The leadership of the African Union Mission in Somalia has started implementing the transition plan to reduce troop numbers gradually and hand over to the Somali National Army by 2021.
However, elders and chiefs want the process delayed, citing their military’s limitations to contain and fight off the Al Shabaab threat.
The elders’ fears echo those of the force commanders that have questioned the practicability of the UN Security Council Resolution 2372, which last year directed that Amisom commence a force drawdown.
Accordingly, last October, the Amisom which was 22,000-strong reduced the force by 1,000 soldiers, with a similar number set to leave in October this year.
But with Al Shabaab still lurking in the shadows and making deadly forays into the capital as well as Amisom bases and executing deadly attacks, the locals warn that the drawdown is too soon as the SNA alone cannot contain the insurgents.
Even now, local communities in Lower Shabelle region report that Al Shabaab operate from as close as five kilometres from Amisom bases, and the peacekeeping force’s withdrawal would leave communities exposed to attack.
“If Amisom were to leave now, Al Shabaab would capture the entire place in one minute, just one minute,” says Moulid Abdirahman, a Somali national and intelligence officer who has worked closely with the peacekeepers for the last 10 years.
Nuur Osman Raage, the District Commissioner of Marka also says that before issuing a directive to whittle down Amisom, the UN should take into account the security concerns of the Somalis who want “Amisom to drive Al Shabaab farther away from our area.”
Other elders lay the blame on their government. “Our president stays in Mogadishu and has never come here. That is a fact. This place is peaceful because of Amisom,” says Abdukadir Mohamed from Ceeljaale village, about 71km southwest of the capital.
Brig Gen Paul Lokech, Commander of the Ugandan contingent in Amisom says force commanders share the Somalis’ fears that the SNA is still short on numbers, organisation and operational capacity to take over the areas that are currently under the peacekeeping force’s protection.
“In every war there is transition, but from a military lens, we need to prepare the SNA. Are they ready? Yes, they are being trained, but it is a process. People calling for a drawdown need to handle it carefully,” he told a group of journalists at his offices in Mogadishu recently.
The bulk of the SNA was trained in Uganda, but these number about 4,000 soldiers only. The SNA is beefed up by allied clan militia, but it is still is short on numbers, command and control to man the regions that Amisom has liberated.
“Getting fighters is easy, but how do you command and control them? Do not forget that we are building an army while fighting insurgents at the same time. The Somali army officers need more preparation,” Brig Gen Lokech said.
“We still need to train Somali officer corps to handle the job at hand. There are 75 Somalis currently on officer cadet training in Uganda. We need a lot more effort in organising the SNA,” he added.
Other key partners training the Somalis, are the European Union, the US.
Also, the Turkish training academy recently graduated one company (between 80 and 150 soldiers), while the United Arab Emirates passed out 900 soldiers.
Since 2011, the Al Shabaab militia that was operating in Afgooye — just 30km from Mogadishu — has been driven further out, forcing the insurgents to resort to guerrilla-style tactics against the Amisom.
To regain lost territory, Al Shabaab could launch attacks against SNA to take back the regions currently under Amisom — if the latter left any vacuum in the sectors it controls.
These are Sector I which includes the special region of Banadir (including Mogadishu) and Lower Shabelle, manned by Ugandans; Sector II is Lower and Middle Jubba under Kenya Defence Forces and Sector III that comprise the South Western states under Ethiopian forces.
The others are Sector IV in Hiiran region under Djibouti forces, Sector V in Middle Shabelle covered by Burundi and Sector VI which is part of Jubbaland, manned by a multinational force from different troop contributing countries.
Sector I alone has 5,700 soldiers — more than one-third of the entire SNA — under battle groups XXII, XXIII, and XXIV.
Critically, Battle Group XXIV deploys and guards key security and strategic installations like the airport, the seaport, the UN agencies, the Federal Government of Somalia headquarters, State House, Parliament, embassy headquarters, Al Jazeera Training School and the capital.
Somalia also has a 3,000km coastline — a strategic feature for the Al Shabaab to exploit and launch attacks.
Securing the coastline is an uphill task for the SNA which is estimated to have about 15,000 soldiers, but 30 per cent of whom are unarmed — which was a damning finding of an “Operational Readiness Assessment” that was released by the Somali government last December.
According to Lt. Col Fred Mwesigye, the Commandant of the First Infantry Battalion headquartered at Shalamboot, “the headquarters” of Al Shabaab in the town of Janaale in Lower Shabelle region, is not far away from the coastline.
“This is an enemy infested area… their headquarters is just 8km from here. I am not scaring you, but that’s the situation,” he told a group of embedded journalists from Uganda, that recently toured the forward operating bases of the largest contingent of the AU peacekeeping force.
Apparently, Sector VI also still requires heavy deployment, which is part of Jubbaland and is patrolled by the multinational force under Burundi’s Brig Gen Fréderic Ndayisaba.
This is the smallest of the areas where Amisom deploys, covering only 20,000 km2, but it has the biggest Al Shabaab presence, according to the force spokesperson Lt Col Richard Omwega.
Amisom was created by the Peace and Security Council of the African Union in January 2007, as a peacekeeping force in the war-torn Horn of Africa country, initially with a six month mandate, which was subsequently renewed and extended.
The mission landed the first boots on Somali soil in March 2007 from Uganda, followed by Burundi.
Eleven years later, the force which now includes Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti — is working toward its exit.
Still, questions remain as to how this transition will be implemented, and whether withdrawal as directed by the UNSC is achievable.
“There are certain areas we can’t leave,” says the Amisom spokesman Lt Col Omwega.
“We met the SNA and sector commanders recently and agreed that our exit is conditional depending on the prevailing security situation.”