Troops in Somalia ‘broke stadium promise’

Athletes are irked about troops’ refusal to leave run-down facilities in Mogadishu.

Somali youth train at Mogadishu stadium [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]
Somali youth train at Mogadishu stadium [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Mogadishu, Somalia – Sports officials here have accused African Union peacekeepers of breaking a promise they allegedly made to move out of Mogadishu Stadium.

“They told us they would leave December 30, but they are still in the stadium,” Abdullahi Mohamed Abdulle, the vice-president of the Somali Athletics Federation, told Al Jazeera.

AMISOM – the African Union mission in Somalia – has been occupying the stadium since August 6, 2011, when al-Shabaab retreated from the Somali capital.

With the city experiencing the longest period of stability in more than two decades, sports authorities in the country want the soldiers to vacate the stadium so they can start holding sports events there.

“They have no reason for occupying the stadium,” Abdigani Said Arab, general secretary of the Somalia Football Federation, told Al Jazeera. “Mogadishu is not a front line any more. The city is fairly safe. They need to move out.”

Sports bodies are also unhappy that they were apparently not consulted over the future of the facility after al-Shabaab were pushed out.

“They didn’t tell us when they were moving in, and lied to us about when they will be moving out,” said Arab.

But AMISOM says conditions on the ground do not allow them to hand over the stadium just yet.

“Yes, we told them we would move out,” AU spokesperson Colonel Ali Hamud told Al Jazeera.

“But every time we want to leave the stadium there are security incidents that pressure us to reassess our decision. Our mandate dictates we leave when Somalia security forces are ready. Great progress has been made, but we think they are not yet fully ready.”

National stadium

The stadium, which once had a capacity to hold 60,000 people, is the biggest sports ground in the Horn of Africa nation.

“It is the only stadium in the whole of Somalia where you can hold international standard athletics events,” said the SAF’s Abdulle. “It is also the only place we can prepare athletes for world athletics competitions.”

With nowhere to train, athletes are forced to hone their techniques along the city’s congested and poorly maintained roads.

Ibrahim Ahmed Adan is Somalia’s reigning 800m and 1500m champion.

“We have to compete with vehicles, pedestrians, donkey carts, and street vendors – while making sure we don’t fall into the big [pot] holes that fill the roads,” the 16-year-old told Al Jazeera.

Since the collapse of the central government in 1991, the stadium hasn’t hosted a single sporting event. The various groups fighting in the country’s civil war have always occupied the stadium.

“In December, when AMISOM told us they would move out we planned to host a regional peace tournament to get the youths away from fighting and into sports,” said Arab. “But AMISOM had other plans.”

Military base

Many young athletes hoping to represent Somalia haven’t had the chance to enter the stadium – let alone train or compete there.

“I have never been inside the stadium,” said Adan, wiping sweat from his brow in Mogadishu’s 35°C heat. “All my life the stadium has been a base for the different gunmen in the city. I have only heard stories of how Somalia’s famous athletes raced there.”

Sports bodies say they are willing even to share the stadium with AMISOM troops, but that appears to be an idea AMISOM will not entertain.

“That will not be possible in the current climate,” said Col Ali. “The stadium is a military base and as such is off limits.”

With training spaces difficult to come by in the capital, coaches are finding it hard to prepare athletes for competitions.

“We are forced to send our athletes to compete with no or poor training,” said Mohamed Farah Ajab, the coach of the Juba Athletics Team.

“Mo Farah [Britain’s double olympic champion] was born in this city, and there are more like him here – but with no facilities to train, they will not win anything. It will be unfair to expect them to win a medal.”

Women worst affected

The situation is even more critical for women and girls. Today, Ajab is training a group of fifteen young athletes – but none are female.

“You can’t ask a female athlete to go running on the roads of Mogadishu like the male athletes,” said the coach. “It will be too dangerous for them, and I don’t want any of my athletes to be harmed.

“It saddens me that I have to turn them away, when female athletes come to me and ask me to coach them. If I have the stadium I could start training them again.”

With this unwelcome impasse, sports authorities feel defeated, though officials at Somalia’s ministry of sport did not respond to interview requests.

“Even if we announce it with a megaphone to AMISOM every morning, asking them to leave the stadium, they won’t move out,” said Arab. “We want our government to ask them to leave the stadium.”

AMISOM admits that if the Somali government were to ask them to vacate the facility, their response may be different.

“If the government asks us to leave, then it means they are ready to take over the security of the city – and we will, of course, leave,” said Col Ali. 

“So far, we have had no official request from the government asking us to leave the stadium.”

With the stadium full of soldiers, coach Ajab isn’t optimistic of seeing any of his athletes on the podium within the near future.

“We can’t think of winning medals with the current conditions on the ground,” he said. “We can only be happy taking part in international sports competitions.”

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Source: Al Jazeera