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June 2, 1993 • The Chronicle of Higher Education

Stripped by War, Its Professors and Students Scattered,
Somali National U. Mirrors Mogadishu's Devastation

By Robin Lubbock


Economist article

St Petersburg Times article

Robin Lubbock's resume

  COILS OF BARBED WIRE encircle the campus of the Somali National University, where the thunder of electric generators fills the air. This institution was once a peaceful place of learning, its grounds quiet and shady. But that was before two and a half years of civil war in Somalia. Today it is hard to predict just when this campus will return to such tranquility.

Mogadishu U.
American soldiers guard the main entrance of Somali National University, where troops are still based. Reopening the institution is not the country's top educational priority.
The war has left the university stripped to its bones. Its students and faculty members have scattered, many of them overseas. Foreign troops are billeted in university buildings. And among the scars the campus bears is a wreath of shallow graves that line its perimeter wall.

"How can we start the university?" asks Abdirahman Sid Ahmed, an instructor of electronics and communications, who lives near the campus. "It's impossible. Half the professors are gone, and the campus is occupied. The university is not a university; it is a military camp."

Campus Bustles With Soldiers
The administration buildings where the university's staff once worked now bustle with soldiers. Some 2,500 U.S. logistical-support troops and the 10th Mountain Division quick-reaction force currently occupy the campus, along with some Tunisian troops and a Swedish-run field hospital.

That so few American soldiers remain in Somalia shows how far the country has come since foreign troops arrived here last December. But the fact that the university campus is still serving as a base for foreign troops also suggest how far Somalia must go before normality returns.

Classes Ended in 1991
Classes ended for the university's 7,500 students and 800 faculty members in early 1991, with the fall of the country's President, Muhammed Siad Barre.

"We were in the winter recess," recalls Jama Hassan Awale, who at the time was serving as associate dean of the university's school of education, located just outside Mogadishu near the town of Afgoi. "Barre went, and everything went with him."

Classes never resumed, as the triumph of the militias that were successful in overthrowing the President was short-lived. The victors soon turned their guns on each other, and the country slipped into civil war.

Mogadishu today is a picture of devastation. Across the city, looters have stripped unguarded buildings down to the last electric fitting. All buildings on the university suffered this fate.

Lieut. Col. Gail Batman, an affable American reservist who commands the logistical and support units that now occupy part of the university, describes the campus as a shell when U.S. troops took control of it in January.

Some Damage Repaired
"The buildings themselves were just shells. The windows had been stripped, the window casings had been stripped. Metal and anything usable had been taken from the buildings," he says, his voice almost inaudible over the din of the electric generators. "Doors, windows, wiring, light-fixtures - anything that could be removed, was. Including the interior plumbing."

Colonel Batman says the U.S. troops have repaired some of the damage. They have restored the water supply, put in door frames, and rewired some of the buildings for electricity. Any improvements made by the occupying forces will remain when the troops leave.

For now, however, the troops do not appear about to go anywhere. U.S. military officials say they probably will stay where they are as long as American forces remain in Somalia supporting the U.N. peace-keeping troops. " I think we will be here through '95," Colonel Batman says. "There is no chance of this becoming a university again in that period." The U.S. contingent, he says, could relocate, if need be: "We are not keeping people from going to school again."

Ahmed Mumin Warfa
Ahmed Mumin Warfa of the National University: "It is foolish to say the university must be started. How do I justify that?"
No master plan now exists for rebuilding the university, or for re-equipping it.

"Rebuilding 11 university centers is a very big task," says Ahmed Mumin Warfa, a wiry energetic botanist whom most Somalis associated with the National University recognize as its dean. "You need a very determined institution, either a government or the United Nations," to back such an ambitious undertaking.

Following peace talks between warring factions, the United Nations is now embarking on a two-year plan to reconstruct Somalia's infrastructure and its government. Mr. Warfa says that before he and other academics start an active campaign to reopen the university, he wants to see what plans the U.N. has for reviving the country's entire educational system.

Aid From Foreign Universities
Looking further afield for support, Mr. Warfa says foreign universities and governments - Italy for one - have helped the Somali National University in the past and could perhaps do so again. He says he is looking to such sources for long-term "consistent and durable programs" that will not dry up after a few years.

He also wants to see an end to the clan divisions that plagued the university before the war and detracted from the ability of academics to act as a social conscience for the nation. During the Barre dictatorship, both appointments and student places at the university often were used as rewards for loyalty to the regime, says Mr. Warfa. After President Barre's ouster, he adds, many lecturers threw in their lot with one of the warring factions.

Mr. Warfa says the reconstituted university must transcend clan divisions. In his view, the institution must play a larger role, serving as "a community, a kind of joint venture that everybody contributes to, everybody belongs to - a resource that belongs to the public."

somalia map
On the practical side, he outlines some of the complex problems that must be solved before the university can get back on its feet. They include, but are not limited to, finding students and instructors, providing housing, and coming up with the financial resources to operate the institution. The current priority, he says, is to locate all of the teaching staffs and students. The dean says he has already tracked down nearly 600 teachers in East Africa, Europe and the United States, as well as 1,500 students.

Mr. Warfa says he hopes that the reconstruction of the university - its faculty and student body as well as its buildings - can be completed within two years. But in the absence of any coherent plan - and in a country where, as academics quickly point out, there has been practically no education at all since 1990 - that goal seems highly optimistic.

Abdirahman Timir Ali, a former professor in the school of education, says the youths the university would expect to enroll already have got their education the hard way - in the mean neighborhoods of Somalia's war-torn cities. "The objective now is to keep the young children from the streets," he says.

28 Schools Started
More and more of the aid organizations that have been active in combating starvation in Somalia are now moving their resources into education. Concern, the Irish charity, has started 28 schools, which offer basic education to all age groups.

Educators here also talk of a plan sponsored by U.S. agencies that will bring specialists from the University of Massachusetts to organize refresher courses for school-teachers, offered through the Somali National University's education school.

Even the enthusiastic Mr. Warfa concedes that , in spite of his belief "higher education is the most important," the university's needs cannot be first on the education priority list. "It is foolish to say the university must be started," he says. "How do I justify that? There are half a million schoolchildren out there, roaming around."


Economist article | St Petersburg Times article | Robin Lubbock's resume