Off Topic: Why Football is so important in Somalia

Football returns to Somalia.

Football returns to Somalia.

With the teams for the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil set (BBC News), it should come as no surprise to anyone that Somalia is not one of the 32 participants.  Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria will represent Africa and Ghana will likely be one of the favorites.  Somalia did not field a team during the qualifying rounds due to prohibitions against playing and watching football issued by Al Shabaab which controlled most of Somalia until last year.  However, Somalia will be able to participate in qualifying for the next African Cup of Nations and the next World Cup, participation that seemed almost impossible just two years ago.

In 2011, as part of its campaign to impose control and its own version of Sharia on Somalia, Al Shabaab banned all watching of football, on television and in person.  Al Shabaab threatened to punish any who defied their “order against bad traditions” (The Somalia Report).  This ban followed Al Shabaab’s bombing of two nightclubs in Kampala, Uganda on the night of the World Cup Final in Johannesburg in 2010 which killed 74 people and injured dozens more (BBC News).  These bans and attacks were not about football or about Islam, but about demonstrating Al Shabaab’s total control in Somalia and its ability to attack those who opposed the group.

With the success of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the military support received by the United Nations-backed government from Ethiopia and Kenya, portions of Somalia have been liberated from Al Shabaab.  Al Shabaab still holds sway in much of the country, but Mogadishu, Kismayo and several other cities are under the control of the Somali government led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.  Development projects have re-started and a re-invigorated AMISOM force will soon launch another campaign against Al Shabaab.  The narrative of Somalia has changed from the World’s Worst Failed State (a title soon to be taken by the Central African Republic) to a security-challenged partner in East Africa.  Somalia is by no means out of the woods as near daily stories of Al Shabaab attacks demonstrate the continuing threat, but where the international community once saw a hopeless situation, it can now see a viable state in the not-too-distant future.

With liberation from Al Shabaab has come football.  It’s not great football, Somalia is currently ranked 201st in the world just behind those footballing powers of the British Virgin Islands and Andorra and just ahead of neighboring Djibouti and South Sudan (FIFA), but in addition to playing its first international matches in years, a domestic league has resumed.  With eight teams and a completely renovated Banadir Stadium in Mogadishu (paid for by FIFA who has been asked to fund renovations of other stadiums), Somalis can choose to watch football (Sabahi) and thousands chose to come out and watch the opening match of the season (won by Heegan, 3-2 over Gaadiidka).  That choice is the important element.  Other outlets are talking about football’s ability to be a peace-building tool which is important (RFI), but just having to opportunity to play and watch football should be the story.  Among the 20,000 spectators in the stands at a game over the weekend were many women, a mingling of the sexes also banned by Al Shabaab (Bloomberg News). In addition to the new domestic league games, the Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) is exploring the possibility of hosting a youth tournament in Somalia with the participation of teams from the member associations, including the countries that have supported the AMISOM peacekeepers, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Burundi (RBC Radio).

Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud waves to the crowd at a football match in Banadir Stadium.

Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud waves to the crowd at a football match in Banadir Stadium.

Side note, the Banadir Stadium is not the Mogadishu Stadium that has been used many times over the last 20 years as a military staging site including by the United Nations peacekeepers that were called in to rescue the US Army Rangers and Special Forces operators after the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.  Banadir Stadium was severely damaged by mortar fire in 2009 when Somali government forces attacked Al Shabaab members who were using the stadium as a base.  Banadir Stadium now has an astro-turf pitch and VIP seating.

Teams walk out onto the pitch at newly renovated Banadir Stadium

Teams walk out onto the pitch at newly renovated Banadir Stadium

Football in Somalia is a sign of belief on the part of the Somali people that conditions are improving.  After 20 years of conflict, famine and dislocation, it’s good just to be able to enjoy a game.  Somalis believe that they will be safe at the stadium; they have disposable income to afford a ticket; they feel there is value in entertainment.  The mere fact that a game can be played shows that change has happened in Somalia, or at least in the capitol.  Over the coming years, the Somali government, neighboring states and the international community must consolidate the gains that have been made, but in the meantime, play ball.


Battles over Beledweyne and the Ethiopian Occupation

As the final assault on the Al Shabaab stronghold of Kismayo is underway, I’d like to re-focus the attention further inland, to the town of Beledweyne.  Beledweyne is about 30 kilometers from the border with Ethiopia, is the capitol of the Hiraan district, and has been the base of operations for Ethiopia’s army after it invaded Somalia in November 2011.  Ethiopian troops seized Beledweyne from Al Shabaab on December 31, 2011 and have held it ever since. This week the new President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, visited Beledweyne as fatal floods struck the city.


A few important background items to keep in mind: First, there are at least four separate armies operating in Somalia allied to the internationally recognized government; they are the Somali Army, the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers (the backbone of which is formed by Ugandan and Burundian soldiers with some Sierra Leonean and Djiboutian soldiers mixed in), the Kenyan Defence Force (officially part of the AMISOM force, but operating fairly independently it seems) and the Ethiopian army.  There are several clan-based militias that are allied with these forces, but the command and control structures are not very clear.  In theory, the Somali army and two wings of the AMISOM force (one under Ugandan control and focused on security in Mogadishu and central Somalia, the other under Kenyan control and focused on southern Somalia) are allied and operating under United Nations and African Union mandates.  The Ethiopian army has refused to “re-hat” and join the AMISOM command structure.

Second, Ethiopia invaded and occupied large portions of Somalia from 2006 to 2009.  Ethiopia’s goal was to displace the Islamic Courts Union from control in Somalia and return power to the United Nation’s-backed Transitional Federal Government which controlled only small portions of Baidoa at the time of Ethiopia’s invasion.  Ethiopia was very successful in driving out the Islamic Courts Union, but its occupation of Somalia created tremendous ill will within the populace, ill will that gave rise to a guerrilla war against the Ethiopians and led to the rise of the Al Shabaab militia.  Al Shabaab’s opposition to the Ethiopians made it very popular at first and when the Ethiopians withdrew under pressure from the insurgents, Al Shabaab was given a free hand to act in Somalia.  Until Kenya and Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2011, Al Shabaab controlled all of Somalia except for the couple square miles of Mogadishu protected by AMISOM forces. 

Third, Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbor and former ally, has been accused of providing logistical, financial and material support to Al Shabaab, and before Al Shabaab to the Islamic Courts Union.  Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a vicious border war in 1998 and have routinely engaged in brinksmanship over a contested piece of blighted and deserted land.  For over a decade, Eritrea has been subject to brutal economic and political sanctions and rather than engage Ethiopia in direct conflict, Eritrea has sought to support various militias that are arrayed against the Ethiopian government, including some active within Ethiopia’s borders.  This support has led to the impression that Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting a proxy war in Somalia. 

Fourth (and somewhat linked to the third point), southern Ethiopia is primarily made of up of ethnic Somalis.  When the border was drawn, it split the Somali population along both sides of the border and the demarcation of that border led to a war between Somalia and Ethiopia in the 1970s. Ethiopia has been wracked by conflicts organized along ethnic lines and Ethiopia’s desire for political stability in Somalia is tied to its own internal interests. A lawless Somalia allows a safe space for rebels against the Ethiopian government to organize and train; however, it also creates the perception among Ethiopian soldiers (especially those with memories of the last invasion), that all Somalis are enemies or providing comfort and refuge to enemies. 

So, background out of the way…


Since the Ethiopian takeover of Beledweyne, there have been numerous attacks against Ethiopian and civilian targets.  These attacks have primarily used landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and those are what I have been tracking. In press reports, the explosives used have been described as “roadside bombs,” “remote-controlled landmines,” “IEDs” and “landmines.”  I have not bothered to try and distinguish between them, only to compile a list of such events:

Table 1: Insurgent attacks using Explosives against hard and soft targets in Beledweyne

Date of Story Target Type of Attack Casualties Source
Sept 26, 2012 Ethiopian Military Convoy Landmine 1 dead
Sept 8, 2012 Somali troops IEDs Unknown
July 17, 2012 Ethiopian & Somali troops Roadside Bombs Unknown
July 8, 2012 Somali troops Guns, RPGs 3 killed, unknown wounded
June 28, 2012 Ethiopian & Somali troops Roadside Bomb Unknown
June 14, 2012 Ethiopian Military Convoy Roadside Bomb Unknown
May 14, 2012 Ethiopian Military Convoy Landmine Unknown
April 23, 2012 Ethiopian Military Convoy Roadside Bomb 2 Killed
March 8, 2012 Ethiopian Military Convoy Landmines Unknown
Feb 21, 2012 Ethiopian troops Landmine Unknown
Feb 5, 2012 Ethiopian troops Guns and RPGs Unknown
Jan 24, 2012 Gov’t HQ and Ethiopian soldiers Vehicle-borne suicide bomb 33 killed
Jan 19, 2012 Ethiopian troops Landmine Unknown
Jan 17, 2012 Ethiopian tanks Landmines None
Jan 6, 2012 Ethiopian troops Roadside Bomb Unknown
Jan 5, 2012 Military convoy Grenade Unknown


Al Shabaab promised to engage in an insurgency campaign after withdrawing from Beledweyne (All Africa); similar promises were made after Al Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu and can be expected if Kismayo falls.  In Beledweyne, the insurgency campaign, highlighted by the explosive attacks listed above and several targeted assassinations not listed, has sparked brutal reprisals from the occupying Ethiopian soldiers.

In March, Human Rights Watch reported that Ethiopian troops and their allied militia, the Shabelle Valley State group, committed summary executions in response to insurgent attacks.  Human Rights Watch also accused Ethiopian troops of arbitrary detention and beatings of those detained.  A representative of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the State Minister for Internal Affairs Dr. Ali Hassan, denied the charges saying, “human rights violations involving TFG authorities on the ground in those regions has not occurred” (All Africa).  Of course, since the Ethiopian troops are not part of the TFG and the militias are not under any formal command mechanism, Dr. Hassan was sort of telling the truth, if one parses his statement.  But even beyond the reports compiled by Human Rights Watch, the dispatches compiled above provide a more chilling document.  Human Rights Watch did not accuse the Ethiopian troops of killing civilians, but there is compelling evidence that Ethiopian soldiers in Beledweyne have fired indiscriminately into crowds after explosive attacks:

September 26, 2012: One innocent passerby was killed instantly and one other was also seriously injured in an indiscriminate fire by Ethiopian troops. (All Africa)

July 18, 2012: Witnesses said Ethiopian troops have killed at least 10 innocent civilians, including women and children and wounded 9 others, some of them seriously, after opening fire indiscriminately on crowd near the bomb site at a village in eastern Beledweyne town on Wednesday. (All Africa)

July 17, 2012: [L]ocal sources on the ground in Beledweyne say that the [Ethiopian] troops fired indiscriminately after the attacks and that there is a possibility of civilian casualties. (All Africa)

June 28, 2012: Following the attack which was used a remote-controlled {land] mine, Somali and Ethiopian forces opened fire at nearby civilians, but no deaths reported so far. (All Africa)

May 14, 2012: I don’t know the exact number of casualties, but Ethiopian soldiers shot dead two civilians following the blast. (All Africa)

April 23, 2012: According to local sources in Beledweyne Ethiopian troops killed another 3 civilians who were near the site of the explosion. The three men were gunned down following the blast, one was chased down and killed just as he approached his house.

Two other men living in the neighborhood were also executed. “Two men were gunned down in the neighborhood of Baladul Amin, the two of the men were taken out of their homes and executed.” (All Africa)

January 24, 2012: Ethiopian soldiers have separately killed on Tuesday afternoon three persons, including teenagers and a well-known businessman, whom they blamed to have links with Al-shabab militants. (All Africa)

January 19, 2012: Witnesses indicated that the blast did cause any casualty but fire shots by Ethiopians claimed the death of two nearby civilians and five others who have been rushed to the hospitals in the town of Beldweyn for treatment. (All Africa)

These killings have taken place as the Ethiopian government and AMISOM have made repeated promises to withdraw Ethiopian troops and replace them with peacekeepers.  This promise was first made in January 2012 (All Africa) and reiterated in April (All Africa), but the first peacekeepers did not arrive until June (All Africa).  In recent days, after the death of longtime Ethiopian leader, Meles Zenawi, the new Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, said “Ethiopia would reinforce the support it has been providing to Somalia in its effort to be a peaceful and stable country,” while the Somali prime minister requested “Hailemariam to continue the full support of Ethiopia to Somalia,” suggesting that Ethiopian troops will remain in Somalia for some time to come (ERTA TV). 

As long as Ethiopian troops remain in Somalia, they will be targets for insurgent and explosive attacks and the Ethiopian troops have demonstrated a callous disregard to the Somalis living in areas they have occupied.

Michael P. Moore, October 3, 2012