Africa ponders Somalia mission after 9 years of killing
By Halima Athumani
In less than nine months’ time, the African Union’s military mission in Somalia will have been in the troubled country for a decade.
In that time, hundreds of soldiers from across Africa have been killed fighting al-Shabaab militants who sprung out of the country’s civil war in the 1990s.
Although concrete figures are hard to come by – largely due to the reluctance of the troop-contributing nations to publicize military losses – the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute conservatively estimates that the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) lost more than 1,100 soldiers between January 2009 and December 2014.
This level of losses has led many in the countries providing soldiers to question the mission’s strategy and tactics and ask “Is it worth it?”
Political analyst Muwanga Kivumbi, who is also an Ugandan lawmaker, said that, as in warzones around the world where an international force has attempted to rely heavily on a military solution, the situation in Somalia will not be solved solely through the use of armed might.
“You cannot go to a foreign country with your military boots and guns blazing to sort out a political issue,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Kivumbi’s country is one of six to have provided troops to help quell the al-Shabaab insurgency. The others are Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Sierra Leone. Nigeria and Ghana have also sent police officers.
He points to the international, rather than purely regional, aspect of the conflict – al-Shabaab, which swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012, has threatened ships in the Indian Ocean and recruited fighters from around the world, including the West.
The group has also targeted civilians in large-scale terror attacks both in Somalia and neighboring countries, notably Kenya and Ethiopia.
“We only went in to aid the mission of the Europeans,” Kivumbi said. “The Americans were taught a bitter lesson in 1993, so they don’t want to risk their soldiers.”
The incident he referred to was the Blackhawk Down battle in Mogadishu – later relayed in a Hollywood blockbuster – which saw 18 U.S. soldiers killed by Somali militiamen and led to the U.S. withdrawal a year later.
It was this conflict that led to the birth of al-Shabaab in the mid-2000s. The group grew to control large swathes of the country but has now been beaten back into a few rural pockets.
“Somalia is just a station [for al-Shabaab],” Kivumbi said. “They exploited a decayed and collapsed state but the actors are international in character.”
When it was created on Jan. 19, 2007, AMISOM had an initial six-month mandate. In a remarkable display of “mission creep”, the six troop-providing states now have more than 22,000 soldiers in Somalia with no “mission accomplished” date in sight.
Despite the passage of time and the influx of troops, Burundian soldiers died in an attack on their base in the village of Lego, 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Mogadishu. In a pattern that has been repeated, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden car into the base entrance and was followed by heavily armed militants.
Three months later, an Ugandan base in Janale, Lower Shabelle, was attacked, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 25 to 50 troops. In a speech that cannot have done much to boost morale, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni blamed sleeping commanders for letting their guard down.
In January, a Kenyan outpost at El-Adde in southwest Somalia was hit. Al-Shabaab claimed to have killed 160 Kenyans. The Kenyan government has not released a figure, infuriating soldiers’ families.
Mounting death toll
Arthur Bainomugisha, a lecturer in peace and conflict studies at Uganda’s Makerere University, believes the mounting death toll has been worthwhile, largely because there has been increased stability in Somalia and the scale of al-Shabaab’s rule has been greatly reduced.
He pointed to the relocation of the interim government from Kenyan capital Nairobi to Mogadishu in 2005 and the establishment of the federal government in August 2012 as signs of progress.
“They were operating in a hotel in Nairobi for a long time until the UPDF [Uganda People’s Defense Force] deployed and since then the zones of peace have been expanded,” Bainomugisha said.
However, although al-Shabaab has been forced back into pockets of Somalia, they still pose a serious security threat. “Terrorism can hit any target anywhere indiscriminately,” Bainomugisha told Anadolu Agency.
“The resource limitation is stifling, the international community should move quickly to strengthen AMISOM’s military deployment capabilities by earmarking resources,” Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Tewolde Mulugeta said.
Lack of basic state structures and civil society organizations in parts of Somalia liberated from al-Shabaab are challenges for AMISOM. “In the absence of basic state structures, Somalia may backtrack,” Mulugeta warned.
Non-African support has also waned as the conflict has dragged on. In February, a summit in Djibouti noted the European Union’s decision to cut financial support by 20 percent at a critical phase of AMISOM operations.
This is seen in east Africa as a short-sighted development that threats to allow al-Shabaab to regain a foothold in Somalia.
“There were pirates and international trade could not take place, which forced some of them [Western powers] to deploy navy forces but with the weakening of al-Shabaab on the mainland, even piracy was neutralized,” Uganda’s Bainomugisha said.
“It’s as if they want to prolong the problem. What needs to be done is to ensure that al-Shabaab is decisively defeated so that they have no place to recruit and recover from their losses and for AMISOM to completely take over every inch of Somalia.”
Musamali, the Kenyan security expert, said inadequate funding has seen AMISOM fail to procure new equipment and soldiers going for almost seven months without pay. “These troops are getting instructions from their mother country and therefore not being effective in dealing with the al-Shabaab problem,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Francisco Madeira, the African Union’s special representative for Somalia, said during a recent visit to Mogadishu that the command and control structures in the country needed to be addressed.
“The interaction between AMISOM and the Somali national security forces is the one [thing] that is going to decide whether we win or are not able to overcome al-Shabaab,” he said. “And if that’s not there, we are doomed to failure.”