – once a no-go zone – may hold the key to its recovery.
At Aden Abdulle International Airport the chaos starts at 06.30. The outermost steel security boom is raised and the stream of passengers makes its way through five separate security checkpoints and flows on past the blast walls and barbed wire into the concrete terminal. Midway through the morning rush, airport worker Abdul Kani takes stock of the familiar scene. The dim, low-ceilinged room is engulfed in a sea of passengers. They form in human eddies around the seven check-in counters, jostling, shouting and sweating, teeth gritted as they wave their tickets in the air.
Kani and his colleagues have been trying to implement a queueing system but with zero success. The retractable belts are snapped back, the posts pushed aside, marooned amid the jumble of people and luggage. The check-in staff all wear an expression of horrified exhaustion. “It’s so stressful,” says Kani, shouting above the din and shaking his head. “Some of the passengers are quiet, some want to fight you. But we can’t get angry. Fighting solves nothing – just look at Somalia.”
Just look at Somalia, indeed. Two decades of civil war, government collapse and international abandonment has made the country the world’s failed state par excellence. In 1991 a coalition of clan-based militias overthrew Somalia’s military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre – in power since 1969 – and then turned on one another. The seaside capital became a monument to humanity’s capacity for destruction as rival warlords spent the next 20 years blasting away at each other with machine guns and artillery. There have been many iterations of the conflict that, at different stages, has involved the United Nations, the US, Ethiopia, al-Qaeda and the African Union (AU).
Two years ago a new phase began, one in which it became possible to dream of peace at last. Al-Shabaab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda affiliate, withdrew from the capital under pressure from the AU Mission in Somalia (Amisom), a 17,700-strong peacekeeping force led by Uganda. As warfare receded from the streets of Mogadishu, the UN and western countries backed efforts to reconstitute a functioning government and state. That process culminated in the election in September 2012 of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud by an assembly of clan leaders. Key to Somalia’s rebirth is the international airport, which just a few years ago was a target for Shabaab mortars. Now it receives daily scheduled flights from Nairobi, Dubai and Istanbul.
“The airport is very, very important to us,” President Mohamud says during an interview at his fortified office on a hilltop overlooking Mogadishu. The sprightly 57-year-old university lecturer and peace activist is a departure from his predecessors: there is no heavy Rolex dangling from his wrist; no unpalatable history of involvement with warlords or armed groups; and he speaks in clear, measured English.
President Mohamud describes the airport as “a gateway, a source of income and the face of the country”. For years the “face” the airport showed to the world was a terrifying one, with ak-47-toting child soldiers greeting arriving passengers as they stepped off the plane. From 1995 to 2006, almost nobody landed at Mogadishu. Instead, the gateway to Somalia was the militia-controlled k-50 airstrip, 50km from the centre of the city.
The airport is central to changing perceptions of Mogadishu and Somalia, explains Ali Mohamoud Ibrahim, a US-trained flight engineer who runs Somalia’s civil aviation authority. “Peace and stability is everything,” he says. “This airport is not the best but we’re making some important gains. And just being open, that gives people hope.”
The airport is not just a gateway to Somalia, it is the core from which Mogadishu’s security – or lack of it – emanates. The protection and safety afforded by Amisom has turned the 4 sq km compound into Somalia’s equivalent of the Baghdad Green Zone.
The UN and European Union have built compounds within the fortified perimeter of the airport, while there is a Dutch embassy and a British one under construction. Security contractors including US-owned Bancroft Global Development sit alongside logistics companies and a cia-run facility that is both an open secret and source of dark humour among the airport’s international residents.
There is a besieged, bunker feel to the low-slung compounds, filled with white metal shipping containers converted into air-conditioned bedrooms and offices and surrounded by sand-filled Hesco bastion fortifications. There is brackish water in the taps and diesel generators to supply electricity. But it serves as a place of refuge, a safe haven for investors and diplomats to meet businessmen and politicians without having to hire armed guards and risk driving the streets of a city where roadside bombs and suicide attacks are still alarmingly common. Instead talks are conducted in the safety and jealously guarded privacy of the “v-vip” lounge.
Back in 2010 the airport still had the unmistakable feel of a military airbase: Amisom soldiers were hunkered down in sandbagged sniper nests on the airport roof to guard against attacks by Shabaab militants who kept mortar tubes within striking distance of the runway. The carcass of a crashed Ilyushin II-76 cargo plane, hit by a rocket-propelled grenade as it came into land in 2007, dominated the airport apron. The walk from the aeroplane to the arrivals hall was a gauntlet of armed security, grasping baggage-handlers, random civilians and obstructive officials of ambiguous authority. Everyone shouted. Everyone smoked cigarettes. Inside, the arrivals form included a section for “make and calibre of weapon”.
In September that year a squad of Shabaab suicide bombers breached the airport’s outer security perimeter but were killed before reaching the terminal. Three years on and low-cost carrier flydubai is due to start direct flights to Mogadishu, following Air Uganda, Jubba Airways, Fly540, Daallo Airlines and – most importantly – Turkish Airlines, which regularly fills its 180-seat Airbus A300 planes five days a week.
Every week there are around 200 flights – a quarter of them international passenger planes – and close to 4,000 passengers pass through the airport. Planes pay a US$1,000 (€750) landing fee and a $6.50 per hour parking charge, bringing the government much-needed revenue. While a lot has improved, navigating the building remains a daunting experience that leaves many shell-shocked. “It’s a bit aggressive. Not very welcoming,” says Mohamed Abdi Jama, who had weathered the chaotic crowds when he returned to Mogadishu from London to open a restaurant this year. “It all starts from the airport: the screaming, shouting, pushing and shoving. It sets the tone. But as long as it’s safe, that’s all I care about.”
Airport manager Ahmed Ibrahim Iman concedes there is a long way to go. “Everything has a beginning. This airport is like a newborn baby,” says the smooth-skinned 29-year-old who sits in a leather swivel chair still wrapped in factory plastic. Iman was handed the job last year after his father, the previous manager, was assassinated. The risk, he says, goes with the job.
With neither the trained staff nor the money to invest in the airport, Somalia’s government handed over much of the management to ska International, a Dubai-based aviation and logistics company that cut its teeth in Iraq and Afghanistan, and trades under the strapline, “Difficult jobs in difficult places”.
“Getting the airport up and running has been quite a challenge,” says ska’s president and ceo Mike Douglas, who signed a 10-year public/private partnership deal to rehabilitate and manage the airport in 2010. Douglas says his company has so far invested €7.5m in renovations, equipment and training. “The biggest problem was training a workforce that had been dysfunctional for 20 years,” he says. “Getting people to come to work and do an eight-hour day was something in itself.” ska maintains a €225m insurance policy that “gives internationally recognised airlines the confidence to land in Mogadishu”, Douglas adds, and does everything from air traffic control to baggage handling and security checks.
In the control tower, officers from the Somali Civil Aviation and Meteorology Authority (Scama) sit alongside Amisom and ska air traffic controllers. The national air traffic controllers had their own tower until chunks of masonry started falling off it, so they moved in with ska. There’s no radar or computerised flight tracking; instead old-fashioned handwritten paper flightstrips are used to track the progress of planes.
The small airport apron only has space for 12 planes at a time and with roughly half the flights being surprise, “off-schedule” arrivals improvisation is key, according to ska’s manager Sean Mendis. “I’ve got a United Nations C-130 from Baidoa coming into this space here,” Mendis says, pointing to a spot where a white UN helicopter was parked. “Two cargo planes just left – otherwise we’d be maxed out. It’s a ballet.”
The risk of aeroplanes being hit by rockets is much lower now but security concerns still dictate that planes do not fly low over the city – just in case – and that can make Mogadishu a tricky place to land. Pilots have to approach from the sparsely built south and pull a sharp turn inwards from the ocean before landing on the runway just metres from the sea. Most days there are strong coastal winds blowing. “It’s a tight approach with a tailwind. Pilots who aren’t used to it don’t always get it right,” says Mendis as he surveys the twisted wreckage of an Ethiopian military plane that had crashed a few days earlier, killing four of the six crew onboard.
The Antonov-12 had been loaded with 15 tonnes of ammunition when the pilot landed too hard and too far to the left, bursting a tyre. The hulking, four-engine cargo plane skidded across the sand, tore through 200 metres of fencing, caught fire and then exploded. The crash says two important things about Mogadishu airport. First, it is still the kind of place where planes full of explosives land – and sometimes crash. And second, it is increasingly capable of handling such disasters: two of the crew were rescued, the fire was put out in two hours and the airport was open within seven. Mendis says the emergency response that day showed that Somalia’s main airport is gradually improving and beginning to behave like any other. “This is not the Wild West any more,” he says.