True cost of world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission shockingly high

Thursday January 25 2018

Kenya Defence Forces troops under Africa Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) patrol Kismayu town on November 22, 2015. The audacious amphibious landing by the Kenyans on the coastline of Kismayu led to the capture of this important southern coastal town. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG


One of the worst attacks on the United Nations peacekeepers in recent history took place in December in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

An operating base of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (Monusco) was attacked by suspected members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group labelled a terrorist organisation by the Ugandan government. Fifteen UN peacekeepers were killed.

This tragedy deserves all the media attention and anger it sparked, but far more serious attacks have happened to the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom).

On March 5, 2007, the first Amisom troops, deployed by the AU with the approval of the United Nations Security Council, arrived in Somalia on a peace-support operation.

Their mandate was multifaceted, focusing mainly on reducing the threat posed by Al Shabaab militants and aiding the country in creating and maintaining structures of good governance and security.

In the initial phases of the mission, 1,500 soldiers in Mogadishu controlled the airport and a narrow coastal strip, including the presidential palace, which was under continuous attack by Al Shabaab. 


Amisom’s local allies, the Somali army, were nothing more than a rabble, with officers accused of selling ammunition to the militants and stealing the wages of their own troops.

The initial Ugandan and later Burundian forces were ill-equipped for the task at hand — with no tanks, helicopters or artillery and very little of the heavy equipment required to break the Shabaab siege.

Daily casualties were incurred from snipers and ground assaults, with the majority of deaths caused by improvised explosive devices.

Amisom was vulnerable, as it did not have any significant medical or communications equipment, nor accommodation and mine detectors. Not all troops had their own body armour. Some died of malnutrition.

Despite being under-resourced and isolated, these soldiers stood their ground to defend the city, neither yielding control of the airport nor the presidential palace.

Amisom peacekeepers are from African countries: Burundi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. While the AU has not released Amisom’s actual casualty figures for domestic, political and national security reasons in the troop-contributing countries, the death toll to date is estimated at well over 4,000 — a shocking figure. Despite the valuable job the mission is doing, increased UN support has not been forthcoming.

Arriving in Mogadishu in 2007 to visit Amisom, I was responsible for overseeing the UN mine clearance operation in Somalia. The AU mission was funded bilaterally by US and European governments, but no UN funds were available. 

Despite the mission’s UN mandate, we were not permitted to provide formal support to the AU staff. Despite this and the resistance from the UN hierarchy, we trained the staff in IED defensive measures, and provided them with mine detectors and other equipment, as well as medical training.

The number of casualties from IEDs decreased thereafter and more so in 2009, when formal support was permitted for Amisom personnel. Two armoured front-end loaders to dig frontline trenches were supplied.

This early support, with ever-increasing logistical support from the UN Support Office to the Amisom (UNSOA) helped the peacekeepers to expand their area of operations and eventually drive Al Shabaab out of the capital in 2011.

Efficiency and efficacy increased and eventually all the major towns in Somalia were captured.  The audacious amphibious landing by the Kenyans on the coastline of Kismayu led to the capture of this important southern coastal town.

However, despite Amisom’s increased effectiveness, most of the countryside remains under Al Shabaab control. The shift of UNSOA to more political concerns in Somalia undermined the partnership between the two. Amisom was also negatively affected by the international community’s failure to supply the logistics, funding and equipment necessary to secure the whole country.

From the initial under-resourced phase, the mission grew to more than 20,000 peacekeepers. By May 2013, UN reports indicated more than 3,000 deaths, many of which resulted from the liberation battle of Mogadishu.

At least 80 Burundians were killed in lower Shabelle in September 2015; at least 140 Kenyans were killed at an AU military base outside el-Ade in January 2016; and the 50 or more Ugandan soldiers were feared killed at the AU base near Janaale. These numbers are not entirely reliable or verifiable, given Amisom’s refusal to publish the official death toll.

These illustrate just how dangerous the AU peacekeeping mission is. And the recent attack in DRC should be acknowledged and investigated as part of a broader issue: The high casualty rate of African peacekeepers. The UN has neither the capacity nor the political will for peace enforcement missions such as that in Somalia.

Therefore, Amisom needs more support if the thousands of lives given to its cause so far are not to be in vain.

The financial support received by the AU from the UN is a fraction of what it being spent on other much less violent missions: Given that Al Shabaab still controls pockets of rural southern Somalia and is far from defeated, the withdrawal of troops from contributing countries for lack of support would negate Amisom’s gains.

David Bax is the director of Resilience Africa, a South African non-profit focusing on forced migration and violent extremism.