Somalia has started the process of demilitarising its biggest sports facility as African Union troops – commonly known by the acronym Amisom – begin to vacate Mogadishu stadium.
For three decades, Mogadishu Stadium – Somalia’s largest sporting facility, with a capacity to hold 60,000 people – has been the preferred spot for armed groups, both state-sponsored and outlawed, and has acted as their main military base, forcing athletes to share roads with cars while training and footballers to find an alternative pitch in a city where sports grounds are difficult to come by.
The country that produced Olympic Gold medallist Mo Farah sent two athletes to the 2016 Rio Olympics without proper preparation because their allotted training ground had been occupied by a military unit. The two, sprinter Maryan Muse and long-distance runner Mohamed Mohamed, performed dismally.
Apart from hosting football matches, the stadium has facilities, although now dilapidated, for track and field events, basketball, volleyball and tennis. It was not these facilities that attracted armed groups to the stadium, but rather its strategic importance for controlling the north of the city.
In 1993, the US army used the stadium as its main base when it was fighting clan militias to restore law and order after the country’s military president Siyad Bare was overthrown and fled the country. After the US troops’ withdrawal, the facility came under the control of various clan militias and warlords.
Ethiopian troops also used the stadium as a base in their role in ousting the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu and other key towns, The Islamic Courts Union was a union of Somalia’s local Islamic courts that governed most of Somalia’s central and southern regions until they were declared terrorist groups by the US and its regional allies.
In 2009, the stadium became Al-Shabab’s favourite location. The group had its main base there, where it trained its fighters until 2011 when it was forced out of the capital by Somalia and Amisom troops, who later also made the stadium their temporary home.
Throughout the Battle of Mogadishu, the facility has been at the centre of the fighting to reclaim the city from Al-Shabab.
“One of the first deliverables on Amisom’s Transition Plan is to vacate the Mogadishu Stadium. I have been briefed by Amisom engineer on the progress made,” Head of Amisom, Francisco Madeira said.
“I am very encouraged to hear that we are ahead of schedule to return the stadium to the people of Somalia.”
For several years, Somali activists and sports organisations have been calling for Amisom to vacate the stadium so that sporting activities can be held there.
Amisom pledged to vacate the stadium in 2013 but reneged on its promise.
Built by the Chinese government in 1978, the stadium was also the venue for political rallies and musical events. However, Somalia’s national football team plays its home matches in neighbouring Djibouti.
“Amisom withdrew a number of its troops from the stadium to pave the way for handing over the facility to the government, which will rehabilitate it,” Deputy Minister Ahmed Islow said.
In 2016, the country launched the first inter-state football tournament to “create peace, friendship and integration” and last year, it hosted Confederation of African Football (CAF) chief Ahmed Ahmed, the highest ranking football official to visit the country in decades. Ahmed’s agenda included discussion on Amisom’s withdrawal from Mogadishu Stadium.
Somalia’s three decades old civil war has destroyed most of the country’s sports infrastructure. As the security situation continues to improve, the government is now trying to rebuild these facilities and use sports as one of its strategies to restore peace and discourage young men and women from leaving the country through the deadly sea routes and prevent them from joining militant groups such as Al-Shabab.