Reforming the AU Mission in Somalia

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Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°176
Nairobi/Brussels, 15 November 2021

What’s new? The UN mandate for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) will expire on 31 December 2021. Fatigued financial donors want reforms and perhaps cuts, while the AU and troop-contributing states seek reliable funding. Somalia’s government relies on the mission but is nonetheless ambivalent about the need to maintain it.

Why does it matter? Despite a mixed record, AMISOM is essential in maintaining a measure of stability in Somalia. A hasty withdrawal would embolden Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency and could plunge the country into chaos. But donors are increasingly reluctant to bankroll a mission that has made little progress against militants over recent years.

What should be done? The UN Security Council should extend AMISOM’s mandate by six months. AMISOM’s partners should use that time to make a reconfiguration plan that contemplates a five-year horizon; seek funding from the UN, African Union and others to address shortfalls; and encourage reconciliation between Mogadishu and its domestic adversaries.

I. Overview The UN mandate for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is set to run out on 31 December 2021. AMISOM has operated in Somalia for fourteen years, primarily to protect the federal government in Mogadishu from Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency. A sudden withdrawal would almost certainly allow Al-Shabaab to take over much of Somalia. But views diverge among key players about AMISOM’s future. Troop-contributing countries and the African Union (AU) seek funds to keep the mission going, but donors as well as Somali authorities feel that its value is waning. Virtually all agree that if it continues, the mission needs major reform. Though the mission has a mixed record, now is not the time to wind it up. The UN Security Council should extend AMISOM’s mandate by six months to give donors, troop contributors and the Somali government time to agree on the mission’s future reconfiguration and funding.

AMISOM’s donors and partners have a stark choice and no good options. In its early years, the AU mission ousted Al-Shabaab from key urban centres, creating space for Somali elites to build institutions and a political system. But counter-insurgency efforts have run out of steam, with Al-Shabaab gaining ground of late. AMISOM today undertakes fewer offensives and acts more as a holding force as the Somali army, weak and riven by divisions, is unable to hold areas the AU mission recaptures. Somali politics is a big part of the problem, with disputes between Mogadishu and subnational units known as federal member states undercutting efforts to fight Al-Shabaab. In these conditions, it is hardly surprising that donors chafe at extending the mission’s mandate as is. Still, AMISOM keeps Al-Shabaab at bay. Pull it out, and militants could overrun the country. Keeping the mission in place is essential, at least for now.

The first challenge is for the Somali government, AU and donors – especially the European Union (EU), which pays AU soldiers’ stipends and thus shoulders the bulk of direct mission costs – to agree on the mission’s future. The UN Security Council should roll over AMISOM’s mandate for six months to buy time for that to happen and, ideally, to get past Somalia’s elections, which are delayed but should conclude in early 2022, barring further delays in an already drawn-out electoral calendar. Mogadishu and its partners should then work toward a compromise that envisages a reconfigured AMISOM plan extended for a longer period, perhaps up to five years. That would provide room for the mission to carry Somalia through a full presidential term and the next election cycle, giving its leaders time to enact necessary reforms.

To enable better planning and assuage some of the AU’s concerns, Brussels should quickly give the AU a sense of its maximum budget, with the exact contributions then negotiated on the basis of a detailed AU plan. 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, while also undertaking serious consideration as to what financial support it might be able to provide itself through its Peace Fund. Members of the UN Security Council should also consider how they might be able to fill gaps creatively through increased funding to UN operations in Somalia that support AMISOM.

Several steps could improve future operations. Soliciting new troop contributors from outside Somalia’s immediate neighbourhood could bring new energy to the force, help remedy its persistent command-and-control dysfunction and add sorely needed new capabilities to address an evolving Al-Shabaab threat. The mission can also close isolated bases that serve little purpose as a first step toward freeing up troops and moving on from the holding mentality to which the mission has become accustomed.

The biggest challenge, however, lies less on the battlefield and more in Somali politics. Without mending divisions among Somali leaders, donors will be facing the same dilemma they confront today in five years’ time. The top priority should be reinvigorated diplomatic efforts to repair the fraught ties between Somalia’s federal government and member states, which undercut efforts to build an effective national army. Reconciliation and regular engagement between these spheres of influence is essential to making progress on other tasks, such as finalising the provisional constitution, which will further strengthen the Somali government and its political order more broadly.

More controversially, all partners should consider AMISOM’s extension with the understanding that the coming years will need to see a concerted push to engage with Al-Shabaab, or at least with factions amenable to talks, with the aim of convincing insurgents to join a political process. Such reconciliation presents an enormous challenge: East African governments for now reject talks with Al-Shabaab; nor have militant leaders themselves expressed much interest – they may prefer to simply wait out foreign forces. Still, little suggests the group can be defeated by military means alone.

Notwithstanding the uphill climb ahead, keeping a reconfigured mission in place is the least bad option. Success over the coming years is far from guaranteed. Generating the conditions in Somalia in which AMISOM can safely withdraw requires domestic reforms that thus far have eluded Somali elites. It requires determination, which to date has been in short supply, from those elites to put aside their differences. Most difficult of all, it requires outreach to Al-Shabaab. But the alternative – pull out AMISOM, risk a Taliban-style takeover of Somalia by Islamist militants and spark a major political and humanitarian crisis in an already deeply unstable Horn of Africa – is much worse. If AMISOM’s partners deem the Somali federal project worth preserving, a five-year reconfiguration and transition plan could mesh the realities behind their understandable impatience and the time required to give Somali leaders what will almost certainly be a last shot at making it work.