As former Ugandan leader Milton Obote’s second sojourn in power approached its end in May 1985, his vice president and defence minister, Paulo Muwanga, described an incident in which opposing factions within the army clashed as a case of “uncoordinated troop movements.”
Echoes of that statement came to mind in Somalia this week as a February 28 deadline for a drawdown of 1,000 boots from the Amisom contingent loomed.
At the centre of it all is the African Union Peace Support Operations Division’s decision last December that the initial drawdown would be exclusive to the Burundian contingent.
Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza has not hidden his feeling that the European Union, a key sponsor of Amisom, was unfairly targeting his country.
President Nkurunziza has suggested that any drawdowns be spread proportionally across all the troop-contributing countries.
With 5,400 boots on the ground, Burundi accounts for about a quarter of Amisom’s strength. The other large contributor is Uganda with a 6,200-strong contingent.
Many commentators on the issue have tended to focus on the $72 million a year that Burundi collects from the mission in compensation for its troops’ contribution as the major motivation for Bujumbura’s opposition to the drawdown. Whatever truth there may be to that line of reasoning, it misses one crucial fact.
After more than a decade on the ground and having deployed nearly 22,000 soldiers from five countries, Amisom, working with the fledgling Somali National Army, is yet to completely subdue Al Shabaab. The terror group has mutated and still controls significant territory in Somalia from which it emerges to stage the occasional but fatal attack on civilians in the capital Mogadishu and the peacekeeping forces themselves.
One of the reasons Amisom has given for its failure to rout Al Shabaab is that the peacekeepers have been short of “force multipliers” – military parlance for equipment such as attack helicopters and other offensive weapons that would enhance their ability to take the fight to the enemy. This is because the EU and other donors have been unwilling to take on the additional cost.
In the circumstances, headcount is important. Any reduction in the number of foreign troops will need to be matched by either a corresponding increase in the number of Somali National Army soldiers or better equipment and mobility for the remaining Amisom contingent.
A hasty withdrawal is, however, fraught with risk for what has been achieved so far because Al Shabaab is in hibernation; it is not dead.
It has been suggested that the choice fell on Burundi because its troops are the most vulnerable given their relatively low levels of equipment. Yet another counter-narrative is that this was the EU’s way of getting back at Bujumbura over its human-rights record.
Whatever the case, any scaling back of the Amisom mission must be handled in a judicious and equitable manner for the African Union’s own credibility.