Smearing Somalia: Supposed Soldiers Fighting In Tigray

In recent days, a paragraph inserted in a report published two weeks ago has been pushed to the fore the case of the Somali National Army (SNA) recruits sent to Eritrea for training but who are allegedly fighting in Tigray.

Back in January 2021, it was rumored that a large number of young recruits had been killed on Ethiopian soil while fighting against the Tigray Popular Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels and that the Somali government was hiding the truth from their parents.

At that time, Somali and Ethiopian governments denied Somalis troops were ever involved in the Ethiopian conflict.

The author of the 17 pages report is none other than the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Mr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, a Sudanese national, who was appointed by UN Human Rights Council in September 2020.

Special rapporteurs, also called independent experts, are mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor and report on a country’s human rights record following complaints. They do not speak for the UN however.

They are not paid by the UN but receive logistic and personal supports to carry out their fact-finding mission. For that reason, controversies surround their source of funding who usually come from NGOs, corporations and anyone interested in their mission.

In their work, they can only use complaints received from victims of abuses and must investigate to corroborate those complaints. Practically, special rapporteurs’ reports are null and void if they’re not supported by verifiable evidence.

Special rapporteurs can retain their mandate for three years, but in case the country they are investigating does not accept them, as in this case with Eritrea, they must complete their work within one year.

The appointment of Mr. Babiker comes at the right time for Sudan which is engaged in a direct confrontation with Ethiopia over the issue of the Renaissance Dam and in armed conflict with that country over Al-Fashqa, a disputed stretch of land between the two countries.

The release of this current report, which is a scathing account of Eritrea’s human rights record and its relationship with its neighbours, is a way of isolating Ethiopia by putting Eritrea, which militarily supports Ethiopia, on the defensive.

The section 20 of the report referred to allegations Somali troops accompanied Eritrean soldiers involved in the Tigray war. There’s no reference Somalis committed atrocities but the main insertion of Somalis fighting alongside Eritreans in Ethiopia is questionable.

Somalia also has good relations with the three countries in conflict and a reference to its supposed participation in the fight against the TPLF is surprising and unwarranted. Somalia has its own load of issues to deal with at home and can’t afford to deplete its own security resources.

The reason for Somalia’s pinning on the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in Tigray can be explained if one considers the potential source of funding for the Special Rapporteur’s effort and the involvement of parties who have much to gain from it.

In the past, Mr. Babiker worked with the Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG), a group that monitored violations of the United Nations arms embargo against Eritrea. and Somalia, but which later turned out to have been hijacked by Ethiopia’s ruling TPLF and Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh.

In 2012, the UN Security Council discovered the SEMG director Matt Bryden was paid by regional interested parties through his Sahan Research think tank while still in charge of the UN-mandated SEMG. His falsification of the facts which distorted the truth about the violation of the arms embargo caused his dismissal.

Prior to SEMG, Bryden was director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think tank, before co-founding with Emmanuel Deisser, a Belgian mercenary, the Sahan Research, a group specializing in intelligence gathering and stirring up unrest in the Horn of African region.

The ICG and Sahan are both based in Nairobi and are closely linked to the Kenyan government. This southern neighbour whose military presence within the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is highly controversial due to its claims on parts of the Somali territory and its hostile operations.

Not only Mr. Babiker admits that his “report is based on information gathered […] by monitoring the human rights situation remotely and on information provided by other sources, including civil society organizations, United Nations agencies, funds and programmes, and the donor community“, but its sole source of information, regarding Somali troops fighting in Ethiopia, is an article penned by Amanda Sperber, a Nairobi-based Sahan/ICG operative.

While only the first part of section 20 of the report is gathered from Sperber’s article, the Special Rapporteur doesn’t say the source of information about a parliamentary committee investigating the allegations except that he “was informed” about it.

It is not yet clear whether passage 20 was a return of favour to Sahan / Crisis Group who supported the Sudanese expert in his quest for information incriminating Eritrea or a deliberate attempt on his part to side with hostile elements that were previously cited for fomenting unrest in Somalia.

The fact remains that the world of think tanks and intel community is a close-knit mafia-like group that promote, reference and recommend each other to control their commonly agreed narrative.

It could also be an indirect attempt by Sudan and Egypt to tip Somalia on their side in the Renaissance Dam dispute, as the Somali government previously denied Egypt a foothold in the region for fear of being drawn into this conflict.

This is the reason, according to a source close to the government, the Somali ambassador in Sudan Mohamed Sheikh Ishaq met with the Sudanese foreign minister Mrs. Mariam Al-Mahdi a few days ago was to sort out Sudan’s position on these allegations of Somalia soldiers involvement, convey Somalia’s concerns over the Sudanese report, and reaffirm his country’s non-belligerent policy.

Sahan Research, which offers its “think tank” services to embassies, NGOs and corporations, has over the years established a network of sources of intel made up of local NGOs and individuals in key positions within and outside the region and made the expertise of its staff available to any good buyer.

Among others, there is a certain Colin Robinson, a mercenary from New Zealand, wanted by the Benadir court for sharing information protected by the Somali National Army with unauthorized parties, i.e. Sahan, when he worked as a consultant for the European Union to assess the SNA needs for funding purposes.

Robinson thought he knew the SNA inside out and this campaign is an attempt to find out the location of these recruits, their number, their clans’ origin, the kind of training they’re receiving and where they will be deployed. Enough protected data to complete his puzzle. A satisfaction the government doesn’t want to give him, his co-conspirators and his sponsors.

Beside collecting sensitive data, Sahan and associates guide Somali political debate through media campaigns and the dissemination of subversive fake news, and carry out activities such as funneling dirty money, advising embassies and NGOs on how to deal with Somali politicians or where to direct their funding.

As seen before, Babiker’s report and the way it is handled by Sahan’s cronies is ammunition for the American UN Special Representative in Somalia, James Swan, who regularly reports Somali leadership as inept and Somalia as a risk for the region.

Clearly overstepping his mandate due to his deep involvement in Somalia’s internal affairs, and despite Somali protests to the UN, Mr. Swan’s detrimental interference has been described by Somali-American scholar Abdi Ismael Samatar as reminiscent of past colonial administrators.

It is no wonder that when Somalis heard that an individual whose title begins with “UN Special …” was spreading rumors about Somalia under the guise of the international legitimacy that this designation confers on him, they immediately thought of the usual suspect. But, unlike James Swan, Mohamed Babiker does not work and does not speak for the UN.

In short, the report lacks clarity and credibility at its core as its sources about Somali troops fighting in Tigray are based on wrong intelligence. It does not matter whether Mr Babiker supports the standoff between his home country and Ethiopia or whether he colludes with interest groups, by using unsubstantiated allegations his report remains permanently tainted.

Babiker’s report is not about Somalia but he inserted the paragraph for a dubious reason that many saw a Sahan/Crisis Group footprint. Bryden, Deisser and Colin, and their Somali co-conspirators, wanted for espionage are still on the loose and remain defiant but will eventually have to face justice.

While six months ago this affair of soldiers fighting in Eritrea was confined to the national level, it is now elevated to a regional level with many implications. At the national level, it is a major electoral issue that could pivot the balance of power.

At the international level, if the government does not tread carefully this political game playing out in the region, Somalia risks being caught in the trap of a regional conflagration. So Somalia may find itself forced to re-evaluate its current allies in the region.

In either case, the Babiker’s report can be understood as a warning shot on all fronts. Between an Arab League which has taken a stand in the conflict on the Renaissance Dam, national elections which can degenerate and a deadline for the departure of AMISOM which is approaching, Somalia has a lot of work to do.

Regardless, the current government has the capacity to maneuver the country out of these challenges as it continues with the current discipline that could get it out of the clutches of those foreign forces pulling the country from all sides.

AbdiQani Badar

AbdiQani Badar is a historian, political commentator and avid writer. He has written extensively on Somali issues and historical events.