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Once mighty, Somalia’s army struggles to rebuild itself

A Somali soldier stands guard as Somalis gather in a stadium in the Somali capital Mogadishu Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

MOGADISHU: As hundreds of Somali army recruits march haltingly around a dusty parade ground on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Ugandan officer Assa Mutebi admits that sometimes his job can feel a little strange.

Mutebi, the “patriotism instructor” for the 2,000-odd recruits who have just returned from a year of European Union-funded training in Uganda, is responsible for teaching the fledgling soldiers to love their own homeland.

“I teach them about their country, how to value their country,” said Mutebi, part of the 17,000-strong African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM), propping up Somalia’s weak government against Al-Qaeda linked Al-Shabaab rebels.

“We go through the history of Somalia with them – I have had to learn so much about it,” he added.

Once one of Africa’s largest militaries under former dictator Siad Barre, toppled in 1991, Somalia’s national army was been torn apart by decades of clan rivalries and the absence of any effective government to actually serve.

“The aim now is to get them to serve the nation and the national army, not some individual warlords – we want to make them forget clan,” Mutebi said.

In recent months the Somali army has helped drive the extremist Al-Shabaab fighters from a series of strongholds, although the bulk of heavy fighting was done by AU or Ethiopian troops, alongside powerful local militia forces.

The troops who return from Uganda – where they are trained in urban warfare and tactics – are given a three week course to reintegrate them into the army and give them a sense of Somalia’s military history, commanders say.

“The Somali armed forces were one of the biggest in Africa but they need Somali pride back – we need to get back the pride and become the lion of Africa,” Somali army colonel Mohammad Ismail barked in a curt military voice.

In a neighboring hangar, foreign personnel from the U.S. private security firm Bancroft were training an elite army unit.

While several thousand recruits have been trained, the vast majority of fighters nominally included in the national army are in fact rather part of a loose coalition of militia forces, unified only in opposition to Al-Shabaab.

Maintaining control is near impossible, with reports that rival factions of government troops have fought each other for control of captured territory.

And, while conditions for civilians under Al-Shabaab control are reported to be grim, the situation in government areas are no better, a recently leaked report from the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea said.

“Incidents of sexual violence in IDP (internally displaced people) camps are high, with rape being described as ‘endemic’ by human rights activists and aid workers alike,” it read.

As the corruption-riddled government prepares this month to wrap up after eight years of infighting and replaced by a new system selected in a United Nations backed process, building a functioning army is key to peace.

However, analysts warn that integrating forces based along Somalia’s powerful clan lines into a single force will prove a difficult task.

“The major issue is that many clans outside of Mogadishu fear the army will be dominated by the major leaders’ clans, and will not want to serve under their command,” said EJ Hogendoorn, from International Crisis Group.

“Building cross-clan units has been extremely difficult and only possible because of concerted pressure by AMISOM and its western contractors,” Hogendoorn said.

“It is hard to tell what will happen to the current cross-clan brigades if the military threat subsides.”

Convincing the militias to cede control to army commanders is not the only problem – many militia forces bring child soldiers with them.

Rampant corruption in government has also damaged attempts to rebuild the security sector. Troop wages – provided by a combination of donors – have regularly disappeared, prompting high desertion rates.

“Nonpayment and delay of wages has been a significant factor in the loss of troop morale and in soldiers defecting to fight for Al-Shabaab,” said Ahmed Soliman, an analyst at Britain’s Chatham House think-tank.

But despite many people’s gloom, Ugandan-trained army recruit Iklan Mohammad Hassan, a pink headscarf tucked into the collar of her camouflage top, sees the chance of peace.

“I am ready to go out and defend my country,” said 20-year-old Hassan, born after civil war broke out in Somalia, and now a mother of a baby son.

“My vision is for Somalia to have a stable government and army, and for children on the streets to be able to have peace.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 10, 2012, on page 9.

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