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

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

Mon, Nov 4, 2013, 01:00

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.

Irish forces
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.

Training has been provided to 3,600 members of the Somali army, including 29 women, in the Bihanga training camp in western Uganda. One of the reasons for having female trainees is so that they can search women at checkpoints to make sure they are not wearing explosive belts, as suicide bombing is a common al-Shabaab tactic. The camp includes a replication of an urban district where the Somali soldiers are trained in house-to-house combat.

“Upon return to Somalia the trainees have been involved in the liberation of a number of key towns in partnership with Amisom,” says General Aherne. “The personnel trained by EUTM now form the backbone of the Somali national armed forces.”

In May some members of the EU mission moved to a base at Mogadishu international airport, marking the first deployment of EU personnel in the Somali capital on a permanent basis since 1991. They have been liaising with officials from Somalia’s defence ministry and senior army personnel, and getting a sense of the challenges of building a military almost from scratch. “After 20 years of civil war, it feels like we’re only about five minutes into the transition,” says one adviser.

In the coming months the entire EU training programme will relocate to Mogadishu. “We have put in place a policy that no more training takes place outside Somalia: it should happen inside the country,” says Mohamud. “It is very useful to Somalia that the EU mission is moving here to provide training, mentoring and advice on the ground.”

Somali officials argue that the army has received insufficient material assistance and equipment to enable it to rebuild. A UN arms embargo in place since 1992 was partially lifted earlier this year, allowing sales of weapons such as automatic assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to the Somali government but leaving in place a ban on surface-to-air missiles, cannons, mines and mortars. “We got a chance to purchase whatever equipment we can afford with our limited resources,” says the president. “But it is not enough.”

No one likes talking about time frames in Somalia, least of all in relation to the question of when the country might have an effective national army.

‘Difficult to say’
“It is very difficult to say,” says Kay. “The plan is that by 2016 the Somalis will make a significant contribution to the security necessary to hold elections that year, and after that there will be a progressive reduction in the need for the Amisom forces.”

Mohamud is also loath to predict how long this will take. “Building an army is a long-term challenge,” he says. “At the moment we are just trying to address the current needs of Somalia and achieve the capacity we require right now. We are making progress. There is a long way to go yet but it is moving.”

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