What role for the AU as Somalia prepares for elections?

The Peace and Security Council (PSC) has discussed the situation in Somalia twice since the beginning of 2020. The meetings focused on upcoming elections, the future of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and the renewal of AMISOM’s mandate for an additional nine months.

The African Union (AU) held another high-level meeting with Somali stakeholders and key partners in April 2020.

Somalia is preparing to hold a historical one-person-one-vote election before the end of 2020. The country is facing multiple threats to its stability from continued terrorist attacks, increased political polarisation, the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst desert locust invasion in decades and floods. These threats have resulted in food insecurity for an estimated 1.3 million people and increased the number of internally displaced persons.

The recent AU engagement in Somalia comes at a critical juncture

The recent AU engagement in Somalia, therefore, comes at a critical juncture, particularly ahead of the planned drawdown of AMISOM in 2021. In preparation for the latter, the continental body is expected to develop a peace and security strategy for Somalia beyond 2021.

AU involvement beyond counter-terrorism operations

To overcome the current political and security stalemate in the country and effectively contribute to peace and security, the AU’s engagement in Somalia has to evolve beyond the counter-terrorism operations currently led by AMISOM.

This engagement should focus on strategic conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts to find a political solution to the Somali crisis. AU efforts should include supporting political and security outreach by the government, as well as community-level conflict resolution and reconciliation work. This would be aimed at counteracting the reinforcing nature of inter-clan conflict and terrorist activities. Particularly important would be AU support for any efforts by Somali stakeholders to consider engaging al-Shabaab in political negotiations.

As it repositions its engagement, the AU can directly contribute to bringing together the federal government and regional states for a political dialogue to overcome their differences. The current electoral process can also benefit from the AU’s support, especially to the National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC), in making the electoral process as inclusive, independent and credible as possible. Unless properly managed, the election could further foment polarisation and lead to post-election violence.

The AU can further support the completion of the constitutional review process as part of Somalia’s state-building endeavour, and ensure a consultative national dialogue process takes place ahead of a referendum to adopt the constitution.

The AU can support the completion of the constitutional review process as part of Somalia’s state-building endeavour

The AU, in collaboration with the United Nations (UN) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), can also lead a political process to help reach regional consensus on setting key priorities for the regional security agenda that also reduces the destabilising effect of great power politics in Somalia.

Such a reconfiguration of the AU’s role in the country to include a comprehensive approach to security would be in line with Somalia’s Transitional Plan.

Political response to the terrorist threat

Clearly, al-Shabaab is still a significant threat to peace in Somalia. In addition to repeated attacks on AMISOM troops, al-Shabaab has killed three governors from Mudug and Nugal, both in Puntland state, and the governor and mayor of Mogadishu since the beginning of 2020.

The impact of terrorism is worsened by Somalia’s protracted inter-clan conflict, which involves internal, regional and extra-regional dynamics. Inter-linkages between clan-affiliated militias established in response to growing insecurity, and the manner in which al-Shabaab recruits and operates, also necessitate close scrutiny of the nexus between inter-clan conflict and terrorism.

Continued instability not only undermines the gains AMISOM has achieved since 2007 but also points to a political and security impasse that will not be resolved solely through military intervention.

While successive Somali governments and the AU have mostly resisted the idea of a political dialogue with al-Shabaab, many civil society groups have been calling for talks as an important non-military solution to the conflict.

Internal power rivalries

The political space in Somalia has become further polarised as the country prepares for elections. The contentious relationship between the federal government and regional states is a reflection of this political landscape and is complicated by clan rivalries.

Relations between the federal government and the two regional states of Puntland and Jubaland have especially soured of late. At the centre of the dispute lies the federal system of governance, which states claim has not resulted in the full devolution of power, including the administration of security forces, or the equitable sharing of resources. 

Disagreements on key outstanding issues have had politically polarising consequences that further destabilise the country. These issues include the inclusiveness and transparency of the constitutional review process, the legislative process that led to the adoption of the new electoral law, and the universal suffrage electoral system meant to replace the clan-based quota electoral system.

COVID-19 a threat to election preparations

The date of the upcoming elections will be confirmed by the NIEC on 27 June. However, it is feared that the current political and security context, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, may not create conducive conditions for an election to take place in 2020. Yet any possible delay will be rejected by regional states, which fear that the president will take the opportunity to extend his term in office.

The AU seems to be pushing for timely elections and has called on international partners to mobilise resources to this end. While the AU is providing training and technical support to the NIEC and other stakeholders in the electoral process, COVID-19 has posed serious challenges in carrying out these planned activities.  

The AU has also called for dialogue between the federal government and regional states, but this has yet to take place.  

Lack of regional consensus

Regional rivalries clearly have the potential to hamper the collective continental response in Somalia.

Regional rivalries have the potential to hamper the collective continental response in Somalia

Ethiopia and Kenya, both troop-contributing countries to AMISOM, differ on Somali politics. They have accused one another of interfering in the internal politics of the country and of trying to influence electoral outcomes in regional states such as Jubaland, which borders both countries. There have also been allegations of troop movements from both countries outside of the AMISOM umbrella into Doolow border town, heightening tensions along the border. 

In addition, relations between Kenya and Somalia are tense as a result of their maritime border dispute. This worsened when heavy fighting between Somali government troops and forces loyal to Ahmed Madobe, the governor of Jubaland, spilled across the Kenyan border. Following the incident each accused the other of trying to destabilise it.

Rivalry among regional actors weakens their coordination and collective action against regional and extra-regional destabilising forces. A broad consensus among regional stakeholders is crucial for the AU’s coordinated action in Somalia.

A political solution to the Somali crisis

The AU’s security and stability strategy for Somalia beyond 2021 should focus on finding a political solution to the crisis.

This will involve developing a holistic conflict resolution strategy that responds to the complex and interlinked conflict drivers. It will also require the AU to enhance the civilian capacity within AMISOM and engage both at the strategic and local level.

The signing of a new memorandum of understanding, following that of 2010 between IGAD, the UN Political Office for Somalia and AMISOM, will help to coordinate efforts in this regard.

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