According to the terms of the new mission, Somalia will be responsible for its own security by the end of 2023. Really?
The current African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been deployed to Somalia since 2007. Its 20,000 or so personnel are drawn from five countries (alphabetically Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda – numerically it is Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Kenya and Djibouti). They are mainly soldiers with some police mentors and political officers thrown in for good measure.
AMISOM: hard fighting and controversies
AMISOM saw some hard fighting in its early years, notably during the clearance of Mogadishu between 2010-11 and then again between 2011-2015 as the mission extended into the rural hinterland, eventually recovering most cities and major towns in south and central Somalia from the al-Qaeda linked terrorist group, al-Shabaab. The mission is broadly viewed as having been a success to date, allowing the shift from the Transitional Government of Somalia to the current Federal Government.
There have, almost inevitably, been controversies; there have been accusations of human rights abuses ranging from the shelling of civilian areas thought to be harbouring terrorists as well as cases of sexual exploitation and corruption (the latter are a matter of record and have been punished under the law of the relevant contributing country). Some say that the component nations have deliberately extended the conflict because they make so much money from it either through international community subsidies or through commanders having ‘sideline’ activities such as smuggling sugar or charcoal.
In the mid-2010s Al-Shabaab also overran a number of isolated AMISOM bases in the hinterland, inflicting bloody revenge on the garrisons which they then splashed all over the internet. Support for the mission wobbled back home (wherever home was).
Time for a change
As AMISOM enters its fifteenth year everyone agrees that it is time for a change. But ‘Change’ mean different things to different people: a UN-led mission? (the UN rejected that straight away – it appears to have lost its interest in new, ‘hot’ missions, preferring the predictability of frozen conflicts in places like the Golan Heights); a joint AU/UN mission? (The AU’s preferred option but also rejected by the UN, because the previous examples such as Darfur have been fraught to say the least); or a changed AU mission? The latter has been chosen and is the preference of the Somali government (who do, after all, have a say).
The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) should come into being shortly after the expiry of the current AMISOM mandate at the end of March 2022. It will have roughly the same numbers but with larger police and political component and, while remaining focused on defeating al-Shabaab, it will also be heading quickly towards the handover of responsibility for security to Somali forces no later than December 31st, 2023. (There is a short period after that to allow for drawdown and farewell parties. It is not, however, clear if the African Union forces will be invited to the farewell parties.)
Home Before Christmas (2023)?
What will this mean for Kenya? Will its troops be home for Christmas next year? (Well, New Year if we are being picky. Or maybe Easter 2024 for a select few.)
The general consensus is no. There are significant challenges to Somalia shouldering responsibility for its own security, notably the Somali government prioritising political agendas over national interests like defeating al-Shabaab, and the continuing inability of most of the Somali security forces to shake off clan loyalties.
The national elections process in Somalia is over 12 months behind schedule, leaving it technically without a government. What it has instead is the administration of President Farmajo trying to secure a second term through political trickery and the use of force. The latter is delivered primarily by a Turkish-trained army and police units that are loyal and effective.
In turn, opposition factions have flexed their clan influence over the remainder of the Somali security forces. AMISOM has found itself in the middle or filling the gaps left when Somali units abandon their positions on the frontline: ATMIS probably will too.
Problems before ATMIS has even started
The requirement for African Union troops will continue, but now adapted to a different, handover-of-authority-focused mission. ATMIS will abandon the rotation of command of the mission between the contributing countries, instead of giving that position exclusively to the largest troop-contributing country (currently Uganda): how the other nations, including Kenya, will react is not yet known but it is unlikely to be universally favourable nor is it likely address the allegation that some of the national forces work to the agendas of their own capitals. It may even exacerbate it.
Additional troop-contributing countries are touted, including Tunisia, Rwanda and Egypt: the latter is the most likely, the least effective militarily and the most divisive, especially for the current second-largest troop contributor, Ethiopia. Each new soldier or policeman or political officer also has to come at the expense of another since the mandate is very specific about total numbers. That is unlikely to encourage support for ‘new blood’ in the mission.
There are also requests for capabilities, such as armed drones, that the primary donors like the EU are unlikely to agree to. The short period of the mission also seems inevitably to lead to missed milestones and the sprawl that has characterised similar missions in DRC and South Sudan.
What does all this mean for Kenya?
Kenya, like Ethiopia, joined AMISOM in the opposite manner to which a country would usually join a peacekeeping mission: both had already entered Somalia (some use the term ‘invaded’) to protect their borders.
These ‘presences’ were simply folded into the AMISOM mission to give them legitimacy and to bolster the forces already fighting al-Shabaab. But this broke one of the basic, if unwritten, rules of peacekeeping: neighbouring countries have too much history and too much of an interest, so they should not participate. But in Somalia they do.
And what if ATMIS manages to avoid the usual extension after extension of the mission and does hand over responsibility for security to the Somali government on New Year’s Eve next year, whether the Somalis are ready or not? It is hard to imagine Kenya (or Ethiopia) simply retreating back to their borders to watch the fireworks from afar.
Any discussion of how an expeditionary mission to fight terrorism and oppression and bring democracy and development in their place, however well-intentioned, ends thus: Afghanistan.
Kenya, then, might find that the new AU mission in Somalia just means more of the same.