When is the best time to reconstruct a war-devastated nation like Ukraine? Can
reconstruction effort start in a raging war with no real end in sight? A simple answer is when
the hostilities cease and peace returns. But my personal experience of growing up in a post-
conflict nation taught me that the end of gunfire does not necessarily mark the beginning of
recovery. The injection of large amounts of aid into the reconstruction effort can also prove
counterproductive, as that may fuel further infighting among the political elite.
The Ukraine Recovery Conference proposed a ‘smart recovery architecture’ which considers
environmental and sustainability factors of urban reconstruction. But smart plans require
giving smart and hopeful people the chance to be on top of the political hierarchy, a task
that may prove as hard as the rebuilding process itself.
I was four when the civil war broke out in Somalia in the early nineties and I vividly
remember early stages of reconstruction, or simply a poor population going into survival
mode on the rubbles of what they once called their homes. Most of the houses in the
neighbourhood had no roofs as the city – Hargeisa, a norther city, and the country’s secondl
largest town – was bombed out by the regime three years earlier after the rebels stormed it
in a lightning attack.
Like any other urban warfare where there is an imbalance of fire power, the underdog – the
rebels in this case – had turned residential areas into an urbanised defence, using the urban
terrain to their advantage, effectively using the city as a fortress and a base of operation. In
an attempt to shorten the conflict and inflict maximum psychological damage on the rebels,
massive bombardment was launched. In other words, to dislodge the rebels, urban
destruction had become the game plan.
Unlike the Ukraine conflict, it was just as another African civil war. A horrified international
community did not hold high-profile conferences and pledge billions of dollars of aid. Our
war had no geopolitical significance, even though the humanitarian crisis and the exodus of
refugees it generated were equally substantial. While the context is different, the loss of
lives and livelihoods and the ensuing human reaction is strikingly similar.
The story of reconstruction is also the story of the urban political and business elite. To
rebuild a nation is to inspire hope in the future and build trust in the ruling elite whose
quality determines the speed and efficiency of recovery. This happens first in the absence of
urban infrastructure and services indispensable for sustaining life, and then a partial and
sometimes intermittent return of some basic services.
In most post-conflict nations, those who survived and made their name in the war – for
good or for bad – lead their populations in the aftermath of the war. In the Ukraine context,
a generation of military and civilian leaders rose to the occasion to resist Russian aggression.
Freedom and dignity fuel their will to resist. They will most likely shape their nation’s future
for decades to come.
This does not mean every freedom fighter is also a good political leader. History is awash
with many freedom fighters who turned into despots after they rose to power, oppressing
the same people whose freedom they fought for. Societies who rebuilt successfully after a
large-scale conflict are those who put their competent and visionary leaders in power and
held ‘bad dudes’ in check.
Intra-elite rivalries, mostly suppressed at times of war, resurfaces at peace time, shaping the
future political landscape as diverse and often opposing political views and ambitions
collide. South Sudan is a perfect example as rival political leaders quickly went to war after
the northern threat was removed.
In the British context, the elite rivalries was turned into a contest of ideas. Winston Churchill
lost the 1945 election, after being an amazing war leader. Clement Attlee created a better
vision for the future. This underscores that importance of superior and innovative ideas and
vision for post-conflict reconstruction.
However, urban recovery does not mean that everything will return to pre-war status as
people are forever changed by the war. Some of Ukraine’s population, including skilled
labour and professionals, won’t ever permanently return from abroad as they build new
lives there. Some cities will gain a new commercial significance; others will die out with the
war – a natural occurrence in most nation-wide conflicts.
As rebuilt cities take shape, every brick laid represents hope. Every new building going up
also represents an enhanced sense of security felt by the residents of the towns and cities.
People won’t wait for new policies and legislations to make the best out of their
circumstances and come up with innovative economic activities.
President Zelensky has inspired and galvanised his nations in the face of an overwhelming
power, and the people of Ukraine have shown an iron will to resist a foreign invasion. They
can also develop hope in their nation’s future and replace the debri on the destroyed Soviet-
era infrastructure with a modern and greener one.