Doubts grow about AU mission to Somalia as al-Shabaab mounts attacks
Doubts are growing about African Union forces’ abilities to defeat the radical group al-Shabaab in Somalia. Despite the union’s battlefield successes, the Islamists have retained their military capacity and recently carried out large-scale attacks on union bases.
Analysts said the union’s troops lack sufficient intelligence gathering and organization with some of the contingents reporting to their national armies instead of the African Union command.
The joint forces of the African Union and the Somali army also have no air power to provide cover for troops and to destroy al-Shabaab bases. “We need to fight the militants from the air,” Somali commander Abdirahman Mohamed Osman Tima’adde said.
Another problems is the poor perception by the public. “People do not trust our peacekeepers because they know al-Shabaab will come back if we leave them behind,” a senior official with the African Union forces said from the central region of Hiiraan on the condition of anonymity.
The mission blames its problems partly on its partner, the 8,000-member Somali army, which the country has struggled to reconstitute after the government collapsed in 1991, plunging Somalia into two decades of chaos that provided fertile ground for groups like al-Shabaab to arise.
“Poorly paid and ill-disciplined Somali soldiers are part of the problem,” the union official from Hiiraan said.
The confidence of Somalis in the African Union force has been eroded by incidents in which its troops reportedly fired on and killed civilians. The union’s mission has denied or pledged to investigate such cases.
But businessman Yahye Abdullahi charged, “The African troops are not here in the interest of the Somali people.”
The mission, in Somalia since 2007, comprises about 22,000 troops, mainly from Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Analysts said the union’s largest multinational force has played a key role in weakening al-Shabaab, which has an estimated 5,000 fighters.
Al-Shabaab controlled most of southern and central Somalia and parts of Mogadishu in 2009 and 2010, but Somali and African Union troops drove it out of the capital and other key cities the following year.
In 2014, al-Shabaab, which means “youth” in Arabic, lost coastal towns which had allowed it to earn port revenue, and the newest offensive, launched in July, dislodged it from its strongholds of Baardheere and Dinsoor.
Successes have been achieved with the help of the United States, which has trained elite Somali commandos and African Union troops and sends drones to target al-Shabaab, whose leader Ahmed Godane was killed in such a strike last year.
But while al-Shabaab has lost most of the towns it had controlled, it still rules over much of the countryside in southern and central Somalia, ambushing military convoys and cutting supply routes.
In June, al-Shabaab carried out a suicide car bombing and a wider assault on an African Union base in Lego in the south. In September, hundreds of Islamists stormed another base in Janaale in the same region.
More than 90 Burundian and Ugandan soldiers were killed in both attacks, said a Somali intelligence officer who asked to be identified only as Hassan.
Such incidents “do not promise a good future for the [African Union] mission,” he said.
The union’s soldiers responded to the attacks by withdrawing from several locations in the area, ceding them to al-Shabaab. dpa was unable to obtain an official comment from the African Union mission, whose spokesman did not respond to e-mails and phone calls.
Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab is also carrying out attacks in neighbouring countries. It killed 76 people watching football’s World Cup in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in 2010; at least 67 people at a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013; and at least 148 people at a university campus in eastern Kenya in April.
It is not known how many African Union soldiers have been killed in Somalia, with some estimates putting their number in the thousands. The recent casualties have contributed to criticism of the mission, also known as AMISOM.
“Uganda and AMISOM … need to lay down stronger strategies” against al-Shabaab, said Norbert Mao from Uganda’s opposition Democratic Party.
Yilkal Getnet from Ethiopia’s opposition Blue Party said he wants a pullback in Ethiopia’s contribution. “It would be better if … Ethiopia only supported Somalia via training and logistics,” he said.
In Kenya, 49 per cent of people interviewed by the polling firm Ipsos said they did not believe the African Union mission would pacify Somalia.
“We are rethinking to come up with new military structures,” the mission official who requested anonymity admitted.