Somalia’s fight against Al-Shabaab: Conceptless and divided

As of: 12/29/2021 4:04 p.m.

An international mission has been supporting Somalia in the fight against the terrorist group Al-Shabaab since 2007. But her mandate is about to end. The security situation is still extremely unstable. Now there is also a government crisis.

By Caroline Hoffmann, ARD Studio Nairobi

They were actually only supposed to stay six months, but it has been almost fifteen years so far: More than 19,000 soldiers in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are supporting the Somali government in its fight against the Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Your mandate was supposed to end in two days, nothing happened for a long time. Last week it was extended again at short notice – by three months.

Caroline Hoffmann
ARD-Studio Nairobi

The disagreement between those involved – Somalia, the United Nations and the African Union – how things should go in the country is huge. And the European Union, one of the mission’s largest donors, is putting pressure on it. Because the problems are by no means solved: Al-Shabaab still controls parts of Somalia.

The terrorists repeatedly carry out attacks, including in the capital Mogadishu. “There is no easy way out of there for AMISOM,” says Rashid Abdi, analyst for the Horn of Africa. “If they just pulled out today, we can be sure that tomorrow Al-Shabaab would take over all of Somalia.”

Successes that have been wasted

The mission was initially successful, explains Murithi Mutiga from the International Crisis Group. “They managed to drive Al-Shabaab out of big cities like Mogadishu, making room for Somalis to build their own institutions.”

But now the use is considered too passive. In the past few years there has been little progress in the fight against the terrorist group. On the contrary. “Al-Shabaab has gotten stronger in the past four years,” says Abdi. “You now have enormous power – not just in the south and in the center of the country, but beyond. There is no doubt. Somalia is on the downside.”

Different interests weigh on AMISOM

The problem is complex. The mission is not only considered too passive, but also driven by too diverse interests. East African countries, such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, send soldiers for AMISOM. On the one hand an advantage, because a stable region is important to them.

On the other hand, individual countries have different interests than the Somali central government. Kenya, for example, is bilaterally supporting Somalia’s southernmost state, Jubaland, in the hope of protecting its border against crossings by Al-Shabaab.

The failure of politics

But it’s not just the mission that has problems. Somali politics is failing on many levels. The central government and the states have long been struggling for political power. The country’s elite are focused on their own interests – and deeply divided.

This is also evident in the current power struggle between President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo and incumbent Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble. The president “fired” the prime minister on Monday on charges of corruption, which he cannot do under the provisional constitution. He defends himself and accuses the president of wanting to sabotage the elections, which he is responsible for organizing.

Farmajo had already tried in the spring to extend his term of office by two years without re-election. Both sides are supported by different parts of the Somali security apparatus and military, and the political division here continues. Concerns about an escalation of the conflict in the capital are growing.

Not enough time to rebuild

“Somalia continues to suffer from a dysfunctional policy,” says Mutiga. “There was only a short time after AMISOM started in which the Somali elites and institutions could build their government and security apparatus.” Then they would have got stuck in their conflicts.

Actually, the Farmajo government stood for new hope for political development. But she was disappointed. “They tried to agree on a new constitution, on better cooperation between the central government and the federal states. But the country remains in a limbo,” said Mutiga.

These political conflicts have massive consequences for the security situation. “If the security forces are politically divided, it reduces their ability to fight al-Shabaab,” notes Mutiga.

A closed concept is missing

And even when areas have been conquered, the weakness shows up. “The Somali government is no longer able to enforce political structures, law and order in such territories. That is part of the dilemma. The military strategy is not at all linked to the political goals,” explains analyst Rashid Abdi.

And Al-Shabaab even offers better services than the government in some areas, for example in the legal field, writes Omar Mahmood of the International Crisis Group in an article for “Foreign Policy” in September.

Too early to end AMISOM?

While the political crisis in Somalia is currently worsening, the question of the future of AMISOM still has to be decided. Above all, the Somali President wants the Somali army to take over security of the country quickly by the end of 2023.

The analysts agree: Somalia will have to be responsible in the future, but the current desolate state of the system will not allow this in the next few years.

No shortage of suggestions

Whether as a restructured mission of the African Union or as a mission of the United Nations – various proposals are on the table. According to the analysts, it is particularly important to think the military with a political solution together. “You need a two-pronged solution for the transition. The security sector in the country must be reformed, well financed and self-contained. AMISOM can then complement its work,” says Abdi. He agrees with Mutiga that the electoral process in the country urgently needs to be concluded soon.

Mutiga goes one step further. Without Al-Shabaab, there will be no long-term solution for Somalia, he believes. “You are part of Somali society,” he says. “In the long term, I think it makes sense to enter into a dialogue with the moderate parts. The past few years have shown us that a purely military victory is unlikely.”

Three months – a tiny amount of time to bring together the many interests of the various parties involved and affected by the mission. But time is of the essence.

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