20.12.2022: Mogadishu, Somalia
Finally, after over a year of fake news reports by outlets such as Reuters and a discredited UN report which obtained its evidence from questionable sources, the incumbent Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud announced on Monday that Somali National Army (SNA) units training in Eritrea will begin returning home this month in an operation that is expected to last until the end of January 2023.
For months, rumors have swirled in Somalia that the soldiers may have been deployed to the war-torn Ethiopian region of Tigray.
It was in July of this year – in an statement that surprised many – Villa Somalia announced that President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud planned to travel to Eritrea on an official 4-day visit in which he would meet Somali National Army soldiers that were training in that country.
Millions of Somalis including the President would see 5,000 strong Somali units parading and saluting before a visibly jubilant President.
Upon his return, Villa Somalia spokesman Abdirkarim Kaar announced that all allegations regarding the deployment and deaths of SNA soldiers in Tigray were entirely “false rumours”.
Manufacturing of Fake News
For over a year, many Somali politicians that were opposed to the former government led by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo including current incumbent President argued that Somali units stationed in Eritrea took part in the conflict in neighbouring Tigray region of Ethiopia.
From major Presidential candidates to political analysts and journalists to so-called independent think-tanks, all agreed that there must have been Somali soldiers that fought in the Tigray War because the Tigray leadership argued so.
In hindsight, what we can see is a sophisticated and coordinated disinformation campaign by a hand full of interconnected individuals from various professions that had a vested interest in Somalia. It is such individuals that planted the seed that would eventually form to be one of the biggest fake news scandals that hit the Somali government ever.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane to see exactly who and when this seed of disinformation was planted into the Somali political arena.
Many supporters of the argument that Somali troops died in fight in Tigray cite the UN Human Rights Council. More specifically, the report released by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker
Halfway down page 6 of the report, the following is written:
- “The Special Rapporteur also received information and reports that Somali soldiers were moved from military training camps in Eritrea to the front line in Tigray, where they accompanied Eritrean troops as they crossed the Ethiopian border. It is also reported that Somali fighters were present around Aksum. The Government of Somalia denied the participation of Somali soldiers in the Tigray conflict.”
Now, of course such a statement is bold as there is no actual evidence produced by the Mr Babiker other than he had received information that Somali troops were fighting in Tigray.
So the question becomes, where did the Special Rapporteur obtain such information?
If we actually look at the citation for that paragraph, we see that the exact source of this information comes from a controversial and unsubstantiated article written by Amanda Sperber for the South African newspaper, the Mail and Guardian titled, “Somali troops may have been drawn into Ethiopia’s civil war”, and dated 20 January 2021.
The article argues that Somali soldiers accompanied Eritrean troops to fight in Tigray, leaving their designated army barracks. She cites the controversial newspaper, Garowe Online as being the direct source of information to back such a statement.
Garowe Online previously interviewed Abdisalam Guled. Mr Guled previously served as the Deputy Director of the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency between 2013-2017. Guled told Garowe Online that Somali soldiers left their barracks and joined the war against TPLF militia in Tigray.
However, what is interesting is that within the same article, Ms Sperber warns readers that Garowe Online could not verify the accusations made by former NISA Deputy chief, Abdisalam Guled.
In fact, when Ms Sperber interviewed Guled on behalf of the Mail and Guardian newspaper, Mr Guled stated that his sources of information were an unnamed Ethiopian official and an anonymous civilian woman that he claimed saw Somali fighters present around the ancient town of Aksum.
Of course, such sources lack any credibility and validity, especially claims of such large magnitude. For instance, the Ethiopian Defence Force has Somalis within its ranks. Additionally, the Somali regional State in Ethiopia also deployed State troops to fight against the TPLF in Tigray. Therefore, in a situation where the witnesses were credible, those Somalis she had seen could’ve easily been Somali based within Ethiopia.
The article concluded by again referencing another anonymous individual. This time an unnamed Somali man allegedly told the Mail & Guardian that his brother joined the Somali National Army in November 2019 before allegedly “disappearing” in March 2020.
Now, pay close attention to the word “disappeared” to describe the whereabouts of these Somali soldiers. The word disappears automatically implies sinister intentions and actions by the Federal Government against newly recruited Somali soldiers. While it is not an outright bold accusation, it buries the seeds for analysts and others to use this as sources of information to push a narrative built on false information.
In actuality, militaries across the world deploy soldiers for training or combat missions in secrecy. Take the US for example, US soldiers cannot inform even their family members about locations and missions yet many analysts and journalists convey the picture in Somalia that the government must be evil if it is not conveying with the public sensitive state information that could be detrimental to national security.
So, the burning question becomes, why are journalists and analysts that work for reputable or known organisation use these unverified statements and accusations in their article? In fact, the bigger question is:
- Why did the UN Special Rapporteur, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker use this unverified source in his report as credible information to report back to the UN?
UN Chapter 7 & Somalia’s Arms Embargo
You have to understand that Somalia is currently in an uphill battle to remove Chapter 7 powers that have been imposed on Somalia since the beginning of the Somali civil war.
For those that do not know, Chapter 7 of the UN Charter includes various articles that set out the powers but in simple terms, it enables the UNSC “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and essentially deploys armies or imposes embargos and sanctions.
Somalia is currently under a UN Arms Embargo.
The reality is that many countries seem to be completely opposed to the idea of a stronger Somali National Army.
In a report released by Horufadhi Media in 2020, it found that a proposition was put before former President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo during the Somalia conference in London to cap the SNA at only 18,000 soldiers to which he refused to sign according to sources close to Villa Somalia.
Just to give you context of how small that is, the Metropolitan police force which the police force in charge of Greater London has over 33,000 officers.
A country in a state of war against sophisticated international terrorists, 18,000 is far less than an adequate number of soldiers.
Now, many attempts have been made to substantiate these fake allegations. As many probably remember in June 2021, five men randomly appeared in Puntland claiming to be Somali soldiers that escaped training in Eritrea.
In an interview with regional media, the 5 men claimed that they deserted the camps due to tough training and a lack of medical care however despite giving false names and false information all interviewed clarified that they did not participate in the Tigray conflict.
Whether these individuals were actually members of the SNA cannot be verified as the Somali Defence Minister did not address any of the statements by these alleged soldiers.
So to answer the burning question:
- Why did the UN Special Rapporteur, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker use this unverified source in his report as credible information to report to back to the UN?
We may never know the actual answer to this question but it seems as though the Special Rapporteur has fell well below the standards required of him in terms of research as the peddling of disinformation and incorrect facts is a very dangerous activity on social media, an arena plagued by fake news.
What about President Farmaajo concealing the Soldiers?
Many question why the Farmaajo administration refused to disclose the amount, location and return of those soldiers.
The reality is that militaries across the world deploy soldiers for training or combat missions across the globe in secrecy. Take the US for example, US soldiers cannot inform even their family members about locations and missions yet many analysts and journalists convey the picture in Somalia that the government must be evil if it is not conveying with the public sensitive state information that could be detrimental to national security.
While it is correct for journalist to seek out the truth, there are limitations surrounding events and sensitive state secrets regarding security.
The second question raised is, if training was finished for all 5,000 soldiers in 2021, why weren’t units returned back to Somalia immediately?
Farmaajo administration said they decided to delay their return to avoid disrupting parliamentary and presidential elections.
Irrespective of which political group or individual one supports, I think we can all agree that the idea of mutiny by the military personnel for political reasons is absurd. Such events do not occur in a civilised, modern state – it sounds like something out of the 1930s play book.
Nevertheless, answering calls from politicians, eventually we would see the formation of the Badbaado Qaran militia group from disgruntled SNA units which attacked FGS positions in the capital in April of last year in an act of mutiny.
In hindsight, the redeployment of the 5,000 soldiers could have been used as ammunition to further cite the alleged accusation of military use for political purposes, adding more wood to a heavily lit fire.