The end of 2021 was the deadline for the withdrawal of African Union peace mission forces from Somalia. But increasing violence and the country’s uncertain political future makes that unlikely. In the latest clashes on 24 October between extremist rebels and Somali troops, 20 people were killed and 40 injured.
The departure strategy of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) hinged on destroying al-Shabaab’s capabilities and resolving the country’s major political impasse. The government’s security institutions also needed to be strong enough to take over the reins once AMISOM leaves. All of these issues remain unsolved.
The formation of legitimate federal- and state-level governments is showcased as a success story for AMISOM and its international partners. Elections were held in 2012 and 2016, and peaceful power transitions were observed. But disagreements about the 2020 election management led to a stalemate and successive postponements of the vote. Recent reports suggest that the long-stalled process may at last be moving.
The uncertain electoral process has widened the country’s political cleavages, especially between the federal government and member states. The current government’s term expired in February.
In addition to the political deadlock, al-Shabaab still poses significant security concerns to Somalia and the region. A recent AU Independent Assessment report said the extremist group had boosted its mobility, enabling activities in all areas of Somalia. In September, the International Crisis Group noted that al-Shabaab provides better services than the government itself. As violence increases, the withdrawal of AMISOM would leave the Somali Security Forces struggling to restore security.
AMISOM’s present mandate expires on 31 December. In 2020, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) called for a thorough, impartial evaluation on options for the AU, UN and international partners in Somalia post-2021. The UN Security Council (UNSC) made a similar request.
In January 2021, the UN Independent Assessment report provided recommendations for AMISOM’s future. The PSC expressed concern that the UNSC hadn’t considered the AU’s request for joint leadership of the assessment and asked the AU Commission to conduct its own review. In the end, the AU’s report made similar recommendations to the UN one.
Five options are recommended in the two reports that will help decide AMISOM’s future. The departure of AMISOM in six months and the transfer of its responsibilities to the Somali Security Forces is the least preferred alternative. This alternative considers the deteriorating relationship between the AU and Somali government.
The AU also suggested replacing AMISOM with the Eastern Africa Standby Force. A similar approach appears to be advocated by the UN report, dubbing it a deployment of an ‘ad hoc regional alliance’. However, this advice has little bearing on AMISOM because all of the current mission’s troop contributors are from the East African region.
The third alternative put forward by the UN is to replace AMISOM with a UN-led stabilisation mission. Since 2013, the UN has had a political mission in Somalia – the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM). The UN has also provided logistical support to UNSOM and AMISOM.
This option has advantages. In addition to its financial and technical capabilities, the UN could better combine the political, operational and security initiatives that are currently separated into a single point of contact. This approach has been suggested before but the UN has never been interested in taking over the mission from the AU due to the difficult security situation.
The fourth alternative identified by the AU is to replace AMISOM with an AU-UN hybrid operation, ensuring the mission’s predictable and long-term financial viability. This was the AU’s most preferred recommendation, and the PSC has endorsed it. But the Somali government has said that ‘the action does not fulfil the country’s strategic objective.’
The last option is to reconfigure AMISOM. Despite differences in approach, the suggestion was most preferred by the UN and listed in second place by the AU. The UN’s take on reconfiguration involves reducing troops and enabling the Somali Security Forces to take over primary security responsibility. For the AU, this option should include a strong political component to improve long-term stability and security.
AMISOM has been primarily a counter-insurgency force from its inception, with over 19 000 soldiers, fewer than 1 000 police and 70 civilian personnel. Reconfiguring the mission is a good approach, as it would ensure that political considerations are included in AMISOM’s plans and activities. But the option faces at least two problems.
First, the AU lacks the financial capacity to manage balanced multidimensional peace support operations without the UN and international cooperation. Second, the Somali government lacks interest in the AU’s political role – and the view of Somalia’s leaders on the issue is key.
While the AU’s first choice is the hybrid mission, the UN prefers AMISOM’s reconfiguration. However neither option is supported by the Somali administration, which wants the AU’s support to be limited to military assistance to combat al-Shabaab. The federal government prefers a gradual handover of security duties to the Somali Security Forces, with a complete takeover by 2023.
So despite the extensive assessments by the AU and the UN, AMISOM’s future is still far from clear. The UNSC has asked the AU and the Somali government to conduct a joint update of the mission’s concept of operations. It also requested the UN Secretary-General to submit a proposal on a reconfigured mission's objectives, size, and composition by the end of September. None of these tasks has been completed.
Reaching a consensus on the preferred option will be difficult. A practical alternative could be to renew AMISOM’s current mission for a short period. This would enable it to continue assisting Somali security and stability efforts. It would also align with the Somali government’s preference for a gradual transfer of responsibility from AMISOM to the country’s security forces.
Time is running out, and Somalia’s long-awaited election remains doubtful. The AU, UN and international partners must make the polls a top priority. AMISOM should keep its existing structure and force strength with a focused mandate until the election is held and the political turmoil is resolved.
Meressa K Dessu, Senior Researcher and Training Coordinator, ISS Addis Ababa
This ISS Today is published as part of the Training for Peace Program (TfP) funded by the government of Norway.
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Photo: AMISOM photo/Fardosa Hussein