Al Shabaab resilience, diplomatic row muddle troop withdrawal from Somalia
- Written by ibro

Mogadishu (CRN) March 12 , 2019  The ongoing withdrawal of troops from Somalia is raising concerns of a security vacuum that a resurgent al Shabaab will exploit.

The African Union Mission in Somalia was initially meant to deploy with 8,000 troops for just six months in 2007. However, it has had its mandate consistently renewed and expanded.

Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti and Burundi have since jointly contributed 22,000 troops. Now they are trying to scale back and hand control to a fledgling Somali government and ill-equipped military.

The first reduction of troops was done in December 2017. In line with the UN Security Council Resolution 2431 (2018), 1,000 troops will withdraw this month in the second phase.

However, recent terror attacks in Somalia have put to question the strategy. An October 2017 attack killed 587 people in Mogadishu. This month there were two attacks, with one killing nine and the second killing a military commander.

Kenya, too, continues to suffer deadly attacks, which al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for. The dusitD2 attack that killed 21 was a show of resilience by the militant group.

To make matters worse, a diplomatic row broke out on Saturday after Kenya declared Somalia an enemy state and summoned its envoy in a dramatic escalation of a long-running maritime dispute. Somalia denied offering oil and gas blocs in Kenyan territory for auction, but relations are yet to be normalised. It was not immediately clear how this would affect Kenya’s involvement with Amisom.

Last week, senior commanders of Amisom met in Mogadishu to chart the way forward ahead of the next phase of withdrawal.

AUC chairman Mousa Faki sounded the alarm in a communiqué calling for the country to be stabilised first.

“A premature withdrawal is likely to undermine the gains made over the last decade, at a great human and financial cost,” he said.

“Central to this will be predictable financing for Amisom that will make it possible for the Somali national security forces to take over primary security responsibility from Amisom.”


The latest withdrawal of troops will affect Burundian troops, who are based in Jowhar, HirShabelle State.

That they picked on Burundi forces was not a coincidence. The EU Council had in March 2016 sanctioned Burundi over human rights violations, which in effect meant they would not pay their soldiers’ allowances. If they were to stay, the AU had to get donors to pay them.

This was communicated by the AU Commission to UN Support Office for Somalia in a letter dated December 19, 2018.

Recalling a meeting with the Military Operations Coordination Committee on November 18, 2018, AUC wrote: “It has been decided that Burundi National Defence Forces draw down by 1,000 troops by February 2019. The Commission would appreciate it if UNSOS, in coordination with Amisom, could facilitate the drawdown of BNDF accordingly.” 

Simon Mulongo, the Deputy Special Representative of the Chairperson of the AUC for Somalia, said on Monday: “We need to make do with the little resources we have and implement the new ConOps [Concept of Operations] to help Amisom fulfil its mandate of securing Somalia.”


While Western countries are pushing for a systematic withdrawal, Somalia and the region are opposed to the move. 

Hirshabelle President Mohamed Abdi Waare said on February 3 if hurriedly implemented, the drawdown would leave his state vulnerable to attacks. He said there is still work to be done to ensure successful implementation of the Transition Plan.

Head of Amisom Amb Fransisco Madeira told him the transition would be systematic.

“Late last year, the Chiefs of Defence Staff of the Troop and Police Contributing Countries met and approved Amisom’s ConOps for the transition period. The document is important, as it will guide how the transition plan will be implemented,” Madeira said.

 Elders and chiefs, however, want the process delayed, saying Somalia’s security forces cannot contain the threat from al Shabaab.

Ilya Gridneff, an international journalist covering the Horn of Africa, says the move “doesn’t sound confidence-inspiring for the 400 local police planned to be trained then deployed in Jowhar and supported by EU/UK”.

Waare last Wednesday insisted the withdrawal would create a “burden” on his region’s security.

The TCCs (Troop Contributing Countries) and the Somali government also want the drawdown stopped to allow recovery of territories under control of al Shabaab and other terror groups. There is already a supremacy battle between al Qaeda-affiliated groups and Isis in some parts of Somalia.

President Mohamed Farmaajo acknowledges Somalia still has “a long way to go”. 

Speaking at a meeting convened by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala, he said: “I believe if we continue to collaborate with the help of the EU and the international community continues funding this operation, we will defeat al Shabaab in very short order.”


President Uhuru Kenyatta is on record calling for more troops in Somalia to cushion the Kenya Defence Forces and the country from al Shabaab attacks.

“Of particular concern to us in Kenya is the curious absence of Amisom in the Gedo region. This region has now become a safe haven for al Shabaab and a launching pad for attacks against our troops and people along our common border with Somalia. It has become a critical soft belly for Kenya,” he told the Heads of State Summit for Amisom TCCs in Djibouti in February 2017.

And on BBC Hardtalk last week, Deputy President William Ruto reiterated Kenya’s commitment to the cause. Stephen Sackur asked him: “If I may shorthand it, you are telling me that your military commitment in Somalia is open-ended, indefinite?”

Ruto said: “It is indefinite until we are certain that Somalia is safe. Before then, it will be reckless for us to walk away from a threat that threatens our country.”

Patrick Gathara, who worked with Amisom until 2015, said the number being withdrawn is “only a small, partial drawdown, as happened last year”.

“Amisom still retains the better part of 20,000 troops, and although there is talk of a full withdrawal by next year, this is unlikely to happen, as the Somali National Security Forces are, and will be, in no position to secure the whole country. It wouldn’t be the first time such a withdrawal is contemplated but never realised,” he said.

Hassan Mohamed, a former war correspondent based outside Mogadishu, also says the withdrawal of 1,000 peacekeepers will not pose a major risk to Somalia “because there will still be a strong force of 21,000 armed personnel on the ground in Somalia”.

“The withdrawal represents a 4.5 per cent drawback. This is an insignificant percentage that will not be felt on the ground, only if the 1,000 forces are equally shared among the five contingents,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that the Somalia National Army is not ready to fully secure a spot without Amisom support “because they are ill-equipped”. 

In May 2017 at the London Conference, Uhuru called for more soldiers rather than withdrawals.

“I urge this conference to endorse the call by the TCCs and the AU for urgent measures to support and strengthen Amisom,” he said.

“This should include the upsurge of Amisom by an additional 4,000 troops to liberate areas still under the control of terrorists.”

He also pushed for the provision of predictable and sustainable funding, including from the UN-assessed contributions. Uhuru in January last year criticised the withdrawal when he met UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He said the best way to stabilise Somalia would be through more support for Amisom.

“I would like to call on the UN and the AU to ensure practical and realistic Amisom exit timelines that should be subjected to regular reviews,” Uhuru said in Addis Ababa on the sidelines of the 30th Ordinary Session of the AU Heads of State Summit.

In July, Guterres, wrote to the Security Council advising that the drawdown was not realistic, especially after the Mogadishu attack on October 17. That position remains.

Commanders of the African peacekeeping force have also warned that withdrawal of their troops will be premature.

The US is also opposed to the withdrawal. However, there are questions on its honesty, given UNSC resolutions are decisions taken by the countries on the Security Council (on the recommendation of the Secretary General).

Why, then, would veto-wielding permanent members such as the US agree to a resolution mandating the withdrawal if they were opposed to it?

Uganda is also not keen on leaving. Instead, it has issued a proposal to donors that would enable its troops to remain in Somalia under a new arrangement, provided they are funded.

Funding is also a key challenge in the peace process.

Djibouti President Ismail Gueleh struck a different tone. He commended the Somali government for its efforts to rebuild the Somali military and said it is now able to take care of itself.

“I think this is the time right time that Somalia could be given the responsibility. The country could not have depended on troops from foreign countries forever,” he said.


Many refugees who voluntarily returned say they are in a far worse position than they had been in the Daadab refugee camp, with no access to food, shelter or medicine.

And with them losing their legal refugee status, they are no longer entitled to donor or UNHCR help.

Reached for comment, UNHCR-Kenya spokesperson Yvonne Ndege said: “Safety and security in the country is paramount as is UNHCR’s access to refugee returnees and internally displaced people. Refugees may wish to return voluntarily to Somalia, and if they do, UNHCR is there to support this and ensure they are able to make an informed decision.”

She further noted that all civilians, including returnees and displaced people, should never be targets of conflict and have the right to live in safety.

It, therefore, emerges that the withdrawal poses a risk that it might offer an opportunity to al Shabaab to regroup.

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