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The African Union mission in Somalia: decision time

The African Union (AU) dubbed 2010 the year of ‘peace and security in Africa’. For the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) it has been anything but. Not only has AMISOM continued to suffer heavy casualties but several non-governmental organizations have accused it of killing hundreds of civilians through indiscriminate shelling of residential areas. There is near-universal agreement that AMISOM in its current form is incapable of fulfilling its mandate to help bring peace and stability to Somalia, but time is running out to find an alternative.

In the wake of terrorist bombings in Kampala on 11 July 2010 the AU and the East African regional organization the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) declared that they would bolster AMISOM’s personnel numbers up to 20 000 troops and 1680 police. A revised concept of operations was developed for the mission in September along with a phased deployment plan for the new troops, which includes positioning AMISOM troops outside Mogadishu. The AU has called on the United Nations to pay these peacekeepers’ allowances from its assessed contributions and urged the Security Council to ‘re-hat’ AMISOM as a UN operation and impose a naval blockade and no-fly zone over Somalia to stem the flow of foreign fighters and weapons fuelling the violence. Putting his weight behind these proposals, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon encouraged the Security Council to take the ‘bold and courageous decisions necessary’ to strengthen AMISOM.

These new plans are quite a stretch from where AMISOM stands today. It has only in the past few weeks reached its original authorized strength of 8000 troops (from Burundi and Uganda) with Guinea pledging to deploy a further battalion. AMISOM’s police contingent has been even more under-resourced, now comprising just 50 officers (although Angola has offered to contribute to training the Somali police force).

It is hardly surprising that AMISOM’s four years in Mogadishu have made little difference to Somalia’s conflict dynamics. If anything, it appears to have provided a focal point for the insurgency. Nominally a peace support operation, AMISOM’s main role has become protecting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). This has left it in an odd position: it is delivering humanitarian assistance to some residents of Mogadishu while simultaneously trying to counter an insurgency led by al-Shabab that is fond of employing terrorist tactics.

AMISOM lacks the tools and mandate to do either job effectively. It is confined to parts of just one city and has barely begun the difficult process of winning the hearts and minds of the local population.  Unless dynamics on the ground change in fundamental ways, counterinsurgency would also be the primary task of any new UN mission.

To have any hope of success in counterinsurgency, AMISOM would need at least two things: a reliable local partner that has the support of the civilian population, and a broad and strong international consensus supporting a more coercive mandate.

The TFG has failed in almost every respect to be such a partner. It has been virtually paralyzed by internal conflicts and has failed to build durable alliances outside Mogadishu. It has not delivered reliable services to Mogadishu’s desperate civilians and has regularly failed to pay its own security forces. Neither has it been able to push insurgents out of the capital. Indeed, for most of its existence the current incarnation of the TFG has struggled to hold even those areas it inherited from its predecessor in 2009. There is also reportedly considerable mistrust and lack of coordination between AMISOM and TFG security forces.

The biggest factor going for the TFG is the international recognition it has received and the resulting political and economic benefits. Yet locally this has fostered the idea that the TFG is more accountable to, and dependent on, external governments and international organizations than it is to the Somali people. Legitimate governments are built on strong societal foundations, from the bottom up, not by external recognition flowing from the top down. Rather than trying to impose a unified national government, which most Somalis have always seen as a foreign construct serving largely foreign interests, external actors should help engineer the political space necessary for Somali-led peace processes at the local and regional levels that emphasize accountability and reconciliation.

Nor is there much evidence of strong and widespread international support for either AMISOM’s original mission or the new proposals. While citing Somalia as a pressing regional security concern, the vast majority of African governments have refused to deploy personnel to AMISOM, despite repeated pleas from the AU Commission. Most have cited the lack of any peace to keep, the lack of logistical capacity and the lack of funds. Why would this reluctance to contribute change without a dramatically different mandate or political framework for AMISOM?

Beyond Africa, support for AMISOM has arrived in dribs and drabs: the UN has provided a logistical support package; several countries have contributed to a trust fund for AMISOM; the Italian and Swedish governments have provided funds for over 3000 TFG security officers; the European Union has set up a training mission for TFG troops in Uganda; and the US Government has provided some $180 million of equipment and logistical assistance as well as training support. As of June 2010, however, only 56 per cent of the Consolidated Appeal for Somalia had been mobilized. This suggests an ominous lack of international concern about the fate of the more than 3 million Somalis needing humanitarian assistance. Indeed, during 2010 the UN Security Council spent far more time discussing what to do about Somali pirates than the problems on the mainland. AU Commission Chair Jean Ping has quite correctly characterized the international response to Somalia’s crisis as ‘belated … partial … and inadequate’.

Whatever its mandate says, AMISOM has become a counterinsurgency operation fighting to prop up an unreliable government that is scarcely present, let alone accepted, throughout Somalia. And it is carrying out this difficult and dangerous task with little solid international commitment. As Ban Ki-moon has pointed out, it is high time for the world’s governments to decide AMISOM’s future.