On a fine Wednesday morning, we meet Bilan Mohamed going through security checks at the Hobyo airstrip. Bilan is amongst tens of passengers scheduled to take the day’s flight to Mogadishu. Just like many others, this is not only her journey of a lifetime, but also a life-saving one. She is heading to the capital Mogadishu on medical referral to remove a tumor on her neck. Bilan is not able to remain seated for longer periods but the one-hour flight is her only hope.

Wednesdays are like no other days in Hobyo. It is a day everyone in this ancient port town and its environs look forward to. It is the day of the weekly flight from Mogadishu to Hobyo and back. Flights that are no ordinary given the fact that in the past Hobyo’s connection to the rest of Somalia and the World at large has been difficult. Travelers would undertake long, rough and insecure journeys by road either to Mogadishu directly or to Galkayo and Adado to catch a flight to the capital city. The cost of a road trip from Hobyo to Mogadishu was $100 and 2 full days of travel with all its risks associated, whilst that of a flight, with all its comforts, now stands at $150 a passenger.

A little airstrip that moves a lot of fish

Every Wednesday, planes touch down with up to 30 passengers and assorted goods from Mogadishu while the return flight carries a similar number of travelers and up to one ton of fish and lobster.

“We send lobster consignments to Mogadishu because it has good returns, we collect our catch over the week using a cooler-fitted truck that we recently bought at USD 35,000$,” explains Bashir Adan Cade, chairman of the local fishing cooperative. His cooperative has employed more than 50 divers and fishermen to respond to growing business demands. Bashir’s cooperative pays divers $7 a kilogram and sells at $16 in Mogadishu. “We owe our success to the airstrip which gave us access to the Mogadishu market.”

What made all of this possible is a development initiative supported by the Somalia Stability Fund (SSF) and Centre for Peace and Democracy (CPD) and driven by both community and the government. In July 2016 it brought together local communities that would forever change the face of Hobyo.

Fishermen prepare their lobster catch for transportation to Mogadishu by air.
Fishermen prepare their lobster catch for transportation to Mogadishu by air.

From pirates to better governance

The coastal town serves as the main seaport of Galmudug State, with a rich history that dates back to the 13th century when the Ajuran Sultanate ruled it.

Hobyo had a history of protracted armed conflict between different clans. When armed conflict between them stopped, clan animosity led Hobyo to become a virtually divided town with no free movement between the sides. Hobyo was later affected by piracy which left a trail of destruction and social rot. Not only did pirates engage in armed conflict over their loot, but they also used the proceeds to cause havoc among local communities. Further, poor roads rendered Hobyo inaccessible making it a safe haven for criminals such as pirates and clan militia. Not an easy backdrop for the appointed District Administration to operate in.

Building the district administration

Before the project began, the district administration of Hobyo was practically non-existent and had limited say in local affairs largely relying on their clan affiliation to execute some of their duties. They had no officially designated offices or roles since pirate kingpins and clan elders called the shots.

“When I was first appointed, this town had no electricity, no roads, and no schools. The only notable symbol of governance was the Italian built Hobyo State House which itself was under militant control at one time. Things are very different now,” says Abdullahi Ahmed, Hobyo District Commissioner (DC).

When the SSF supported project started, Abdullahi, the District Commissioner, arrived in Hobyo with the project team and used the project as his entry point to connect with the local communities. The first community session was held after a long push and pull between the dominant sides. Upholding a conflict-sensitive approach, the project team at first complied with the then existing sharing formula of a third each for the two dominant clans and minorities in everything. From local staff recruitment to participation in project activities, the project had to tread carefully, lest they were to stir up a hornet’s nest. Clans did not allow women and youth participation. No clan was willing to be represented by a ‘woman’ or a ‘girl or boy’.

Escaping seclusion and putting Hobyo on the map

From there on, community sessions, forums and the media were used for awareness creation, sensitisation, civic education and interaction between the local communities and the district administration. Following months of intense community-government engagement, success was recorded, and elders were convinced to shun conflict for good governance. The efforts culminated in communities selecting their priorities and the selection of the airstrip construction as their top need. The community wanted to come out of seclusion. They argued anyone bringing development to Hobyo would use the airstrip to easily reach the town, and true to their words, today Hobyo is a different town altogether.

Using the GESI strategy as a key project pillar and the Community-Government Engagement approach, representation and attendance of key forums and project activities was pegged on community segments where each segment got equal numbers. As a result, minorities, youth and women were given special consideration and a seat at the table.

Women later played key roles in community mobilisation and managed 34% of community contributions. The overall contribution of the community surpassed what SSF had invested in the project, over half million dollars. Women chose to allocate the funds they managed towards rehabilitating a health care center and constructing a maternity ward. “Maternal deaths were very high in Hobyo and women used to die along the way as they were referred to Galkayo after complications during birth,” says women leader Barni Adan Cade.

Opening Hobyo up for investment

The biggest achievement of the project was to open up Hobyo for investment, humanitarian and development work creating opportunities for the local people hence enabling them to distance themselves from violence, conflict and other illegal trades. The airstrip created a sense of common resource ownership and enhanced social cohesion and integration, it created opportunities for people to travel to and from Mogadishu with ease availing them hitherto unreachable privileges like access to quality medical care, education and business opportunities. Fishermen now ship consignments every week leading to better income that has also attracted investors and many local youths to take up the trade.

The airstrip came as a blessing to Hobyo, key people have reached the town including the historic visit by President Farmajo on January 23, 2018 where he launched development projects such as the seaport and roads. Local communities and the District Administration mobilised resources locally and from the diaspora to construct the Hobyo–Galkayo highway, building on the airstrip model of resource mobilisation. Formerly rivaling clans are joining hands in the push to construct the seaport. Property prices have escalated in Hobyo as people try to own a piece of land ahead of the expected sea port construction which is expected to lead to an economic boom. Building on the successes of the SSF investments, USAID’s GEEL project has started an investment to revive the fisheries sector in partnership with the Somali private sector in Hobyo.

“There is a stark difference between the old and the new Hobyo. In fact, the airstrip has done to Hobyo what a cataract operation does to the human body: it was an eye opener,” said Abdirizack Mohamed Duale, Businessman and clan elder.

This article first appeared on SSF’s website