Care needs to be taken so East Africa’s troops don’t lose their shirts in Somalia

Monday June 24 2024

Somalia, then, is not a continuing aberration. It could be the future of many parts of Africa, already evidenced in the centrifugal forces playing out in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, South Africa, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Libya — almost in every corner of Africa. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The Somali extremist militant group al-Shabaab shot back into the spotlight at the start of the week, after it released a skilfully curated one-hour video showing recruits for its “special forces” units.

The video came out as senior American defence officials told US media that Al Shabaab had reversed all Somali National Army (SNA) gains in central Somalia over the past two years.

That claim infuriated Mogadishu, with Somalia’s national security adviser Hussein Sheik-Ali, according to reports, calling the assessment “rubbish”.

Sources close to the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis), previously the African Union Mission in Somalia, Amisom, told me they estimate that Al Shabaab could have reached a figure at par with the SNA, and twice the number of the Atmis, comprised of troops drawn from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia, who are still in Somalia.

Atmis, which started as Amisom in 2007, is scheduled to end in December, barring a last-minute decision to extend it. Analysts fear that should that happen, as one of them put it, “then we shall have an Afghanistan situation,” referring to when the US withdrew and the Taliban promptly overwhelmed the government and seized power within days.

Read: OBBO: There’s a secret plot to save EAC from imminent death


There are many months of nail-biting ahead for the region. As it did during the Covid pandemic, Al Shabaab seems to have used the distraction of the Israel-Hamas war to build up its muscle. It has also exploited the European Union's “Somalia fatigue” to advance.

The EU has been the primary funder of Amisom and now Atmis, with the African countries contributing mostly blood. But with the thousands of illegal migrants landing on its shores and driving the rise of the European right — and even fascists — at the polls, the European Establishment’s interest in Somalia diminished considerably.

Shabaab leaders

Additionally, after over 15 years, there was a sense the Somalia federal government, as one commentator put it, “is not at home.”

The US has remained engaged, but mostly through targeted bombing of Shabaab leaders. Though it has killed many, it is no longer an effective strategy, according to Rashid Abdi, chief analyst, Horn of Africa, and Middle East for Sahan Research, based in Nairobi.

“Shabaab has adapted considerably,” he told me. “They have moved to a pre-emptive leadership model, where a chain of leaders is predetermined and in waiting,” he said.

“The Shura Council can meet very quickly and within hours of a leader or leaders’ death, their replacement is in place and they are up and running.”

It is possible that organisationally Shabaab could be profiting from the US eliminating so many of its leaders. Because the militants have to line up several successors, many more commanders are committed to the cause because the prospect of them sitting on the throne is real. Also, rotating leaders so many times could bring more new and fresher perspectives to the jihadists’ table.

The EU turning off of the taps has hit Atmis very hard. The AU mission is in arrears of nearly $145 million in payments of its bills and troops salaries.

“The troops haven’t been paid since May 2023, and we are only now getting to a position where we might pay last June and July’s wages,” sources at Atmis said. For now, cash-strapped troop-contributing countries are picking up most of the tabs for their soldiers.

Read: OBBO: Why you will love and fear these East African lands

Earlier in the year, a UN diplomat in Mogadishu told me the situation for the troops was already “very difficult”.

“We went to one of the Atmis forward positions, and several of the soldiers didn’t even have tents. They were living in shelters made of torn cardboard and didn’t have enough to eat. They asked us for ‘some change’ to buy food,” he said. That is no way to beat hardy Shabaab fighters on full stomachs.

However, Abdi thinks all these difficulties are symptoms of a bigger problem.

“We are seeing another face of the crisis of the post-colonial African state in Somalia, and no matter how good the intentions of Atmis have been, there is little it can do against the momentum of history.

“One of the structural problems of the post-colonial states is that they were set up to secure the urban areas, not the countryside,” he argued.

“Over the decades, the two have drifted apart, and it is just a matter of degree depending on the country. The authority and legitimacy of the state extends very little beyond the cities, and Somalia is an extreme case of that.”

He said this was also playing out in the Sudan war. “The war in Sudan has revealed places like Khartoum, or Port Sudan, for the city-states they were,” he said, with the rest of the country a hellish wilderness. Actors like Al Shabaab are emerging to occupy and fashion new formations outside the old “city-states”.

Somalia, then, is not a continuing aberration. It could be the future of many parts of Africa, already evidenced in the centrifugal forces playing out in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, South Africa, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Libya — almost in every corner of Africa.

Next week, we look at who is likely to emerge winner in Somalia and look at the ripples that an Afghanistan-style outcome there will set off in the wider East and Horn of Africa region.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3