Africa, Politics

Al Shabaab to face the new African five-country club

By Simon Allison 6 January 2012

So there is such a thing as African unity. Under the banner of the African Union, five African countries have agreed to coordinate their armies in Somalia, in the interests of wiping out Al Shabaab once and for all. But Al Shabaab won’t go easy. By SIMON ALLISON.

Defence chiefs from five East African countries met in Addis Ababa this week to discuss Somalia. Kenya was represented, as was Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda. You might be wondering what this rather disparate bunch have to do with Somalia, besides their relative geographic proximity. The answer is simple: they all have soldiers on the ground in Africa’s archetypal failed state. And at this meeting they resolved to have a battle, deciding their soldiers were going to stay until their mission was accomplished.

The mission is, of course, to get rid of Al Shabaab. That’s the main point of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), which have been in Somalia for six years. Amison is currently comprised of troops from Burundi, Djibouti and Uganda. But they haven’t had the chance to go on the offensive much, mainly being stuck guarding the recognised (if largely ineffectual) government, which for most of that time controlled a small section of Mogadishu and little else. Until recently, when Kenya’s unilateral invasion in October changed the calculations considerably, as did Ethiopia’s more recent incursions. The African Union thinks it has Al Shabaab on the ropes now and is going in for the kill.

The new plan is to consolidate all the forces currently in Somalia under one banner. Naturally, that would be the Amisom banner, which is funded in large part by the United Nations, so the AU wouldn’t have to worry too much about that. After incorporating Kenya’s troops, this would bring Amisom troop numbers up to 17,700, which is a not inconsiderable force. Ethiopia has so far declined to pledge its forces, claiming that its military’s sojourn in Somalia will be brief. Given that Ethiopia denied for weeks that they had even entered Somalia, this should be taken with scepticism. In addition to the foreign troops, official Somali security forces would also be brought under the Amisom banner, create a single, united army to combat Al Shabaab. The AU is also looking for increased funds from the UN to provide “force enablers”, which is technology allowing troops to maximise their efficiency, such as helicopters.

Intuitively, this makes sense. Until now there have been at least three command centres in charge of the various foreign forces in Somalia and little coordination.  This is clearly no way to operate a war in which the participants all have the same objectives – except for Al Shabaab, who will now have to confront a far more formidable fighting force than before. And, even more ominously for them, Voice of America reports that diplomats attending the conference claimed plans were being drawn up to open a “fourth front” against the Islamist militia group, targeting the eastern coastal town of Kismayu to preventing shipping reaching it. This is considered to be Al Shabaab’s lifeline and seems an eminently sensible move, if the countries involved can find the naval forces necessary to maintain a blockade. However, Al Shabaab is proving to be adept at fighting a guerrilla war, and should not be written off; it won’t go down without a fight.

The AU’s new plan must be approved by the UN before it can be put into action. This shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. The international community is very concerned about Somalia, particularly with Al Shabaab’s links to al Qaeda, and will be happy for other countries to do their dirty work for them. For Somalia, the new plan means violence and instability will intensify dramatically in the near future, but its people can only hope that after getting worse, things will eventually get better. DM



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Photo: Reuters.

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