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Children warriors of Al Shabbab

The Child Soldiers of Somalia

Research: Andrew Sampson for Safe World

In a country, at permanent war with itself, over 100 children were injured in weapon related incidents in one  week.

In a recent report the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that, in the first week of May, nearly a hundred children aged under five, were admitted to hospital in Somalia, suffering from weapon-related injuries.

Exact number of child soldiers In Somalia is unknown, but one NGO suspects between 2,000 and 3,000 children are in different armed groups.

A Country at War

When Somalia first achieved independence in 1960 there were promising signs of a stable well governed country. UN aid money poured in and a strong administrative structure supported by Italy saw a growth of education and some healthcare.

The freshly independent Somalis loved politics. Every nomad had a radio to listen to political speeches, and although remarkable for an African Muslim country, women were also active participants. However there were significant underlying problems, in particular an economic divide between the north and south. Each had its own language and different currencies.

From the early 60's the beginning of todays strife began to emerge and the largest political party in the north began openly talking about succession. By 1969, following the assassination of president Shermarke a group of generals, with the support of the police, took over Mogadishu and dismissed the government.

The Supreme Revolutionary Council

A new governing body, the Supreme Revolutionary Council took over, and installed General Siad Barre as its president. All the leading members of the former democratic regime were arrested, political parties were banned and the countries constitution was suspended.

Declaring its goals to be to bring to an end  "tribalism, nepotism, corruption, and misrule", the country was renamed the Somali Democratic Republic.

Tribalism was condemned as the most serious impediment to national unity. Traditional headmen, whom the democratic government had paid a stipend, were replaced by reliable local dignitaries known as "peacekeepers" (nabod doan), appointed by Mogadishu to represent government interests. Community identification rather than lineage affiliation was forcefully advocated at orientation centers set up in every district as the focus of local political and social activity.

For example, the SRC decreed that all marriage ceremonies should occur at an orientation center. Siad Barre presided over these ceremonies from time to time and contrasted the benefits of socialism to the evils he associated with clanism.

To increase production and control over the nomads, the government resettled 140,000 nomadic pastoralists in farming communities and in coastal towns, where the erstwhile herders were encouraged to engage in agriculture and fishing.

By dispersing the nomads and severing their ties with the land to which specific clans made collective claim, the government may also have undercut clan solidarity. In many instances, real improvement in the living conditions of resettled nomads was evident, but despite government efforts to eliminate it, clan consciousness as well as a desire to return to the nomadic life persisted.

Attempts to also improve the status of Somali women were unpopular in a traditional Muslim society, despite Siad Barre's argument that such reforms were consistent with Islamic principles.

In 1977  Barre launched a military campaign to try and wrestle the Ogaden, a disputed enclave in Ethiopia, into Somali hands.  By September 1977 his forces had control of all of the Ogaden and had followed retreating Ethiopian forces into non-Somali regions of Harerge, Bale, and Sidamo.

The Soviet Union which had previously been a loyal backer of Somalia switched sides and started to openly deliver weapons to Ethiopia and by March 1978, Ethiopia and its allies had regained control over the Ogaden.

Having failed to return  the Ogaden to Somali rule, supporters of Barre in the north began to waver and his grip on power became that of a traditional dictator with numerous reports of human rights abuses.

By 1991 a united rebel force had grown in strength and on January 26th Barre was overthrown by a coalition called the United Somalia Congress. However the coalition itself did not hold and split into 2 rival groups.

The war continued, despite a ceasefire in June of that year.

To make matters worse a further group, the Somali National Movement, declared indepedence for the Northwest portion of the country renaming it the Somalinad Republic with its own president, Abdel-Rahma Ahmed Ali.

In May 1991, the northernwestern Somaliland region of Somalia declared its independence and although not formally recognised remains at relative peace in comparison to other areas.

Famine, Food Aid and War

In September fighting broke out in Mogadishu which spread throughout the country in which over 20,000 people were killed or injured. The chaos of war reeked havoc to the countrie's fragile agriculture and as reports of famine started to emerge the UN decided to take action.

The problem that existed was that although releif agencies were sending vaste amounts of food into the country - it was being hijacked by local warlords and instead of reaching the people in need was being sold or exchanged for weapons. An estimated 80% of the food failed to reach the people in need.

It is estimated that 300,000 people died and another 1.5 million suffering during 1991 and 1992.

UN & USA peacekeeping force

Finally in Jul 1992, after a ceasefire between the opposing clan factions, the United Nations sent 50 military observers to help oversee the distribution of the aid.

in 1992 as civil-war raged, famine struck many parts of the country. The UN stepped in to try and halt the humanitarian crisis.

On December 3rd UN Security Council Resolution 794 was unanimously passed which approved a coalition of United Nations peacekeepers led by the United States to be sent to the country to maintain peace and protect the distribution of aid. The UN  troops landed in 1993.

However to many Somalis this was seen as an occupation of their country.  General Mohamed Ali Farrah Aidid  who claimed to be the President  challenged the presence of the United Nations and United States troops in the country.  Forces loyal to him began to fight the 'invaders' and  in October 1993 a series of gun battles in Mogadishu resulted in the death of 24 Pakistanis and 19 US soldiers.

One incident known as the 'The Battle of Mogadishu' became the basis for the movie Black Hawk Down when a US military operation aimed at capturing several of Aidid's militia went wrong.

Following the military disaster at Mogadishu, the US withdrew its forces.

More parts of the country declared 'independence' and rival groupings fought for control

The UN itself withdrew on March 3, 1995, having suffered more significant casualties.

Order in Somalia still has not been restored. Aidid himself was killed in Mogadishu in 1996.

UN withdaws and the Islamic Courts Union

In Aug. 2000, a parliament convened in nearby Djibouti and elected Somalia's first government in nearly a decade. After its first year in office, the government still controlled only 10% of the country.

In Oct. 2002, new talks to establish a government began and by 2004 a 275-member transitional parliament was inaugurated for a five-year term. Parliament selected a national president in September, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the president of the breakaway region of Puntland. The new government, however, spent its first year operating out of Kenya—Somalia remained too violent and unstable to enter—eventually settling in the provincial town of Baidoa.

As an alternative to widespread lawlessness in the country small regional organisations based on Sharia Law formed throughout Somalia. Eventually they formed into The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), united against the  Transitional Federal Government (TFG) with Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as head of the ICU. 

In 2006, the country's worst outbreak of violence in 10 years began, militias associated with the ICU seized control of the capital, Mogadishu, and established control in much of the south.

Despite attempts at peace negotiations between the transitional government and  Islamic Courts Council, the violence persisted worsening an already acute refugee crisis.


At the same time neighboring Ethiopia,  began amassing troops on the border and in mid-December, launched air strikes against the ICU militias. In a matter of days Ethiopian ground troops and Somali soldiers loyal to the transitional government regained control of Mogadishu.

A week later most of the ICU militia had been forced to flee the country. The less-militant members of the ICU went into exile in Eritrea and Djibouti, where they formed the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, whilst the hardliners formed other militant groups such as Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, who vowed to continue the war against the government. These groups formed a powerbase in the southern part of the country

In 2008, the Djibouti-based wing of the ARS and the Transitional Federal Government met in a conference mediated by the U.N., which resulted in an 11-point peace agreement signed and announced on 9 June 2008. However, a powerful former member of the ICU, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, rejected the agreement. According to him, "no one authorized" the ARS delegates to participate at the Djibouti conference.


By January 2009, a reconciliation and power sharing deal was brokered between the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the former ICU members in Djibouti  which resulted in the expansion of the Parliament and the election of Sheik Sharif Ahmed, former leader of the ICU, as President of the Transitional National Government.

With the help of a small team of African Union troops, the new coalition government also began military action against the militants to assume full control of the southern half of the country.

In March 2009, as a means of seeking peace the coalition government announced that it would re-implement Shari'a as the nation's official judicial system. However, conflict continued in the southern and central parts of the country.

But the accord didn't last and within months, the coalition government had lostr control of over 80% of the disputed territory to the Islamist insurgents.

However the coalition government managed to remain in power and in the last two years has enacted numerous political reforms , with an emphasis on transparency and accountability.

On October 14, 2010, diplomat Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo was appointed the new Prime Minister of Somalia.

Violence persists

Violence however remains close to the surface the government is still not in full control of Mogadishu, where 80% of the capital’s population now lives. Despite continued loss of territory Al Shabaab launched attacks in Mogadishu in August 2010 which killed over 300 and as means of demonstrating their power publicly executed two teenage girls, by firing squad, on charges of spying. 

To date the violence is still continuing. At the time of writing attacks have been reported by Al Shaabab in several cities and towns including Mogadishu with nurmerous casualties.

 Around 9,000 African Union troops are still stationed in Mogadishu to prevent the government from being overrun by militants.


The Child Soldiers

Human rights groups and media outlets have reported about the existence of child soldiers in Somalia for years. One Somali human rights group has estimated that thousands of child soldiers are used by both the government and militant groups like Al-Shabab.

According to news reports Al Shabab has been increasingly recruiting under age children in Somalia. Children are paid with mobile phones and some small amounts of money. 

Estimated child soldiers are between 2000 and 3000

Exact number of child soldiers is unknown, but one NGO suspects between 2,000 and 3,000 children are different armed groups.

"We have noticed a major increase in the recruitment of children since January 2011. It coincided with the current escalation of fighting in Mogadishu and parts of south and central Somalia."

At the same time children who were not recruited faced other problems as government security forces in the capital, Mogadishu, reportedly pick up children on suspicion that they "may be working for Al-Shabab”.

Children jailed

"There are a large number of children in government jails, simply because someone suspected that the child could be a militant." 

According to a worker for a children’s rights group in Somalia, while using children as soldiers is not new, the scale, number and age of those involved is worrying.

Parents try to stop their children from being recruited – but the lack of schools or other activities as well as, in some cases, peer pressure makes it difficult.

A local journalist, also reported recently many displaced families were sending their children to refugee camps in Kenya or to safe parts of Somalia for fear they would be forcibly recruited.

Parents cannot protect their children

"They cannot protect them," the journalist said. "Any parent who tries risks losing his or her life.”

In 2010 a United Nations report said the recruitment of children had become more systematic and widespread.

It listed the Somali government as one of 'the most persistent violators' in the world of using child soldiers, and there is evidence of several child soldiers, some as young as 12, toting assault rifles and working for the Somali transitional government in the capital, Mogadishu.

“Some parties are using the radio, schools and putting pressure on parents” to recruit children"

Militias allied to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which has itself said it has a policy of not recruiting children into the national army, did the same.

Somalia’s Prime Minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, has agreed  “to do everything to prevent the recruitment of children” starting with the setting up of a focal point on the issue in his office. The focal point would then work with the UN to develop an action plan on ensuring that there were no children in Somalia’s armed forces.




Wikipedia: Somalia, Islamic Courts Union, Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia

NGO's: SOS Childrens Villages

UNHCR: UN envoy deplores rising recruitment of child soldiers in Somalia