Amisom now racing to pacify Somalia ahead of Kenya poll

Saturday March 17 2012

Amisom soldiers in Karan district of Mogadishu, Somalia, February 17, 2012. Events have become hectic in Somalia in the past few days, with a major reconfiguration taking place of how the African Union Peace Keeping Mission will work towards stabilising the country. File

Events have become hectic in Somalia in the past few days, with a major reconfiguration taking place of how the African Union Peace Keeping Mission will work towards stabilising the country.

It is now emerging that Ethiopia is planning to withdraw its troops from Somalia at the end of April. This will allow Uganda, Burundi and Kenya to take an expanded role in managing the stabilisation of Somalia, which is second phase of the peacekeeping strategy in that country. Ethiopia’s exit will also see Djibouti — which will send 1,000 soldiers — and Sierra Leone playing a role within Amisom starting in June.

According to insiders, there is a renewed sense of urgency within Amisom to complete the military operations by end of July, as the election fever in Kenya starts to gather pace. Kenya’s elections are closely watched in the region both for their potential to disrupt landlocked neighbours, and now for regional security, given the country’s current centrepiece role in Somalia.

(Read: Kenya polls body sets March elections date)

Besides political risk in Kenya, an equally unnerving event this week was the decision by Ethiopia to launch a surprise attack across the Eritrean border on Thursday. If Eritrea were to retaliate, it would lead to a full-scale war that would erode most of the gains that have been made in Somalia in the past six months.

(Read: Ethiopia in military strike inside Eritrea)


(Also: Eritrea says it won't retaliate against Ethiopia)

Ethiopia’s rush to get out of Somalia hardly a month since it re-entered surprised many. This is because in July 2006, it first launched an audacious invasion of Somalia when there was even no African Union peacekeeping force to protect the Transitional Federal Government that was holed up in Baidoa then, and to oust the radical Islamic Courts Union, which was running the show in Mogadishu. It withdrew more than a year later.

Addis Ababa’s latest campaign started in November last year. Observers speculate that the quick departure could be linked to missile and ground troops attacks on archrival Eritrea last Thursday.

Experts argue that either Ethiopia did not want to have to fight in two war theatres in the event that Eritrea did retaliate with a full war; or it feared that a prolonged presence could serve as rallying tool for Al Shabaab. Somalia and Ethiopia, one Muslim and the other Christian, have a difficult past. Many Somalis accuse Ethiopia of being at the heart of the 20-year old crisis, while Ethiopia perceives an unstable Somalia as a real security threat.

Ethiopia will continue to play its hand through the AU, but its departure happened after force commanders from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Djibouti and AU officials met and carried out a major reorganisation of how the Amisom operation will run.

In this new plan, Djibouti’s role will increase, and the areas that, especially, Burundi and Uganda cover, will also grow according to Uganda Army Commander, Gen Aronda Nyakairima. As a result, within the next few weeks, Burundi and Uganda each fly in 1,250 extra troops.

The Kenyan change

But it is in Kenya that the greatest change will be noticed in the public face of waging a war in a foreign land. Until now, Kenya military spokesmen Maj Emmanuel Chirchir, and Col Cyrus Oguna held frequent press briefings. Maj Chirchir, himself a lively soldier, in particular had a colourful and combative presence on the social media site Twitter, where he happily battled Al Shabaab militants and their propagandists.

However sources told The EastAfrican that the other regional countries in Somalia were unhappy because the open and freewheeling media approach to the war in Kenya was “causing too many new political problems.” So much so that the other countries want Kenya’s military public relations machine tamed.

One of the sources present at a planning meeting in Addis Ababa attended by senior military leaders told The EastAfrican: “There was a clear clash of media cultures. Countries like Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi don’t have the open media of Kenya, and took the view that wars are best fought with the least information released. Kenya, on the other hand, has a political and media system where if there isn’t sufficient disclosure, it could cause a problem.”

Just to make sure there is no over-sharing of information about the mission, a new communication strategy has been adopted that should involve more control of what gets out in the media.

According to reports, Personnel (J1) will be led by the African Union, which means it can appoint staffs, who are not from any of the troop contributing countries. Otherwise, in order to give every Amisom nation a say, but also while keeping control of the Somalia operation in the hands of the countries that have boots on the ground, the combatants have distributed the headquarter functions equally among themselves. Kenya will take charge of Military Intelligence (J2), and Logistics (J4). Uganda will lead on Military Operations (J3) and, rather surprisingly, Engineering Corps (J8). In addition to Communications (J6), Burundi will also take charge of Planning (J5).

The freshman peacekeepers who have only just arrived, Djibouti, or will soon join, Sierra Leone, have been allocated a smaller cut of the action. Sierra Leone will handle Training (J7) and Djibouti will lead on Civil-Military Co-operation (J9).

(Read: Al Shabaab war drives intelligence alliance)

When Sierra Leone arrives, the Amisom troop strength will be at the new 17,700 level authorised by the UN Security Council in February. Though AU officials say the actual number needed is about 38,000 — roughly the same as the US sent to Somalia in 1992 in its Operation Restore Hope, which ended in failure — they believe it is still possible to stabilise the country enough by July for the August elections when the controversially extended term of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) must end.

Increasing the tempo of the operations is also motivated by the fact that some countries are wary of an extended stay in Somalia and the potential backlash domestically, especially if the level of casualties increases. Some of Somalia’s key partners such as France, the UK and some neighbouring countries are for example said to be worried that electoral politics in Kenya could derail its role in Somalia.

Kenyans, they believe, cannot stand to take the kind of casualties that Burundi and Uganda have sustained over the past five years in Somalia. Because both countries have long histories of conflict, there is still a context in which high casualties can be accepted; not in Kenya.

According to information received by The EastAfrican, the claims by Al Shabaab that it killed over 70 Amisom troops from Burundi last year, were not all propaganda after all. Al Shabaab put out videos and photos of the bodies. Diplomats in the know confirm that Burundi lost “at least 50 soldiers” in the October incident.

New details reveal that Burundi called their TFG military allies to collect soldiers wounded in a long battle with Al Shabaab on the outskirts of Mogadishu and evacuated them to hospital.

The TFG sent a truck, but information was leaked to Al Shabaab who waited for it and followed with two of their own trucks. The Shabaab were dressed in TFG military uniforms. In the rush, wounded Burundi soldiers were loaded in the back of some of the trucks that were masquerading as belonging to the government. The Shabaab drove away with the trucks, bayoneting and shooting the helpless Burundi soldiers.

“Something like the casualties that Burundi and Uganda have suffered would become a big political issue in Kenya, and we don’t know if Kenya would stay in Somalia, especially not in an election year,” one East African diplomat said.

The expanded Amisom will divide Somalia into four sectors. In a shift from the past, where most sectors were managed largely jointly, in the new arrangement each Amisom member will be more individually exposed.

Uganda is to command Sector one, which comprises Middle Shabelle, Lower Shabelle, and Banadir (with the capital of Mogadishu).
Sector two, potentially the most dangerous, will be commanded by Kenya. It comprises Middle and Lower Jubba. The main military goal of stabilising sector two is to capture the lucrative port city of Kismayu.

Sector three, another dangerous zone, will be commanded by a Burundian. It comprises Gedo, Baye, Bakool. This is the region whose capital is Baidoa.

Sector four, most of which comprises the areas from which Ethiopia is withdrawing, like the capital of the Hiraan region, Beltweyne, will be taken over by Djibouti.

The momentum in Somalia, by all accounts, has continued to shift toward stability. Recently, Turkish Airlines announced weekly flights to Mogadishu. Apart from sinking money into health and other basic services, Turkey is also rehabilitating the Aden Abdullah International Airport in Mogadishu.

(IN PICTURES: Turkey flights to Mogadishu)

The real challenge, however, will be to ensure that neighbouring countries maintain a common agenda.