Fourteen years after it was deployed to fight al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency, the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) is at a crossroads. Amisom’s mandate from the UN Security Council is set to expire on December 31, 2021, with little sign that Somali security forces would be able to immediately step into the mission’s shoes were Amisom to pull out.
Key partners mostly agree that Amisom’s sudden withdrawal would embolden al-Shabaab but views diverge about the mission’s future.
Troop-contributing countries (Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Burundi and Uganda) and the African Union (AU) want predictable funding to keep Amisom going. Fatigued European donors, on the other hand, wonder why they are bankrolling a mission which has become more of a holding force than a counter-insurgency operation, while squabbling among Somali politicians hinders reforms aimed at strengthening the state and its security forces.
With December 31 fast approaching, the UN Security Council should extend Amisom’s mandate by six months. This would give donors, troop contributors and the Somali government time to agree on a comprehensive reconfiguration of the mission, ideally coupled with a long-term plan .
Given fractious Somali politics, extending Amisom’s mandate comes with no guarantee of success, but the alternative is much worse. Pulling Amisom out could prompt an al-Shabaab advance in parts of Somalia, likely triggering another major political and humanitarian crisis in an already deeply unstable Horn of Africa.
Amisom has played a crucial role in stabilising Somalia. In its early years, it managed to rid key urban centres of al-Shabaab militants, creating space for Somali elites to build institutions and a political system. Its counter-insurgency efforts came with a heavy price for the troop-contributing countries, with thousands killed or injured in combat.
But many donors feel that the mission’s value is waning. Al-Shabaab still dominates most rural centres of south-central Somalia, while its significant intelligence and force projection capabilities have allowed it to gradually reinfiltrate urban centres outside its control.
Today, Amisom has stopped going on the offensive, acting mainly as a holding force that protects areas recaptured from al-Shabaab.
Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo’s government meanwhile favours a quick, phased Amisom withdrawal, having developed a transition plan under which Amisom hands over security responsibility to the armed forces by the end of 2023.
Yet even Somali officials who complain about the mission admit that this deadline is unrealistic.
Irritated by the mission’s lack of progress and the absence of a clear termination date or plan, donors understandably chafe at extending the mission’s mandate as is, with the EU, which pays troop stipends, saying that it will reduce contributions for 2022. While most donors and partners are dissatisfied with the status quo, they disagree about the shape Amisom could take post-2021. A common vision will be crucial though if Amisom is to deliver what it was created for — space for a stable Somalia to emerge.
Several steps could improve future Amisom operations. Soliciting new troop contributors from outside Somalia’s immediate neighbourhood, for example, could bring new energy to the force, dilute the dominance of existing troop contributing countries — some of which have political interests in Somalia.
Clarity about the mission’s funding could also facilitate planning. In the past, donors have wanted to see plans for Amisom before releasing funds. Without a rough sense of available money, however, the AU will struggle to put together a convincing proposal. The EU should therefore give the AU a sense of its maximum budget, while the AU should seek to diversify funding by lobbying other countries including China, Gulf Arab powers and Turkey, none of which have an interest in the mission withdrawing. The AU should also consider drawing funds from its own budget to support the mission.
The biggest challenge, however, lies in Somali politics. Donors will be facing the dilemma they confront today in five years’ time if Somalia’s elites remain divided. To this end, Somalia’s partners should renew and reinforce their diplomatic engagement to help repair the fraught ties between Somalia’s federal government and member states. More controversially, and keeping in mind that defeating the group militarily is currently a remote prospect, some form of engagement with al-Shabaab, or at least with parts of the group amenable to talks, will need to happen in the coming years to convince the Islamist militants to join a political process.
Somalia’s donors and partners face a stark choice and no good option. However, for all the understandable concerns, Amisom’s continuation in some form is the only immediately viable means to avert a deterioration of the security situation in Somalia.
Amisom cannot remain in the country forever, but its continued presence would at least buy the Somali government more time to carry out domestic reforms and make Somalia’s federal project work.
Omar Mahmood is the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Somalia.