FILE - Somali soldiers attend a training session at a Turkish military base in Mogadishu, Somalia, Sept. 30, 2017.

Somalia’s government sent thousands of recruits to Eritrea for military training in a clandestine operation, as the country faces al-Shabab threats, the recent withdrawal of U.S. military personnel and the projected drawdown of African Union peacekeeping forces.

Somali forces previously have trained abroad, in Turkey, Uganda and Djibouti. The Eritrea operation differs because it was run by Somalia’s National Intelligence Agency (NISA), not the Ministry of Defense, and has been kept secret from the public.

Several sources with direct knowledge of the program – three Somali officials and a foreign diplomat – confirmed to VOA that Somali troops have been training in neighboring Eritrea since 2019. The sources all spoke on condition of anonymity, with the officials noting they were not authorized to speak to news media. The sources differed on the number of Somali troops who have been in Eritrea; the range was 3,000 to 7,000 recruits.

The training program in Eritrea came to light in January after unverified social media reports suggested that Somali troops had been killed in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The reports indicated those soldiers were allied with Eritrean and Ethiopian federal forces confronting Tigray fighters in the regional conflict.

FILE - People stand at the doors of houses that were damaged by shelling in the town of Mehoni, in southern Tigray, Ethiopia, Dec. 11, 2020.

Somalia’s information minister, Osman Abukar Dubbe, said in January that some Somali soldiers were training in Eritrea. But, he told state media, “the rumors and fictitious, politicized reports about Somali troops being trained abroad participating in [the] Tigray war [are] unfounded.”

Likewise, an Ethiopian official who spoke on condition of anonymity denied the reports of Somali cadets being in Tigray. Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Meskel, declined to be interviewed.

Regional significance

The Somali soldiers’ training in Eritrea comes amid closer regional cooperation among the leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

Officials who spoke to VOA said the recruits were sent to Eritrea after the presidents of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, and Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, reached an agreement during Afwerki’s first visit to Mogadishu on December 13, 2018, soon after Eritrea made peace with Ethiopia. Farmajo initially had raised the issue the previous September during a visit to Eritrea.

"The Eritrean president said he wants to help Somalia,” said a high-ranking Somali official, who added that Afwerki wanted to reciprocate for Somalia’s past support for the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) during its long struggle against Ethiopia’s Derg regime in the 1970s and ’80s.

Somalia, Eritrea

The first group of cadets was flown from Mogadishu to Eritrea on August 19, 2019, an official said. A second group was taken there on October 20, 2019. The operation continued until March 16, 2020, when Somalia suspended all international and domestic flights because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early last June, Somalia’s Ministry of Security requested that health officials provide 3,500 COVID-19 rapid tests for the recruits, a VOA source said. Within days, recruits’ flights to Eritrea resumed.

Last October, Farmajo visited the Eritrea training camps, two of the officials confirmed.

Somali political analyst Abdimalik Abdullahi predicted the regional training “will have a regional significance more so in the post-2021 Somalia and Ethiopia elections and going forward.”  He added, “Afwerki’s intent is not so clear but the soldiers are purported to be trained for Somalia’s security interest, and it’s only safe to be cautious and watch out for any signs that suggest otherwise.”

The secrecy surrounding the Eritrea operation perplexes some military experts. Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, former commander of Somalia’s elite Danab Brigade of commandos, said the defense ministry should have been leading or coordinating the training, not the intelligence agency.

Sheikh said he'd had no previous experience with “troops taken for training who have not been told about where they are going, who cannot be contacted. A soldier has a family and parents. It’s imperative they can communicate.”

The foreign diplomat reached a similar conclusion. He said the Eritrea training did not concern him but the operation's lack of transparency did. He said the government shouldn't hide that training from the public.

Family concerns

Military service is not mandatory in Somalia, but lack of jobs and opportunities drive many young men to enlist for the promised secure monthly paychecks.  In the army, the troops are generally tasked with protecting the fragile Somali federal government and fighting militant group al-Shabab.

VOA Somali was not able to find any evidence that Somali soldiers had been deployed to Tigray. Some soldiers’ relatives said they had spoken in recent weeks with sons who said neither they nor any other Somali troops they knew of were sent to the northern Ethioipan region, where hostilities erupted in November.

FILE - Somali soldiers are on patrol at the Sanguuni military base, about 450 km south of Mogadishu, Somalia, on June 13, 2018.

Abdirashid Abbas of Las Anod town said his son, Ahmed-Dahir, with whom he spoke in January, “told me they have concluded the training and have not been taken to the fighting” in Tigray. The son said he was in Eritrea at the time of the call, Abbas said.

But other families have grown frustrated by months without communication from loved ones in the training program. Abdinasir Nur Guled, whose son, Mohamed, has been gone 15 months, said Somali officials’ limited comment on the troops and their whereabouts has left a vacuum in which families’ fears grew.

“We want the government to convince us that they’re [in Eritrea] in training, that they will be coming [home] and the specific date,” said Guled.

Ahmed Hassan Ali said he, too, worried about his son, Abdiaziz, who was taken to Eritrea.

Ali was among a small group of parents who gathered last month in Mogadishu to protest what they said was the government’s mismanagement of the issue. Ali said if the unverified reports about Somali forces in Tigray had no substance, the government should have told the families and reassured them.

Political claims color concerns

Somali political analyst Abdimalik Abdullahi said the controversy over Somali troops in Eritrea arose from relatives’ genuine concerns about their soldiers.

"However, later on, there was some politicking around it, with many politicians speaking out and even making unsubstantiated claims, including the soldiers being deployed to the Tigray region,” Abdullahi told VOA.

Abdullahi said Somalia’s elections – currently on hold because of political disputes – could be stirring up controversy over the troops being in Eritrea at all.

“With election seasons, the political objectives include efforts to appeal to the public, brand the incumbent as one who is involved in shoddy deals, and counter the Horn alliance, which seems to favor Farmajo both politically and militarywise, hence boosting prospects for his re-election,” said Abdullahi.