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Somali President Sheikh Sharif was in Kampala, Uganda over the weekend where, among other things, he tried to recruit Somali university students in the city to serve in the Somali national army, providing insight into the mentality of the Islamist-dominated government.
Speaking at a resort in Kampala, the president called on the students to join the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) military, claiming that that was the easiest way to get to power in Somalia.
“I am calling on you to join the armed forces to take part in liberating the nation,” the president said, according to students who attended.
The president went on to explain why joining the military is sensible for the students, whom the president apparently thinks are pursuing higher education to be able to join politics (yeah, right).
“I know that the students love to become (government) leaders. I tell you that the easiest path to do that is by joining the military,” the president explained.
The president even introduced a fellow student of theirs who apparently is a part-time student, and the president said was also a captain in the TFG military.
The president tried to make sure that the students had bought his idea, and, after telling them that students he had earlier met in Kuwait had also promised this, he asked them to raise their hands if they would take a military course after university so they could join the military as officers. Most of the students reportedly jokingly raised their hands, but few seemed to have genuinely agreed, as was apparent from their comments after leaving the gathering.
“We spent all our lives studying, and the president – despite not contributing to our education in whatsoever way – now wants us to carry guns?” one of the students angrily while speaking to me by phone to me. He did not want his name published. He did not explain why, but it isn’t hard to guess.
This is not the first time that Sheikh Sharif had tried to recruit students into an army that he led: in 2006, he infamously recruited hundreds, if not thousands, of university and secondary school students to join the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) army.
Most of the regular folks in Mogadishu and the rest of Somalia, more so in the educated lot, consider gunmen – whether government soldiers or not – to be the lowest of all lowly scum.
Some people even go further and hate guns altogether, despite guns having been the only defence against the uncivilised militias of the nineties. “Put down the gun, take the pen” campaigns used to be common in Mogadishu. I imagine a new TFG-funded campaign would be something like, “Don’t carry a gun for the Shabaab, but take at TFG gun to kill the Shabab (while avoiding getting into gunfights with your fellow anti-Shabab fighters).” And campaigns targeting students would be something like, “Is your teacher giving you hard homework? Put down the pen and take up the gun: liberate your country.”
People have had it with young men brandishing guns and acting like they rule the world, which they kind of do: most killers and robbers in government territory are never brought to justice. Most of the perpetrators of murder in Mogadishu and other areas nominally controlled by the TFG in central and southern Somalia are government soldiers who sometimes get into gunfights amongst themselves.
Perhaps if the TFG soldiers were paid and held accountable for their actions, respectable people would join the military. As of now, it is a magnet for petty criminals and social rejects. A large part of the TFG military is made up of former members of the armies of the merciless warlords who used to terrorise Mogadishu for the greater part of the last twenty years.
I don’t think anyone would want to get a university degree, go to a military academy, and then join the Somali military as a captain when uneducated warlords and political cronies of the president are generals in the army. That would be an insult to all intellectuals everywhere.
If Indha Adde - an Islamist who can barely write anything except Arabic and Somali and may not even have the quality of a lieutenant - can be a general, I think university students who then go on to go to officers’ training school should be at least field marshals in the TFG military. Nevermind the lack of experience and advanced knowledge required for such a job; they would at least have more worth than the fake generals such as Indha Adde and the rest of the warlords who now hold various high-ranking positions in the military.
I remember a conversation I had last year with TFG “officers”. They were actually former ICU bomb-throwers (the guys who throw hand grenades at designated targets) who had joined the TFG when Sharif became president. They explained to me how one of them could not find his name in the list of officers when they joined the TFG and they had to call an ICU commander to have him added on the list.
He can barely read and write and he is today a captain in the TFG police. When I was told that the president had offered that rank to the university students, I almost puked. Maybe there should be ranks and fake ranks. Give the fake ranks to 80% (a rough, I believe conservative, estimate) of TFG officers and have them command no one. Then maybe university students could accept “real” ranks in the military – after the military’s reputation is fixed by prosecuting the bad apples within the establishment. Given that they are now apparently the majority, which may be a hard task but should nevertheless be done in the future.
What is more disturbing than trying to recruit students into the ill-reputed military is the fact that the president claimed that the best way to gain power is by joining the military; and by extension, by the barrel of the gun. This seems to be the attitude within most of the uneducated political class in southern Somalia.
Former ICU units are not properly integrated into the TFG military; instead, they are nominally integrated but have their own separate command structure and are more loyal to their sheikhs than the Somali state.
Now that we know that Sheikh Sharif thinks that joining the military is the best path to gain power, if he and the rest of the Islamists lose control of the federal government in the August elections, we should not expect at best anything less than a mess or a mass defection of ICU soldiers to the Shabaab at worst (or, their collaboration with the Shabaab if they stay).
Mubarak's Musings is a Somalia Report weekly column. Follow Mubarak on Twitter, at @somalianalyst.