Villa Somalia has seen no respite since, against all odds, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took a trip to Eritrea on July 10 to visit Somali soldiers in training there and, in the process, signed bilateral agreements with his Eritrean counterpart.
The Somali President was welcomed by President Isaias Afeworki with great pomp and with all the honors due to the leader of the country who supported the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in their fight for independence.
Afeworki readily admits a debt to Somalia and, in turn, provided a safe haven for Somali politicians and intellectuals organizing resistance to the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops led by the US-backed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 2006.
Mohamud had just returned from an official visit to Turkey just for Eid-al-Adha and was said to have traveled to Asmara to facilitate the return of young Somali recruits sent in 2019 to Eritrea for intensive training.
Mohamud’s position on Eritrea was that of the TPLF and a network of war profiteering organizations like the International Crisis Group and its subsidiary Sahan Research, funded by European countries and the United States. He did not hesitate at one point to call Eritrea a stain in the Horn of Africa and Afeworki a dictator.
The opposition, of which Mohamud was a leading member, has until May 15 presidential election politicized the training of these young men, whose number is estimated at around 5,000. Mohamud himself has insisted that the young men have been “sold” for fight in Ethiopia by bribed fathers.
This politicization is not unrelated to foreign states and organizations which sought by all means to obtain the precise number of recruits, their social origin, their place of training and the type of training they were receiving.
The Kormeeraha magazine exposed the actions of an intelligence network in the region which peddled false information on these Somali soldiers in Eritrea.
Nations, organizations and individuals including journalists and even UN officials echoing each other have hammered that Somali soldiers trained in Eritrea participated in the Ethiopian army’s offensive against the Tigrayan rebels.
The Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail even behaved like a vulgar tabloid by publishing an article on the subject, citing unnamed sources that “Somali” soldiers… slaughtered [clergymen] like chickens” in Tigray.
The government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo recruited these young people from all over Somalia and then transferred them to Eritrea for training away from the public scrutiny.
Farmajo, known for his discretion, particularly in terms of security information, personally turned over the file of these soldiers to President-elect Mohamud during the handover ceremony two months ago.
He added that the young soldiers were due to return to Somalia last year, but he had postponed it due to the elections and the prevailing polarized political climate. Their massive return and deployment should have been misconstrued and added fuel to the fire.
Reviewing the well-trained infantry and naval troops during his visit to Eritrea, Mohamud had tacitly acknowledged his previous poor judgment regarding these soldiers. The President was apparently charmed by the performance of these soldiers following a well-choreographed itinerary.
Urged to apologize to his predecessor and the public he misled about the fate of soldiers trained in Eritrea, President Mohamud has once again sadly stepped out to stage one of those infamous demonstrations by relatives of these soldiers.
On the street or in the presidential palace, half a dozen parents took turns attacking the previous president for keeping them in the dark and praising Mohamud for giving them the opportunity to hear from their children.
However, last month, the former head of NISA, Fahad Yasin, under whose direction the recruitment of young soldiers was done, assured in a well-followed interview that no soldier trained in Eritrea participated in fighting in Ethiopia and that each recruit has had the opportunity to talk to their loved ones on important occasions.
During July 19 press conference, President Mohamud’s spokesman, Mr. Abdikarim Kaar, wanted to end the controversy surrounding these Somali soldiers in Eritrea. He stressed that the allegations of a supposed participation of our soldiers in the Ethiopian civil war were absolutely false.
However, by his poor choice of words like “the lost soldiers have been found”, one could note a clumsy attempt to reconcile his boss’ inaccurate claims with the overwhelming reality.
Additionally, questions about the time of their return and their area of deployment remain unanswered, especially since Somalia does not have the means to repatriate and equip the soldiers.
It is unlikely that Qatar, which covered the initial cost of their training, will be on board since President Mohamud showed his hostility to the Gulf country.
The president rather showed his penchant for his regional adversary, the United Arab Emirates, whose leader nevertheless reportedly told him, during his recent visit to Abu Dhabi, that he would not provide aid to the Somali army.
Also, many are wondering how the integration of these austerely trained soldiers into the Somali national army will be implemented. It should be remembered that they were trained by seasoned Eritrean army instructors with reduced means and on rough terrain comparable to Somalia, and in complete isolation for three years.
Compared to the still undisciplined units originating from the nationalized southern regions clan militias and to the Gorgor special forces units trained and equipped by Turkey and the American trained, equipped and supervised Danab forces, the soldiers trained in Eritrea recruited from all 18 regions of Somalia stand out for their esprit de corps, undivided dedication and dependence on the central government.
Their return and deployment to areas still infested by Al-Shabab militants gives everyone confidence and hope for these troops’ success in eradicating terrorism in Somalia. This can only be possible if the President and Prime Minister Hamza Barre really want to regain control of the country’s security.
However, the presence of members allied to the terrorist group recently appointed to senior positions, a government open to dialogue with Al-Shabab and the growing hostility of President Mohamud towards Ethiopia, it is very likely that the Somali soldiers trained in Eritrea being delayed or used for purposes other than counter-terrorism.
Either way, while President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s visit must have boosted the morale of the troops now stranded in Eritrea, the crucial question is when the soldiers will return more than how they will serve the nation.
The president has inherited a sensitive dossier, the mishandling of which risks worsening his relations with the Somali public and army. However, many foreign countries, including the UAE, US and UK, fear their entry and deployment in Somalia and are actively working to have a say on how they would be used.