Peace in Somalia: how can AMISOM succeed?


The African Union (AU) Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been active since 2007 – but the mission is struggling to fulfil its peace-support function and is dealing with a plethora of challenges, including an increasing number of attacks from al-Shabaab.

The June 2016 attack on the Ethiopian contingent in Halgan highlighted both the vulnerability of the mission and the growing strength of al-Shabaab. The Ethiopian government announced, via its public broadcaster, that this was not a simple guerrilla attack, but that it could instead be likened to a conventional force equipped with heavy weaponry.

This is the first time that al-Shabaab has attempted such an attack against the Ethiopian peacekeepers in AMISOM. Many Kenyan peacekeepers were killed in February, and last year saw a spate of attacks on Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers. This means that with the exception of Djibouti, all the AMISOM troop-contributing countries have suffered serious attacks within the space of a year.

In spite of AMISOM’s military operations, al-Shabaab has grown stronger

Between 1992 and 1995, three missions had been authorised to deal with Somalia’s stabilisation and humanitarian crisis. None of these succeeded in achieving their mandate. The last of these, the United Nations (UN) Operation in Somalia – with its strength of 28 000 personnel, including 22 000 troops from 36 countries – withdrew completely after suffering horrible attacks and losses from clan-based warlords.

AMISOM is mandated to take all measures necessary to reduce the threats posed by al-Shabaab; support the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) in establishing effective and legitimate governance; build capacity of state institutions; and facilitate coordinated support towards the stabilisation and reconstruction of Somalia. This is an ambitious mandate, and prospects for its success seem to be diminishing.

In addition to the ongoing challenges on the ground, much uncertainty can be attributed to the design and implementation of the mandate. AMISOM is heavily dependant on military approaches, while longer-term efforts at peacebuilding and state-building are limited.

Why hasn’t AMISOM consolidated peace in areas liberated from al-Shabaab?

The mission has an authorised strength of 22 126 uniformed personnel (including about 400 police), and 70 civilians. This split means that implementing the mandate is skewed to favour hard, military power, whereby the fight against al-Shabaab is automatically prioritised over other aspects of the mandate. And in spite of AMISOM’s many offensive military operations – including Operations Eagle, Indian Ocean, Ocean Build and Juba Corridor – al-Shabaab has not been weakened. If anything, the extremist group has only grown stronger.

AMISOM achieved some success in expanding its territorial control during these operations, but it failed to consolidate peace in areas liberated from al-Shabaab’s control. A key reason for this is that the offensive operations are not supported by effective state-building and peacebuilding processes.

The AU Policy on Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development (PCRD) and its Policy Framework on Security Sector Reform (SSR) guide processes of peacebuilding and statebuilding in African countries emerging from conflict. Although Somalia is still in conflict, it is possible to accommodate the principles and objectives contained in these policies in areas where al-Shabaab has been ejected.

The basic objective of the PCRD framework is to address and resolve the root causes of conflict; and it says that countries (or areas) that have emerged from conflict must give ‘priority to the (re)establishment and strengthening of the capacity of security institutions, including defence, police, correctional services, border controls and customs.’ This objective needs to be supported with national ownership, national responsibility and national commitment – a core African principle for SSR.

AMISOM must better address clan division - the root cause of most conflicts

Somalia has been a failed state with no effective central government since the demise of former president Siad Barre’s regime in 1991. Studies indicate that clan polarisation, inequality among clans and sub-clans, and the politicisation of the clan system – both before and during Barre’s government – were the main causes for the collapse of the state. Those hurdles continue to fuel conflict in the country. According to the World Bank, the clan system drives conflict and clashes over resources and power. It also mobilises militia and continues to divide the state.

Even though clan division is the root cause of most conflicts and gaps within the state, efforts to address these divisions was not given priority. AMISOM turned most of its attention to dealing with al-Shabaab; whose presence is a symptom of instability. Many analysts view al-Shabaab as an opportunistic group, exploiting the vacuum of failed statehood. The extremist group gained popularity after AMISOM started operations, and it continues to win support both locally and among diaspora communities. It achieves this support by discrediting peace operations and branding these as an act of aggression against the sovereign state of Somalia.

Despite these facts, the AU continues to pursue offensive military operations in the country. A joint AU-UN study on AMISOM was conducted last year, and the findings recommended for a gradual shift of the military-dominated approach to policing. This would have strengthened the rule-of-law process and ultimately enhanced state-building. However, this recommendation was suspended with immediate effect on 28 February 2016 at the Djibouti Summit of the heads of state and government of the police/troop-contributing countries to AMISOM, with the security situation cited as the reason for this shift to be suspended.

Instead of finding ways to overcome the root causes of Somalia’s instability and build the capacities of state institutions to play leading roles, the mission and its troop-contributing countries seem, instead, to have increased their fighting capabilities. In January, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta asked the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) to review the mandate of AMISOM so that it could ‘match al-Shabaab’s mode of warfare and strengthen its military operational capabilities.’

Al-Shabaab exploits the vacuum of failed statehood

The AU Military Operations Coordination Committee and the PSC endorsed the newly revised Concept of Operations (CONOPs) of AMISOM on 22 and 29 June 2016 respectively. These CONOPs continue to prioritise offensive military operations.

Military solutions alone, however, will not see the mission succeed in achieving the desired outcomes. As mentioned, past experiences have shown that a military approach does not bring about peace, but rather promotes and strengthens al-Shabaab. A better approach would be for the AU to guide AMISOM to widen its focus on building the capacity of state institutions. This should include supporting the extension of state authority to liberated areas, and supporting all efforts to address clan divisions, inequality and politicisation within the PCRD and SSR policy frameworks. This will weaken the social bases of al-Shabaab and provide better opportunities for its defeat.

A balance of hard and soft power is needed: hard power to eject al-Shabaab from its territorial control, and soft power to give peacebuilding and state-building a chance to succeed through supporting the FGS, building institutions and facilitating coordinated support for stabilisation and reconstruction. This requires an increased and balanced deployment of civilian, police and military personnel with necessary logistical and financial capabilities. This is AMISOM’s best – and perhaps final – chance at achieving its mandate.

Meressa K Dessu, Researcher and Training Coordinator, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding division, ISS Addis Ababa

Picture: ©Jacqueline Cochrane/ISS

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