At the beginning of the year, armed Islamic extremists held sway over most of Mogadishu. Today, this war-scarred capital is secure enough to host the first visit by the U.N. secretary-general in nearly two decades.
Ban Ki-moon announced during a surprise visit to Mogadishu on Friday that the U.N. will reopen its political offices in this seaside capital, a city heavily scarred by war. The announcement underscored the security progress made by African Union troops in the fight against al-Shabab militants, but also of the need for the U.N. to more closely monitor the Somali government, which is funded by foreign donors.
Ban, who was wearing a dark blue bulletproof vest when he landed, said Somalia is more than just famine and corruption.
"I believe we are now at a critical juncture, a moment of fresh opportunities for the future of Somalia people ... to bring a new measure of stability and possibilities to people's lives," he told a news conference at Mogadishu's presidential palace.
Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed called the trip historic and said it proves that progress is being made.
Ban said that the U.N. Political Office for Somalia will relocate to Mogadishu from Nairobi, Kenya in January. He also welcomed the decision by Kenya's parliament this week to contribute soldiers to the African Union force in Somalia, which is now comprised mostly of Ugandan and Burundian troops.
Kenya's military spokesman said Friday that the country's contribution to the African Union force _ approved by Kenya's parliament on Wednesday _ would take overall numbers of peacekeepers in Somalia above the 12,000 allowed by a U.N. Security Council mandate. Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir said the addition of Kenyan troops to the AU force _ currently 9,000 strong _ still requires Security Council approval.
Ban told Somalia's political leaders that they must make faster progress on a four-point plan to improve security, governance, reconciliation and create a constitution. The roadmap must be implemented by next August or the government risks losing international funding.
One reason the U.N. political office is opening in Mogadishu is to enable the U.N. to keep closer tabs on Somalia's leaders and ensure they are making more progress toward the four goals, a U.N. official said. He spoke on condition he not be identified because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
E.J. Hogendoorn, an Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group, said that when he was in Mogadishu last month he saw huge advances in security compared to a year ago, thanks in large part to the African Union force. He said the opening of the U.N. office in Mogadishu next month will give the world body a better sense of what's happening in the Somali government, and give the U.N. more influence.
"This should be a place where the U.N. can operate. If it can operate in places like Baghdad or Kabul, it should be able to operate in Mogadishu," he said.
After meeting with Mogadishu's leaders, Ban spoke at a news conference in which he stressed the importance of seizing the moment. "We have a very limited window of opportunity," he said. "Now is the time to advance on the Constitution and parliamentary reform."
Ban's visit was the first to Mogadishu by the U.N.'s top official since Boutros Boutros-Ghali came in 1993.
Mogadishu fell into chaos in 1991 after its last president was ousted. Warlords then turned on each other, plunging the country into a near perpetual state of anarchy the last two decades. After the failed 1993 U.S. military intervention that ended with the battle known as "Black Hawk Down," the international community largely pulled out of Mogadishu.
Ban's visit signals that the U.N. believes progress is being made, at the least by the African Union military force. The U.N.-backed government has a president, a prime minister, Cabinet and 550 parliamentarians, though the government has few accomplishments it can point to and controls only the capital. Until the AU peacekeepers pushed out the Islamist al-Shabab militants a few months ago, the government controlled only a small slice of the crumbling capital.
After the short visit to Mogadishu, Ban flew to Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, located across the border in eastern Kenya. Dadaab hosts nearly a half million refugees, mostly from Somalia. Tens of thousands of new arrivals walked for days or weeks on foot to reach Dadaab earlier this year to escape a famine.
Ban called his visits with refugees there "humbling and sad."
"My heart and mind are crying inside," he said. "I've heard so many concerns and difficulties."
Relief services in Dadaab were curtailed following a string of kidnappings and bomb attacks launched three months ago by Somali militants. Only food, water and essential medical services continued in the weeks after the October kidnapping of two Spanish women with Doctors Without Borders. Since then, some institutions like schools and far-flung medical outposts have reopened.
But registration of new arrivals _ which allows them to get food and shelter _ has been suspended since October. Playgrounds and centers for children remain closed.
Health screenings restarted last week but they were stopped almost immediately after two policemen were killed by a roadside bomb, the third bomb attack in two months at Dadaab. Since then, refugees have organized voluntary patrols to help secure roads for aid workers.
Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya; Associated Press reporter Katharine Houreld in Dadaab, Kenya contributed to this report.