Kenya and Ethiopia have been key allies in Somalia's peace and security matters for over a decade, especially in the fight against terror groups such as al-Shabaab. Besides their bilateral engagements, both countries are major troop-contributors to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
However their alliance has weakened recently due to their differences in political views, diplomatic relations and security problems. Kenya's diplomatic ties with Somalia are challenging Nairobi's role in the country, while Ethiopia's focus on Somalia seems to be shifting to the war in Tigray.
Both issues threaten the operational capabilities and effectiveness of AMISOM in implementing its mandate. This could give al-Shabaab the chance to boost its activities in Somalia and beyond.
Somalia became a failed state due to a protracted civil war after the demise of president Siad Barre, a dictatorial ruler, in 1991. AMISOM has been supporting Somalia's transition to restoring a state presence for over 13 years. Its current mandate includes supporting Somalia's government in building the capacity of security forces and disrupting and degrading al-Shabaab and other armed opposition groups.
Ethiopia's Tigray conflict raises concerns about a possible security vacuum in some areas of Somalia
AMISOM is a multidimensional peace support operation with nearly 20 000 forces on the ground mainly from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti. After many years of operation, AMISOM intended to transfer its responsibilities to Somalia's security forces and leave by the end of 2021. But this plan is facing setbacks. Somalia's election in early 2021 was seen as a critical stage for implementing the mission's exit, but poll-related problems could negatively affect the plan.
After an electoral deal was reached in October 2020 between Somalia's federal government and its member states, key electoral committees were assigned to handle the processes of organising the polls. However the electoral committees' composition raised controversy, with the 14 presidential contenders largely opposed to the teams.
They say the committees have spies and civil servants loyal to the incumbent President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. The presidential contenders threatened to boycott the elections unless committee membership was reviewed.
Another internal problem that affects AMISOM's operational effectiveness and its exit plan is tension between the government and its federal member states, especially Jubaland State. Relations deteriorated due to political disagreement over power sharing. While the member states want a semi-autonomous region, the central government wants centralised power.
Strong relations between Ethiopia and Kenya matter for AMISOM, and their weakened alliance is worrying
These internal problems coincide with Somalia's worsening diplomatic relations with Kenya since 2019 over a maritime territorial dispute. Somalia recently expelled Kenya's ambassador and recalled its ambassador to Kenya for apparently meddling in the upcoming elections. Kenya denied the accusations. The diplomatic fallout could negatively affect AMISOM, especially if Kenya withdraws its troops.
The other external challenge for AMISOM comes from Ethiopia, who has supported peace in Somalia by deploying military forces independently since 2006, and as part of AMISOM since 2014. All these forces help fight al-Shabaab and build Somalia's security forces' abilities.
Although there's no confirmation from Ethiopia, reports say it withdrew some 3 000 of its non-AMISOM troops. This came after an armed conflict erupted in the country between Ethiopia's federal government and Tigray regional state in early November. This has raised concerns about a possible security vacuum in some areas of Somalia.
Strong relations between Ethiopia and Kenya matter for AMISOM, and their weakened alliance is worrying. They are experiencing political differences regarding Somalia's federal-state relations, especially on Jubaland and the disputed Gedo region. While Ethiopia's support seems to lean towards the interests of the federal government, Kenya inclines more towards the states.
A compromised AMISOM could allow al-Shabaab to boost its activities in Somalia and beyond
However there are also signs of good relations between Kenya and Ethiopia's political leadership. On December 9 and 10, the leaders of both countries opened a one-stop border post at the town of Moyale and discussed various economic and security concerns including joint efforts to combat al-Shabaab.
AMISOM faces other problems too. Though not officially linked to AMISOM, the United States has been bilaterally supporting Somalia's government in the fight against extremist groups by deploying hundreds of special operation forces to train local forces. This support was helpful for AMISOM's mandate implementation.
However, the US decided recently to withdraw its special forces from Somalia in early 2021. This has raised concerns regarding possible gaps in the capacity building of Somalia's security forces. There would be a heavy burden on AMISOM to replace the US' support.
AMISOM thus faces several risks that may negatively affect its operational capabilities and effectiveness. This could boost al-Shabaab's ability to carry out terror attacks and expand its territorial control.
What should the African Union (AU), its member states and international community do to avert these risks? First, all stakeholders and partners of the mission should pay attention to these developing threats, especially at the UN Security Council and AU Peace and Security Council. As both are mandating bodies, they should encourage member states to tackle the emerging problems wisely and remain committed to AMISOM.
Somalia should solve its problem with Kenya through diplomatic means without cutting its relations. Kenya should continue exercising diplomatic restraint and uphold its obligations to regional peace and security despite Somalia's pre-emptive decision to cut diplomatic ties, according to Dr Roba D Sharamo, Institute for Security Studies regional director and representative to the AU, Horn and East Africa.
'Kenya and Ethiopia must remain committed to AMISOM and the strengthening of the Somali nation as this will greatly promote regional peace, security and development,' Sharamo says.
For its part, the US government should reconsider the plan to withdraw its special operation forces. Leaving now, when Somalia is in a critical transition period and with two of AMISOM's major troop contributors having engagement problems, would be ill advised. Unless managed quickly, these problems will reverse the gains made in Somalia's security situation as well as those of AMISOM, its partners and the international community.
Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria
This ISS Today is published as part of the Training for Peace Programme (TfP) funded by the government of Norway.