12 March 2008

Somalia: One Year Later, AU Force in Mogadishu Soldiers On

Nairobi — One year after the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) deployed its first peacekeepers to Mogadishu, the Somali capital, assessments of its performance and relevance remain mixed.

Apart from providing VIP escorts, it has limited itself to conducting confidence-building patrols within its area of operations and to protecting the airport, seaport, Kilometer 4 and Villa Somalia, the presidential residence in Mogadishu. It also receives surrendered weapons, provides some humanitarian support to the local population and escorts humanitarian organisations.

"The deployment of AMISOM needs to be accelerated in order to effectively assist in the stabilisation of the country and help create the necessary political space for all Somalis to contribute positively to the reconciliation process," AU Commission chairman Alpha Konare said in a report to the AU Peace and Security Council on 18 January.

According to the AU, a little over US$32 million of the mission's budget of about US$622 million has been contributed by the EU, Italy, Sweden, China and the League of Arab States. Other pledges have come from the UK, EU, Italy, the US, NATO, Algeria, Kenya and Nigeria.

However, despite the lack of adequate resources, officials from Uganda - which has provided most troops - are upbeat, citing improved security where their troops are deployed and medical services and water provision.

"What used to be called hell on Earth is not hell after all," Captain Paddy Ankunda, former military spokesman for the mission and now Ugandan army spokesman, told IRIN. "Somalia has become accessible to the outside world, which was never so before."

But according to Timothy Othieno, a regional analyst at the Overseas Development Institute in London, AMISOM has not fulfilled its mandate partly due to the resistance by the Islamists.

"It would appear that the mission was bound to fail unless the pledges made toward AMISOM are realised," Othieno said. "AMISOM's actions in Somalia, some would argue, have heightened existing tensions and allowed the mission to get caught up in the crossfire between the Islamists and the Ethiopian troops in Somalia."

Of an authorised troop strength of 8,000, only two Ugandan battalions and 192 Burundian soldiers are on the ground in Mogadishu. "The mission is stretched thinly on the ground and AMISOM lacks equipment and the funding to carry out their mandate effectively," Othieno said.

However, Abdi Haji Gobdon, spokesman for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), said it considered the deployment "a success. AMISOM has taken charge of the airport in Mogadishu and the sea port and is providing security to the president and prime minister.

"What is now needed is to expand and deploy a more robust force that can secure the whole country," he added. "It is time the UN not only supported it, but got involved."

That involvement has yet to materialise, despite intense lobbying by the AU - the latest a 15 February briefing to the UN Security Council by Lila Ratsifandrihamanana, permanent observer of the AU to the Council.

"We - and indeed the African Union and the international community - expect more from the Security Council," she said. The security situation in Somalia, she added, was a real challenge for the AU and a threat to international peace and security.

The Council President, Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation, said members would hold a meeting on the situation on 20 March.

Locals sceptical

The first AMISOM troops arrived in Mogadishu on 6 March 2007 and were deployed to strategic points in the city. Burundi promised 1,500-1,600 soldiers; Nigeria 850; Ghana 350; and Malawi an unknown number for the force, which would support dialogue and reconciliation by assisting the free movement, safe passage and protection for those involved.

The force was mandated to protect Somalia's transitional federal institutions to enable them to carry out their functions of government, and secure key infrastructure. On 20 August, AMISOM's mandate was extended by the Council for six months, allowing for the contingency planning of a possible UN peacekeeping operation.

But since its first deployment, say Mogadishu residents, violence has continued and its presence has hardly made any significant change to the lives of ordinary people.

They point to the latest fighting when an estimated 24 people were killed in Mogadishu and more than 90 wounded on 1-2 March. Days earlier, Ethiopian and TFG forces clashed with anti-government elements, paralysing business around the main Bakara market. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), at least 5,000 people were displaced, bringing the total to 56,000 since 1 January.

The situation has deteriorated so alarmingly that large numbers of displaced families are surviving on less than a meal a day and spending increasing proportions of their meagre incomes on drinking water, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Shattered hopes

Abdulkadir Abdirahman, chairman of the Somali Cause, an umbrella organisation of diaspora groups, said many Somalis had high hopes when the Ugandan forces were first deployed. "They began delivering food and medical supplies to the needy," he told IRIN.

According to human rights watchdogs, the conflict that began in late 2006 when Ethiopia ousted the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) from Mogadishu resulted in violations of international humanitarian law by all sides.

Ethiopian armed forces, TFG troops and the insurgents have all been responsible for deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Mogadishu, from where up to 700,000 people have been displaced since January 2007.

"Somalia is suffering a major human rights crisis yet it is almost invisible," says Juliette de Rivero of Human Rights Watch.

Ankunda insisted the mission had made some contribution, but said the solution was for African countries to deploy the pledged troops.

"This will enable Ethiopia to withdraw as it is the main reason the [UIC] say they are fighting what they call occupation forces," he said.

Apart from the need for more peacekeepers, the TFG also needed to recognise and respect its opponents and talk to them to accomplish the mission, he added.

Civil society sources agreed that a stronger force was needed. "Only a bigger force and an international one, with representations from Muslim and non-frontline states with a clear mandate, would make a difference," said one.

Alongside such a force, he added, was the need for dialogue. "There has to be a genuine political process of reconciliation and dialogue, supported and seen to be supported by the international community," he added. "The current government of Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein has been making an effort in reaching out to the opposition; it should be encouraged."

Calling on member states and donors to urgently provide more resources to AMISOM, Konare warned: "Looking at the developments of the last six months, one cannot but recognise that the progress made towards lasting peace and reconciliation in Somalia remains extremely limited."

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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