Security and the planned elections in Somalia in 2020 could be in jeopardy as the country continues to face increased terror attacks blamed on poor facilitation and funding of the national army and African peacekeepers.
The Somali National Army (SNA) this week vacated at least three of their bases in protest over months of missed pay.
The abandoned bases are in the Middle Shabelle region. The SNA is funded by the government in Mogadishu, the United States and the European Union, while Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the UK occasionally chip in.
Somalia's weak central government relies on the support of the military and African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) peacekeepers against the Islamic militants Al Shabaab.
“It is painful to be in the frontline and fighting Al Shabaab while your wife and kids are starving,” Col Abdi Mohamed Ahmed, one of the troops’ commanders, told Reuters, adding that troops were deserting more bases.
But Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire told government news agency Sonna that only soldiers not registered had not been paid.
“Let the commanders register the unpaid soldiers. After that let the commanders ask for the salaries,” he said.
This — coming at a time when Uganda and Burundi, the two big troop-contributing countries in Amisom, are already protesting a phased drawdown called by the UN and AU, threatening to pull out all their soldiers if the two organisations insist on it — is disconcerting, with Somalia watchers warning that any sign of retreat or weakness by the Somali military or Amisom is potentially a boost to Al Shabaab.
If the two countries were to make good their threat, with the SNA leaving its bases, it would leave large swathes of the country exposed to a possible takeover by the Shabaab, who have been fighting the regime in Mogadishu and terrorising neighbouring countries for years now.
Uganda and Burundi have openly resisted the drawdown as per the United Nations Resolution 2431 that demanded reduction of uniformed Amisom personnel by 1,000 by the end of February. The two countries have threatened to withdraw all their troops at once.
Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza threatened to withdraw all its 5,432 troops if the AU does not reverse the decision. He was concerned that the withdrawal of 1,000 troops as directed by the AU Peace Support Operations Division would leave the remaining troops vulnerable to attacks by Al Shabaab.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni issued a similar threat, saying that the UN plan for a phased withdrawal shows “lack of seriousness” in eliminating Al Shabaab from Somalia.
These developments forced a visit to Somalia by a joint delegation of the AU and UN to assess progress made in implementing the Somalia Transition Plan. They are yet to produce a report.
Meanwhile, Kenya has started a withdrawal from Gedo region in southern Somalia, amid a heightened dispute over the maritime border with Mogadishu.
The search for an out-of-court settlement seemed to have failed — even with mediation by Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed — paving the way for a legal battle at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
According to the Daily Nation, Nairobi is putting together the final touches to its defence in the case, set to begin in September.
Al Shabaab wants to expel Amisom from Somalia, topple the central government and entrench its strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The group was ejected from Mogadishu in 2011 and has since been driven from most of its other strongholds across the country. But it remains a formidable threat, with its fighters frequently carrying out bombings in Somalia and the East African region, with Kenya bearing the brunt of the attacks.
Somalia has been striving to overhaul its security forces, which have drawn accusations of corruption from Somalia’s international donors.
In 2017, the United States suspended food and fuel aid for most of Somalia’s armed forces for alleged graft and frustration at the failure of successive Somali governments to build a viable national army.
While the Uganda and Burundi issue is being addressed, the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Gedo and protests by SNA have lifted the veil on the pitfalls in the plan to pacify Somalia.
The Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and the SNA continue to retreat from their positions for various reasons, endangering the gains the peacekeepers have made in recent years.
Kenya has remained tight-lipped on why its troops have withdrawn from Bardhera, Bursar, El Adde, Taraka and Fafadum in Gedo region outside the new Amisom operations blueprint known as the Concept of Operations (CONOPs). This concept is meant to see several Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) reconfigured and others disbanded.
Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa project co-ordinator at the International Crisis Group, said that the KDF mission in Somalia faces the inevitable prospect of diminishing returns and it is time Kenya invested in a robust, well-equipped border defence force and gradually exit Somalia.
The government of President Uhuru Kenyatta has resisted calls from the opposition for a KDF withdrawal from Somalia after a series of Al Shabaab terrorist attacks both in Kenya and Somalia, including the El Adde, Westgate and Garissa University massacres.
However, Mr Mohammed warns that Kenya’s move, if it is related to the maritime dispute, could give it a bad name, especially if Al Shabaab retake the areas that had been liberated. In 2016, Ethiopia withdrew 4,000 troops who were outside Amisom from bases in Bakol region, citing lack of support from the international community. Al Shabaab quickly moved into the vacated areas.
Mohammed Guled, a veteran journalist and commentator on Somalia, says that the government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo is likely to welcome the withdrawal but the public is unhappy with the prospect of Al Shabaab taking over.
“Residents in these areas will feel unsafe because, from past experiences, Al Shabaab killed residents of areas vacated by Amisom, accusing them of supporting infidels,” said Mr Guled.
Additional reporting by Reuters