The African Union’s beleaguered Somalia mission


Shabaab fighters march in southern Somalia.

Being an African Union peacekeeper in Somalia must be one of the world’s worst jobs, even in a down economy. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is a bootstrap operation whose troops face rocket attacks, suicide bombers, and improvised explosive devices. They do this in service of a strategy in which they and their governments lack confidence, as restrictive rules of engagement seemingly do not allow an effective defense against militant attacks. Compensation can be sporadic, as peacekeepers were forced to go six months without pay last year. And the recent attacks in Uganda make clear that the insurgent group al Shabaab intends to make peacekeeping in Somalia even harder.

Though commentators agree that last week’s bombings that struck Uganda were designed to weaken the AMISOM mission by undercutting Uganda’s commitment, missing from the public discourse has been a comprehensive account of AMISOM showing how the mission developed, its strategic goals, and the challenges it faces.

Early rumblings for peacekeeping in Somalia

African countries first endorsed the idea of peacekeeping in Somalia in September 2006, when most of Somalia’s key cities were controlled by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Islamist group that ultimately splintered and gave birth to al Shabaab. Somalia’s UN-recognized transitional federal government was at that time holed up in the south-central Somali city of Baidoa, in imminent danger of being overrun by ICU forces.

This first peacekeeping plan, which was developed by the East African regional development organization Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), can be described most charitably as a tepid effort. Though IGAD’s plan called for 8,000 troops from member countries to support Somalia’s transitional government, it was hampered by two significant problems.

The first barrier is endemic to African Union (AU) efforts in general: lack of funding. Though AU peace and security commissioner Saïd Djinnit estimated that the first year’s deployment would cost $335 million, the AU had nowhere near that level of resources available. The second barrier was one of design, in that-in an effort to prevent political problems-the deployment plan specified that IGAD countries bordering Somalia could not contribute troops. This left a limited universe of countries that were eligible to send troops: Somalia was one of IGAD’s seven members, and three other countries were neighboring states.

What followed was bureaucratic shuffling as the ICU continued to make gains. Though IGAD’s early September deployment plan ambitiously called for peacekeepers to be in place by the end of that month, when December 2006 rolled around there were still no troops in place. The UN Security Council got into the act of passing further resolutions at the beginning of December with Resolution 1725, which authorized the IGAD mission, as well as the restriction that states bordering Somalia could not contribute troops.

Ethiopia invades

Of all the countries worried by the ICU’s rise, Ethiopia had the deepest concerns due to previous Islamist attacks launched into its territory from Somalia in the 1990s and the ICU’s territorial designs on the Ogaden region, which was inhabited by a majority of Somali speakers. Despite the slow bureaucratic movement toward the deployment of peacekeepers-and despite the provisions in the IGAD plan and UN Security Council Resolution 1725 that states bordering Somalia should not introduce troops-Ethiopia intervened unilaterally in an effort to push back the ICU and stabilize the transitional government.

Though Ethiopia quickly dislodged the ICU from Mogadishu and other strategic cities, it eventually faced a powerful insurgency. Al Shabaab split with other insurgent factions in late 2007, blasting them for working with secular powers and failing to adopt a global jihadist ideology.

During this time, African nations prepared for Ethiopia’s inevitable withdrawal in two ways. First, the regional IGAD mission was broadened to the AU-wide AMISOM mission. Second, the first contingent of AU peacekeepers was deployed to Somalia even before Ethiopia withdrew: in fact, a 1,700-strong Ugandan force arrived in March 2007, within months of Ethiopia’s invasion.

Ethiopia maintained the largest foreign footprint in Somalia until January 2009, when it withdrew in the midst of intense fighting; the trucks filled with Ethiopian soldiers hit a roadside bomb almost immediately as they left Mogadishu. At that point, AMISOM forces took their place: a total of 2,850 troops from Uganda and Burundi. Uganda and Burundi remain the only two countries to have contributed troops to AMISOM even though Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, and Burkina Faso committed to deploying soldiers. That promised support has never materialized.

AMISOM today

Why have other countries been so hesitant to devote their militaries to AMISOM? The two primary reasons have been lack of confidence in the mission and general inertia.

Many AU countries have reservations about AMISOM’s mission. Currently AMISOM is conceived of as a peacekeeping operation, with rules of engagement reflecting that design. Traditionally, peacekeeping missions are designed to help implement peace agreements that have been reached by conflicting sides. In contrast, peace enforcement operations are designed for situations where the parties do not have an agreed-upon ceasefire, and violence is consequently prevalent. While peacekeeping operations have cautious rules of engagement, peace enforcement missions have greater allowances for use of force.

Nigeria’s then-foreign minister Ojo Maduekwe clearly expressed this concern last year when explaining why his country had not provided the troops it promised. “‘The situation in Somalia constitutes a threat to international peace and security in the region, hence the need to review the mandate of the peacekeeping mission to a more effective one,” he said. Similarly, following Sunday’s bombings, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni again called for the AMISOM mission to shift from peacekeeping to peace enforcement.

But one question is where the resources for this expanded mission can be found. In February, when the AU rejected a similar Ugandan request for a change in mandate, a Ugandan minister noted that a sticking point had been the “increased burden” it would entail, including “new troop requirements and equipment.” Diplomatic sources also worried at the time that an expanded mandate “could complicate the mission and suck the troops into a no-win situation.”

In addition to concerns about the AMISOM mandate, simple inertia is another reason that countries have been hesitant to contribute: there is a free-rider problem at play.

The AMISOM mission has clearly suffered due to its nebulous strategy, lack of funding, and limited participation. Uganda is attempting to use the recent bombings as an opportunity to shift to what it considers a more appropriate strategy, while al Shabaab hopes that its attacks can undercut Uganda’s political will and deter other AU countries from committing to AMISOM.

Seungwon Chung, a graduate student at Wake Forest University, is a research intern at the Center for the Study of Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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1 Comment

  • Neo says:

    The AMISOM mission is beleaguered for the very reasons you have stated. We will be very lucky if it is able to even maintain its minimal presence for the next year or two. That being said a minimal presence under very poor conditions is much better than no presence at all. I would argue that the AMISOM mission still manages to keep the Shabaab preoccupied, and that is important. Shabaab is slowly gaining strength under the current conditions. If AMISOM were to pull out immediately that would pretty much leave Shabaab in a position to consolidate their military position completely unmolested. Once Shabaab is left to consolidate we can soon expect attacks against targets in Northern Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. We will be seeing them anyway but it is a matter of slowing the whole process down, if at all possible.
    Perhaps I am cynical, but my impression is AMISOM is a peace mission in name only. I would say the real goal here is to squeeze every last bit of delay out of the current situation. That’s not hoping for much, I must admit. The world community has more immediate priorities right now, and has no real political capital to spend on anything but minimal military action in Somalia.
    I disagree with any notion of promoting the AMISOM mission to a “peace making” mission. The fundamental idea doesn’t bother me, but there will be no political backing forthcoming for any such proposal. The first rule of poor man’s politics is, don’t wish for things you darn well know you can’t have. There is very little political backing for anything that smells remotely like further offensive military operations.
    I still believe in the larger scheme of things, that any delaying tactic in Somalia is still a good thing. It keeps a lid on things on the African horn while larger stakes games are played out elsewhere. At some point, not too far off, the AMISOM mission will have to be pulled. I would love to say otherwise but it is inevitable.


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