By Bridget Galton
The extraordinary story of a Somali migrant who risked death to return as Mayor of war-torn Mogadishu is compellingly told in a book by BBC correspondent Andrew Harding.
The Mayor of Mogadishu (Hurst, £20) follows the redemptive arc of a man – dubbed Tarzan – who was abandoned in a state orphanage but is now vying to become his country’s President.
In the wake of Somalia’s collapse into civil war in 1991, he and his young family fled to the UK raising their children in Gilden Crescent, Kentish Town. But 20 years later he encouraged others to return home and spearhead Somalia’s revival, becoming Mayor of the city’s only safe enclave, encircled by militants Al-Shabaab.
Harding says Tarzan is an inspirational and divisive figure who “punches before he thinks but has a heart of gold”. But he exemplifies huge courage, and the identity crisis of many forced from their homeland.
“I met Tarzan when he had just come back from London to be Mayor of Mogadishu, a tiny oasis protected by a peace-keeping force in a country controlled by militants.
“He jumped out as an extraordinary charismatic and fearless Londoner who shot from the hip. He was great journalistic material and became known as the man with the most dangerous job in the world.”
Based in Johannesburg, Harding, who has covered Africa for 25 years and Somalia since 2000, says: “When I started digging into his background he had a remarkable upbringing. Born under a tree in what is now Ethiopia in 1953 or ‘54 to a very poor family of nomads, his father died and when he was six or seven someone rescued him and took him to an orphanage where he got his nickname when he was found swinging from a tree.”
Post independence Somalia in the 60s and 70s enjoyed a period of relative stability and Tarzan rose from street urchin to basketball star.
But in 1991 as armed factions competed for power, the UN were deployed in an operation that included the disastrous American bloodbath featured in the movie Black Hawk Down.
“The UN pulled out in 1993. It was just chaos and Tarzan, working in Saudi Arabia with a family of six kids, sent them to the UK on fake Visas. They got rid of their passports on the plane and turned up empty handed requesting asylum.”
Joining them two years later Tarzan suffered depression, started a business, took a university course and set up an NGO advising fellow Somalis about employment.
“He’s an outspoken guy and got very involved with the diaspora who were trying to recreate a government in exile and implant it into Mogadishu,” says Harding.
In 2010 he became Mayor of “the only bit of the city where political power has any meaning” surviving numerous assassination attempts.
“He’s an amazing figure who rallied the diaspora to come home and rebuild their country. People flooded back and for a while it really worked but it’s dangerous, difficult place, dominated by warring clans. He got kicked out after four years but the stress that put on his family caught between two worlds and looked at as a second class citizens in both London and Somalia was tremendous.”
Harding admits Tarzan has “pissed off a lot of people”.
“Some hate him. Tarzan’s wife believed he was going to die any day. She can’t believe he has survived and thinks he’s running out of luck.”
Having been in the wilderness for a time, Tarzan continues to live in Somalia while his family is in London. Harding says because of corruption, October’s presidential election featuring just 18,000 voters “is more of an auction than an election” and he doesn’t hold out much hope for a country where “all the institutions have collapsed and there is no state.”
“He has put his cap in the ring and is still living there because he doesn’t want to be seen as someone coming in and then disappearing as soon as there’s trouble. He’s the sum of his past; an orphan who has reinvented himself. He says ‘I am not clan, I am Tarzan’
“He’s completely hooked and will never give up.”