Serving Lunch And Cheating Death In Mogadishu

The singular story of a Somali restaurateur who left the sweet life in the UK to return to his war-ravaged homeland, where he has survived multiple attacks on his restaurant.

Ahmed Jama working at Mogadishu's The Village restaurant
Ahmed Jama working at Mogadishu's The Village restaurant
Christian Putsch

MOGADISHUWhen the injured had been taken care of and the dead taken away, Ahmed Jama went to his kitchen. He tied the white apron around his waist and began cooking.

Soup with spinach, pumpkin, potatoes and herbs from his own vegetable garden. Deciding what spices to use, the muffled bubbling sound of the boiling water, the familiar motions with pots and pans — these things have often calmed him during a crisis. He feels safe here. Even on the day when the dusty smell of destruction was stronger than the smell of the food.

In September 2013, two terrorists targeted Jama’s restaurant. Fifteen people, including six staffers, died at The Village, one of the best restaurants in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. The employees were wearing T-shirts with the restaurant logo on them — the image of a majestic baobab tree in the light of the setting sun.

Jama’s voice becomes softer on the phone as he relates the events of that tragic day. But just briefly. Soon he sounds like his determined old self again. “If I give up, they win,” he says. “Even if only one person shows he won’t be broken, soon a second one will follow, then others.” It wasn’t the first attack by al-Shabaab, the Somali Taliban, on his restaurant. There was one in September 2012 that killed 14, and a few months later a car bomb cost another life.

Six years ago in London, when Jama told his friends he was going back to Somalia, they thought he was crazy. His wife cried. After all, Jama, 47, had spent half his life fleeing the misery in his home country. He had earned his way driving trucks in other African countries, and finally traveled to England without a valid passport. Twenty years later, he had British citizenship, qualifications from a prestigious cooking school, a successful restaurant in London, and three kids.

Why, his wife asked him, would he want to exchange all that for life in war-torn, bombed-out Somalia? Islamic groups — and in recent years mainly al-Shabaab — have been fighting the central government since 1991 trying to establish a religious state. Jama says he reflected for a long time before answering his wife, then said: “When I die, I want to leave something behind. Something that people will remember when they think of me.”

Back then, in 2008, the al-Shabaab militia was at the height of its power. The terrorists controlled large areas in the south and center of Somalia, including about half of its capital city. Anyone who offended strict Muslim laws was either stoned or had a hand hacked off. Sports and listening to music were forbidden. The terrorists were raking in substantial funds from taxes, customs duties, piracy, and the ivory trade. Although the African Union sent in additional troops, few Somalis believed al-Shabaab could be vanquished, much less that peace was achievable. Most Somalis had never experienced peace.

When Jama returned to his country, the words of his friends — that he was completely crazy to be doing this — rang in his ears. But he also remembered how, in his London restaurant, rival clans sometimes gathered and friendships ensued that everybody said could never happen. There was no place like that in Mogadishu. Few people even dared go into the streets. Somali cuisine, influenced by hundreds of years of trade with India, Italy, Turkey and Arab countries, was quietly being forgotten. People in Somalia were just trying to survive, not enjoying life.

Embracing the possibility of peace

Jama describes himself as “this skinny, bald guy from Somalia.” But what stands out more is his courage. And his stubbornness. Many exiles who returned to Somalia when he did went into politics. In fact, the failed transition governments have mostly been made up of returned exiles. Jama, however, was one of the first entrepreneurs who believed in the possibility of peace — while recognizing that belief alone wouldn’t change anything.

Jama returned to his home country with $50,000 of savings on hand. His choice of place to start a restaurant was on a piece of land in “Kilometer Four,” as the African Union army in Somalia (Amisom) calls the stretch of land between the airport and the presidential palace. Because of its strategic importance, Makka-al-Mukarramah Street is one of the best-guarded in the city. But because the front was only a few kilometers away, politicians and diplomats who came here wore bullet-proof vests. The sound of guns shots provided permanent background noise.

Just days after acquiring his land, Jama located both building materials and workers. To the sight and sound of armed military vehicles driving by, they put up a small building and planted trees. Which meant there was finally an espresso bar in Mogadishu. Jama had flown in from Europe an espresso machine that weighed nearly 100 kilos. It used up great quantities of energy that cost a fortune in crisis areas — that is, if there was any electricity available at all. Finally, an engineer Jama knew replaced the electronics with a charcoal-run system.

People came to his bar, and Jama started cooking exclusively with fresh ingredients, a trademark that had helped make his London reputation. The Village restaurant is particularly well known for its squid salad and its Kingklip fish with green chili sauce. But what he’s doing isn’t just about food. “My dream was always that people have a restaurant where they could meet up, shake hands and talk around a table,” Jama says.

It’s noon in Mogadishu, and over the telephone line are audible voices and the clatter of dishes in the background. To Jama, this is a beautiful melody. His dream has been fulfilled even if it is accompanied by continual nightmares. In the last few years the Amisom army has been pushing back al-Shabaab, but the threats are still there.

Jama now has taken over three more restaurants and a hotel in Mogadishu, and he’s about to open a space some 600 kilometers to the north. He employs 130 people. It wasn’t long before his wife came around to his way of seeing things, and she now manages the restaurants.

After the September attack, though, the Jamas faced bankruptcy. They were saved by a donation of $14,456 (about 10,600 euros) collected and sent by Scandinavian cooks. This made rebuilding possible.

Jama remembers the note that came along with the monetary gift. One part in particular resonated with him: “Ahmed, since the sound of a falling tree is always louder than that of 1,000 thriving ones, may the fallen tree begin to grow again.”

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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