Somalia Retrospective

DAVID BERCUSON  –  Apr 6, 2018

March 2018 was the 25th anniversary of the killing of Somali teenager Shidane Arone, which began the “Somalia Affair” that racked the Canadian military – primarily the army – for much of the next 10 years, and led to substantial changes in military education and leadership the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

By any standards, the government of Somalia was a mess in the early 1990s (it still largely is), and that disarray was compounded by widespread famine that left many thousands dead and starving. Television coverage was unsparing in showing starving children in refugee camps and the almost pitiful effort of international aid agencies to fight the scourge.  The main problem was that Somalia had virtually no operating central government and different warlords in various parts of the country were using armed militants to impede and sometimes to completely block food aid arriving by sea.

Donations of food aid were sold on the black market instead of reaching the starving population and no military force existed that could take out the warlords and restore order there. 

Led by the United States under newly elected president Bill Clinton, the Unified Task Force (UNITAF) was authorized as a United Nations Chapter 7 peace enforcement mission in December 1992 – with individual countries donating military forces to bring order to different key parts of Somalia such as ports and major transportation routes.

Canada chose to contribute a Canadian Airborne Regiment Battle Group (CARBG) to the mission, and was eventually assigned to the area of Belet Huen, a city in south central Somalia. In December 1992, CARBG, along with elements of the US 10th Mountain Division, established a base north of the city. When the Americans later withdrew, the Canadians ran the base, which quickly became a major supply depot to be used to send Canadian patrols through the area to challenge the local warlord and his troops.

The Airborne largely succeeded in its mission (a fact later forgotten by many) but Number 2 Commando (equivalent to a battalion) had become dominated by bullies way before it left for Somalia, and continuous morale and discipline issues plagued the Commando during the mission. Some members seemed to believe that the local population were the enemy, and acted like it – setting ambushes, killing at least one person for no reason, and torturing Arone to death after he crept into camp, presumably to steal helicopter parts.

Arone’s death was reported by the press, beginning a long chain of events, which quickly uncovered significant flaws, particularly an attempt to cover up the affair, and the many incidents of indiscipline that had occurred in Canada. Many Canadians concluded that the Airborne should never have been sent to Somalia and the government began a thorough examination of the entire mission to determine what went wrong. Evidence of despicable hazing procedures emerged in the Airborne and the government eventually concluded that the regiment could not be saved – it was disbanded in January 1995.

An official commission of inquiry – the Letourneau Commission – was later established, and its hearings were televised almost every day for months. Morale sagged across the armed forces and many Canadians concluded that the CAF had gotten out of hand.  The Liberal government was faced with a real possibility that its military was dissolving before its eyes.

When Doug Young became Minister of National Defence in 1996, he closed down the Letourneau Commission and initiated a series of steps to initiate sweeping reforms of the CAF. University degrees became required for commissions, the education system was revamped, training for deployments was ramped up, a National Investigation Service was founded, and Canadian soldiers were drilled in the laws of war. Racism was rooted out. Efforts were made to integrate women into the military in a more meaningful way, and reform of the relationship between the reserves and the regular forces was initiated.

Young was defeated in the federal election of 1997 and replaced by Art Eggleton who drove the reform process forward by forming the Minister’s Monitoring Committee on Change, which monitored change in the military and DND for six years. The concept was revolutionary. In effect, the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Deputy Minister were directed to aid the Monitoring Committee in its allotted task – to ensure that all the recommendations for change that had been set out by the Somalia Committee, the Commission on Military Justice, the Commission on the Reserves, and other bodies, were implemented (except for those which the government itself had rejected, such as, instead of instituting an office of Inspector General, the government favoured an Ombudsman). 

Between 1997 and 2003, the Monitoring Committee watched over the process of change and reform. It reported regularly to the Minister of National Defence, and issued quarterly reports. Chaired by former Speaker of the House, John Fraser, it made plain that it was not a committee of inquiry but a group of people who wanted to modernize the military and bring it back in line with Canadian values. If effect, for six years, the self-governing professionalism of the military was suspended while the government, through the Monitoring Committee, led the change process.

When the Monitoring Committee was disbanded in 2003, the Canadian Armed Forces was a different institution and reflected to a much greater extent the values and mores of Canadian society as a whole.

The events of March 1993 are not much talked about today, but the “Somalia Affair” produced a Canadian military that is in tune with the desires and aspirations of the Canadian people.

– David Bercuson, Research Director, Canadian Global Affairs Institute