Somalia’s future relies on an army that does not yet exist
Progress is slow but, the optimists say, certain on the building of a national force
After 22 years of war, Somalia’s is a military – estimated at some 10,000-strong – with little resembling a proper command structure, let alone esprit de corps. Photograph: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
The man in the back of the pick-up truck driving along a Mogadishu street is wearing military fatigues with the pale blue starred Somali flag sewn on his sleeve. He may be a soldier in Somalia’s national forces – or he may not.
The al-Shabaab militants who controlled the Somali capital before they were routed two years ago have been known to don army uniforms to infiltrate the city, as have common criminals. This is just one of the myriad challenges when it comes to building a viable army in a country that has known little else but war for more than two decades.
For over a year now a regular parliament has been in session in Mogadishu for the first time since the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime in 1991 plunged the country into years of vicious clan fighting. Parliamentarians have appointed a president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who talks ambitiously of putting Somalia on a path towards political and economic stability, and hopes to hold national elections in 2016.
“It has been a night to day transformation,” Nicholas Kay, the UN special representative for Somalia, says of the cautiously optimistic mood in Mogadishu.
But key to the country’s progress is a reliable, cohesive and well-trained army that can protect the country’s fragile gains and take the fight to the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab where it still holds sway, a task currently undertaken for the most part by the African Union mission known as Amisom.
“People have realised that Amisom alone is not enough,” says Mohamud. “The national army is very important and it needs the kind of support Amisom is getting.” Tellingly, the heavily fortified presidential compound known as Villa Somalia is guarded mainly by Amisom troops rather than Somali soldiers.
Building a capable army from the hollowed out, impoverished force that exists now will be no easy feat. After 22 years of war, this is a military – estimated at some 10,000-strong – with little resembling a proper command structure, let alone esprit de corps. A mix of older Soviet-trained generals and raw, untested recruits, it is an army so pitifully equipped that it doesn’t even have a barracks. Allegiances are split due to clan loyalties and connections with local militias. “You could even go as far as saying there is really no army in Somalia, just a collection of militias,” says one observer in Mogadishu.
Over the past two years, external players including the European Union, the US, Ethiopia and Turkey have separately trained thousands of Somali forces. Some in Somalia say it is a muddled effort, one which, like other aspects of the international engagement here, is based on sometimes competing interests and agendas.
“It is a composite,” counters Kay. “There is no single framework nation that is providing the majority of the [army training] effort, it is a coalition of countries that are all doing a bit. That puts the onus on co-ordination to avoid any possible duplication or contradiction.”
The EU training programme – known as EUTM Somalia – is part of a multifaceted European engagement that makes the EU Somalia’s biggest donor, providing more than €1.2 billion since 2008.
The Irish Defence Forces feature strongly in EUTM Somalia: its current commander is Brigadier General Gerald Aherne, who succeeded Colonel Michael Beary, also from Ireland. The training team, which consists of 120 military advisers from 12 countries, includes several others from Ireland. “Since the launch of the mission in 2010 significant progress has been made,” says Aherne.