Dodging the bombs and bullets to get to campus

Universities in Somalia's capital are surviving against the odds, as David Matthews reports

September 1, 2011

As a country consistently ranked as the most failed state in the world, Somalia might not be expected to boast much of a higher education system.

But despite poverty, piracy, civil war and now famine, scholars are trying to maintain and expand institutions in the capital, Mogadishu.

The forces of al-Shabaab, the Islamist rebel group that has occupied part of the city for the past four years, withdrew from their positions in the capital last month.

The retreat may bring a halt to the fighting that has forced Mogadishu University to flee across the city. The university used to operate from a campus outside the city, but in 2006, that became a "war zone", said Abdurahman Moallim Abdullahi, chair of the institution's board of trustees.

The university had to move close to the city's airport under the protection of government forces.

While his account cannot be independently verified, he said the former campus fell into the hands of al-Shabaab.

Even after this flight, Dr Abdullahi said, "the most prominent professor - a professor of history - was killed by a shrapnel wound from a gunfight (that he was caught up in) on his way to work".

He claimed that students had also been killed in the war.

A graduate of McGill University in Montreal, Dr Abdullahi is a proponent of Somalia's Islah movement, an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

He has written that the organisation is "peaceful and moderate" and aims to harmonise Somalia's "indigenous culture, state laws and policies with (the) Islamic legal framework and values".

He returned to Somalia in 1993, around the time of UN intervention to quell the country's civil war.

"Universities, libraries - everything was destroyed in the civil war. We had to do something about it. There was no hope in Somalia. We had to think big," he said.

One approach was to marshal resources from the community: "The library was a collection of books from the people," he said.

When it opened in 1997, the university had just 200 students studying in education, Sharia and law, and arts. It now has 5,000 students and four additional faculties: economics and management; computer science; health science; and political science and mass media.

Heavy fighting

Mogadishu University is not the only institution in the capital.

Benadir University was established to train doctors in 2002, and since then has added faculties of engineering, education, Sharia and law, and computing. It has about 1,400 students, of whom at least a quarter are women.

Mohamed Mohamoud Hassan, dean of the Faculty of Medicine, said that during heavy fighting, "no one can come to the university. Many students and lecturers have been injured, some (have lost) their lives."

On the tricky question of who universities back in the civil war, neither institution is keen to be drawn.

"We have no problem with any group," Dr Abdullahi said. "We have all Somalis from all walks of life. It's non-political."

Dr Hassan claimed that Benadir had also not been targeted by either the government or al-Shabaab. Yet in December 2009, a suicide bomb at a Benadir graduation ceremony killed at least 22 people, including the education and higher education ministers. Al-Shabaab was suspected of being behind the attack.

Understandably, the quality of the Mogadishu universities is questioned by some.

Michael Brophy, director of the UK-based Africa Educational Trust, said Mogadishu University was "running OK" but added that it was "very weak on science, because there's no equipment".

In the war-ravaged central-south region of Somalia, where Mogadishu is located, Dr Brophy said that very few students took exams at the end of their secondary education. There are also no higher-level textbooks written in Somali, he said.

In Somalia there has been a "development of colleges calling themselves universities - but it doesn't mean much," according to Ioan Lewis, emeritus professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and an expert on Somalia.

Yet there are much stronger institutions in Somaliland, a far more stable, relatively democratic autonomous region in the north of Somalia, said Professor Lewis - for example, the University of Hargeisa.

Despite al-Shabaab's retreat bringing an apparent respite from urban warfare, the universities of Mogadishu are now having to deal with growing numbers of famine refugees camping around the city.

"It's a real human crisis," said Dr Abdullahi, adding that students, now on their holidays, are helping out by organising the camps and nursing the sick.

Nonetheless, he warns that in Mogadishu, "either people will die from gunfire or from ignorance".

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