Stationed in Somalia

While in Baidoa I became aware of a training camp for Somali forces close by, which I visited....
While in Baidoa I became aware of a training camp for Somali forces close by, which I visited. The Ethiopians, with help from Somali instructors, were training 1500 troops. The main problem is that there is no pay or equipment for the troops and of...
Col Howie with a group of Somali women in bright traditional robes.
Col Howie with a group of Somali women in bright traditional robes.
CCC in action. On my right is CDF Gen Dini, then Admiral Farrah, next to him is Brig Ali, then...
CCC in action. On my right is CDF Gen Dini, then Admiral Farrah, next to him is Brig Ali, then Brig Abdulkadir, always with his Ray Ban dark glasses on. On my left is Brig Mamow who acts as interpreter.
Baidoa community representatives are seated at the public meeting to meet a Somali government and...
Baidoa community representatives are seated at the public meeting to meet a Somali government and UN delegation. Baidoa is a strategic town astride a main supply route for Mogadishu. It suffered terribly under Al Shabaab control.
Much of Mogadishu's buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed by many years of civil war....
Much of Mogadishu's buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed by many years of civil war. The construction effort to rebuild the city will be considerable, expensive and will take a long time. But things are much better than they were.

Somalia is emerging from decades of internal strife. One of the people helping is Dunedin man Colonel Ants Howie.

Colonel Ants Howie starts his days in Somalia with a shower - bursts of hot and cold water in the solar-powered communal shower block - before checking emails and the Otago Daily Times online. Then it is two slices of toast with strawberry jam and some fruit for breakfast.

So far, so relatively normal for the Dunedin man, who is senior military adviser to the United Nations Political Office for Somalia, based in Mogadishu.

But after breakfast it is back to the more extraordinary business of helping reconstruct a viable defence force for the war-worn African country.

As it stands, the Somalia National Security Force (NSF) is a mixture of regular forces, paramilitary forces, militias, religious fighters and others.

For some time, Col Howie has been part of an effort to encourage its leaders to restructure them into properly formed army units. The NSF has agreed, as future support relies on it. A week in the life of Col Howie, as he works towards that goal, goes something like this.

I go out to watch the restructuring process in the 5th brigade area. Troops of all colours, in a mixture of uniforms, turn up to be registered, rifle numbers taken, and to be formed into a section of 10, as part of platoon of 30, as part of a company of 100, as part of battalion of 450. They are herded into the process by what look like NCOs but are in fact the senior officers. One shows me his bullet wounds. They are happy and want to fight the opposition Al Shabaab forces but complain about not getting paid. Pay and logistic support to these troops are major issues and are complex. As some in the international community see it, today's NSF soldier could be tomorrow's militia fighter, so there is a reluctance to arm and equip the forces until a new government is in place.

I meet a Kiwi contractor who looks after the US military equipment that is in storage for the Somali forces. I needed his advice to guide the Somalis on the plan to roll the stuff out to the army. He is very helpful and a good guy.

I share an open-plan office with two permanent staff and, this week, with one visitor.

Working next to me is a European lady who is a media person for the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) and a permanent staff member. She is a hard worker, always chirpy and very proactive. Next to her is an Aussie human rights chap, who is quiet and refined for an Aussie, but deaf as a post.

Working opposite me is an Italian lady and head of the human rights section. She is very efficient and a good colleague and a regular visitor.

The main event of the day is a meeting with the logistics team - Brigadier Mamow, Brigadier Abdulkadir, Colonel Abubarka, and Colonel Elmi. I had set them the task to develop a distribution plan for a package of US vehicles and equipment for two battalions. The package has been in the country for almost a year but the US has been reluctant to release it.

Much of the previously donated military material has gone missing, been sold, stolen, or even falling into the hands of Al Shabaab. I suggest we form a logistics team to develop what the US wants - a formal roll-out plan.

I convince the team to write a plan for the equipment to go to two recently trained "fighting" brigades. Otherwise, the US will not release it (and I will tell the US not to). A sticking point has been that the Somalis want to distribute the equipment to everyone - all battalions - many of which are militias.

The leader, Brigadier Abdulkadir, is a real mover and shaker and genuinely on board.

He makes things happen. He gives me a Somali colonel's cap badge, rank slides, and Somali shoulder flags, as he calls me their brother. I am chuffed and I hope it is genuine.

Most of our meetings are around the Mogadishu International Airport, where our base is.

There is news of mortar fire in central Mogadishu last night, aimed at the State House. It missed. Convoys are cancelled but I manage to get on a special one to the Turkish embassy, which is close by.

Security is a serious and constant issue in all of Somalia.

At the airport are a number of compounds that accommodate various organisations. Our compound is guarded around the clock. The guards all seem pretty good, and are hot on checking ID cards. I am hot on checking the cleanliness of their weapons and when they felt they had that sorted, I asked to see their rusted spare magazines of ammo.

Turkey is supporting Somalia in big way - refurbishing hospitals and schools. They have the only embassy in town.

There's a UN visitor to see them, a Turk from our organisation who is a good friend. The ambassador meets us warmly and the discussion proceeds in Turkish, which I expected, as I was just tagging along. But when it comes my turn to speak I recall my time at Chunakali and Gelibolu (Gallipoli) in 2005, and of my respect for Mustafa Kamal Ataturk (who I truly admire).

Out comes the real Turkish coffee and Turkish delight. I leave with many handshakes, a small bag of gifts (box of Turkish delight and model of a Turkish Airlines plane) and a strong taste of unique coffee in my mouth.

The rest of the day is mainly about getting ready for the monthly Military Technical Working Group meeting, which I chair. It has representation from the Somali military, the African peacekeeping force, donors (US, UK, EU, Italy and Turkey), several other UN agencies, and gender and child protection agencies. It is a Security Council mandated technical working group (along with others - police, justice and corrections, defectors).

Meeting day.

The meeting venue is called the AMISOM VIP Conference Centre, and it's within walking distance of the airport. I hear the European Union plane land so I walk out and greet them - a Belgian, and two UK chaps.

The main topic we discuss is recruiting the next intake from the regions. The Chief of Defence Forces General Dini and I have convinced the US that will be a good thing to do, to reach out to wider Somalia. The US funds the recruit training in Uganda (delivered by a big EU training team), pays the stipends, clothes and equips the soldiers, provides air transport to and from Uganda, and pays the soldiers for 12 months afterwards. The logistics of this next recruiting are challenging but workable. I have written a CONOPS (concept of operations) for the venture, which has attracted wide support, particularly from EU headquarters in Brussels.

I feel quite relieved after the meeting as the donors are happy and support the work I am doing, and we are making good progress in many areas.

At 5pm I am summoned to the office of the commander of AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia peacekeeping force. I had phoned him about integrating militia fighters the day before but wondered if he was going to challenge me about not involving AMISOM more. He actually wants to join up more with me on shaping the thinking and the planning for the NSF.

He has recognised that I am important to what is happening and gives me his file on the work he has done to try to restructure the NSF, which had not worked so far. I thank him and agree that what he has sought to do is what we are seeking to do now.

He is pleased to hear of the progress.

I travel with a large delegation of Somalis to a town called Baidoa, which has recently been liberated from Al Shabaab by Ethiopian and Somali forces. Al Shabaab had controlled the town for a few years and persecuted the locals.

The purpose of our visit is to assist and encourage the local community to take control, and organise a district security committee.

The community representatives are waiting for us, seated under a tree in a nearby compound. The introductions take up about 60% of the allocated time but they are important. The locals tell us about the plight of women and children and the lack of services. The women representatives speak well but soon after are off, preparing lunch for the visitors.

Yesterday I organised a meeting for today for the key people using the biometric database, which contains fingerprint, retina and other information on personel. It's a good system that needs to be better deployed and employed.

So at the meeting is the French project manager, Somali Colonel Elmi, Kenyan Colonel Rasso and myself.

Colonel Rasso leads the AMISOM team that pays the Somali soldiers. And so far we haven't reconciled their payrolls with the biometrics, so we agree to do that next pay run.

We also agree to set up a steering group to oversee the development of the biometric system and I ask Col Rasso to chair that and he agrees. We want to involve the police force with the system. We want to make ID cards from it and apply other human resource systems.

Colonel Rasso has become a good friend and colleague. He has been in Somalia with AMISOM for about 18 months and so has seen a lot and is very knowledgeable. He is a tall fellow and attended the British staff college at Camberley and so is well-trained. I seek and rely on his advice a lot.

During the afternoon I prepare for the main meeting that I facilitate with the Somali military, called the Chief of Defence Force Co-ordination Committee (CCC for short). The CCC was started up on my advice, in fact insistence, as an essential mechanism to get control and co-ordination of the many things the Somali military must manage.

At the meeting are the key senior staff officers - colonels and brigadiers - in charge of the usual military functions: operations, training, personnel, intelligence, logistics and so on.

The reality is that their work had tended to be ad hoc, as there were no systems in place.

Remember, this is a broken country and has been so for 20 years or more.

I "facilitate" the meetings, set the agenda and take everyone through it, assign tasks, and do the minutes. Action lists hold various officers responsible. My plan is to demonstrate how the meeting process should work and hand that over to the Somalis soon.

I have to say the response to the CCC has been great as these guys know that things need to be done properly and are somewhat embarrassed that it is me who is demanding that. The most important aspect of all this is that they regard me as one of their own. They know I have Somalia's interests at heart, and I come with no baggage or history, so I can ask the awkward questions about why we are doing this and not that, the answers to which often reveal the clans and/or the warlords pulling the strings.

I have become a strong advocate for the Somali military, but I am also demanding that they lift their game if they want support and assistance. The donors want to have confidence in the forces they are asked to fund and support. But as things stand, about 30% of personnel cannot fight because they are dead, wounded, ill or infirm. Despite that, they still draw the pay funded by the US and Italy.

What that means is that other soldiers are not paid.

I do the regular catch-up of emails, much of which is administration. Admin in the UN is legendary. Everything must be on an approved form, signed, and that is no easy feat, when I am in Mogadishu and the administrators are all in Nairobi.

It's off to meet the CDF General Dini at 9.30am. I bring him up to date with some of the big issues while he has been away. I show him the CCC agenda and alert him to the big decisions we need to take now: reshaping the fighting force; recruiting the next 650; an Addis Ababa meeting on the 30th; and getting all the field commanders in for an update. He agrees with most things but worries about how to best communicate the reshaping of the forces, which I agree we must work on carefully. I suggest we call the fighting division the Combat Forces Division and the other the Urban Defence Forces Division. I quickly call Col Rasso to join us, which he does.

He has led the previous recruiting and screening campaigns and alerts us to some of the logistical problems associated with our scheme to recruit 650 from the regions.

The afternoon is quieter than I am used to, so I catch up on my report writing and emails.

There is never a moment to relax, really, with so much to do.

There are a couple of big pieces of work that require a focused effort without any distractions.

One is mapping out all the support we need to build the military forces (which needs to start with some military experts to help design the future army, navy and air force); another is finalising the draft CONOPS for rolling out the US package - this needs to tick the boxes for the US and be realistic for the Somalis.

I meet Brigadier Mamow again at the main gate to review some his logistics planning.

Big bonus on the way to bed! Our security officer from New York gives me the DVD Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's a good copy - what a treat sitting up in my boarding-school bed watching a good movie.

What is Mogadishu really like?
It's all about perspective, of course.

The Somali perspective is that it has hugely improved since Al Shabaab was forced out of the city. Businesses are thriving and more cafes and shops are open, and there is much more traffic on the roads. Street lighting is now operating and people are much happier. The city's theatre opened recently and the Lido beach is well used by the locals.

To most people in New Zealand, Mogadishu will appear dirty, sandy, crowded and bombed out. There is rubbish everywhere, stock animals in the middle of the streets, and lots of people with guns. Mogadishu until recently was rated as the most unsafe city in the world. Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-linked forces who are being forced from strongholds by the African and Somali forces, have slunk back into Mogadishu and are carrying out attacks similar to what occurs in Iraq and Afghanistan - suicide bombings, vehicle-borne bombings, roadside bombs, hand grenade attacks, mortar attacks, assassinations of officials.

Much of Mogadishu's buildings and infrastructure are destroyed by many years of civil war. The construction effort to rebuild the city will be considerable, expensive and will take a long time. But things are much better than they were.

The people of Somalia have much to be optimistic about.

Recent international meetings have reiterated the importance of a stable and prosperous Somalia, but warned that the political reforms must happen to a timetable. Al Shabaab is on the run and many are ready to defect. The donors are poised to invest in Somalia. It is an historic time to be here and the signs of political reform are promising. There is too much at stake for them not to be.

Col Howie is a Dunedin resident who has more than 30 years service in the New Zealand Army, including operational service in the Sinai, Egypt, and Iraq. New Zealand was asked to provide a candidate for the role of senior military adviser to the United Nations Political Office for Somalia and Col Howie was selected and deployed last October for 12 months.


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