Inadequate Strategies to Protect Somalis Undermine Efforts to Defeat al-Shabaab

UNSOM Police Commissioner Lucien Vermier speaks during induction training for newly deployed Sierra Leonean Formed Police Unit (FPU) officers under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Kismayo on April 23, 2018. (AMISOM Photo)

As the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has started drawing down its approximately 22,000 strong force, its inability to protect civilians in its area of operations represents a major lost opportunity to build public support for the nascent Federal Government of Somalia and to degrade the standing of al-Shabaab. AMISOM’s lack of civilian protection and unwillingness to be held to account for collateral civilian casualties has fostered distrust between the African Union (AU) peace operation and the Somali population. This ultimately undermines AMISOM’s efforts to defeat al-Shabaab, support Somalia’s state institutions, and build a lasting peace.

Although the AU has developed both a protection of civilians (POC) strategy and rules of engagement for POC, these have not explicitly mandated AMISOM peacekeepers to protect civilians. Rather, the measures solely prioritized the protection of government institutions and personnel. As a consequence, many Somalis view both AMISOM and the Armed Forces of Somalia as indifferent to their needs.

Established in 2007 by the AU’s Peace and Security Council, AMISOM was originally mandated to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Government of Somalia and to assist in the implementation of the National Security and Stabilization Plan of Somalia. This mandate included reestablishing and training capable and inclusive Somali armed forces, while protecting the institutions, infrastructure, and personnel of the newly-formed government. The mandate lacks specific mention of POC and instead the mission received a set of rules of engagement that allowed for the use of force in certain situations, including to “afford protection to civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.”

Over the following six years the AU updated its POC rules of engagement, established a working group on POC, and developed a mission-wide POC strategy for AMISOM that was approved in June 2013. Although AMISOM was technically required to protect civilians under its international humanitarian law obligations, the lack of a mandate requiring it to protect civilians meant commanders and troops on the ground were left to make decisions on when and how to use force.

But the lack of a POC mandate is only one of the challenges AMISOM faces on the issue. There are a number of obstacles with both the mission’s operational and political strategies, and questions regarding its protection capacity.

First, even if there were a specific AMISOM mandate to protect civilians, most of the mission’s troops lack the expertise or training to carry it out, while others have been “accused of deliberately inflicting harm on civilians, including through the use of deadly force and SEA [sexual exploitation and abuse].” Inadequate training on POC, a poor track record on issues of human rights, and distrust in AMISOM troops provided by certain neighboring countries—specifically Kenya and Ethiopia—has led to relatively unfavorable views of the peace operation by the Somali population.

Second, while AMISOM’s presence and efforts in defeating al-Shabaab has the potential to be a net-positive for Somalia in the long-run, AMISOM’s short-term operational strategies have, in some instances, negatively impacted average citizens. For example, AMISOM seems to lack a clear strategy after driving al-Shabaab out of specific towns or locales. Lacking the capacity to retain control, coupled with the non-existence of capable Somali armed forces to take over, AMISOM retreats, resulting in al-Shabaab’s return and retaliation against civilians they believe to have cooperated with the peacekeepers. As one Somali noted, even though life is hard under al-Shabaab, it is preferable to the unpredictability and violent reprisals that come with a town constantly changing hands.

Lastly is the issue of civilian casualties. The number of deaths that can be directly attributed to AMISOM remains a point of contention, especially in the early years of the mission. For example, in 2010-2011 during the heaviest fighting over control of Mogadishu, al-Shabaab would direct artillery and small arms fire at AMISOM forces from densely populated areas, and AMISOM’s responding fire led to high numbers of civilian casualties. This forced the AU to refine its indirect fire policy—which had been introduced into a 2012 revision of the mission’s rules of engagement—and establish a Civilian Casualty Tracking, Analysis, and Response Cell (CCTARC) in 2016. Although the CCTARC is a positive step for the AMISOM, a lack of resources for appropriate equipment and training has meant that the indirect fire policy was never fully implemented in the mission. That is a key failing on the part of the AU and AMISOM, as there continue to be reports of indiscriminate shooting by peacekeepers when being engaged by al-Shabaab.

Despite the challenges, collateral civilian deaths due to AMISOM are still relatively low, and the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) reported that only four percent or 178 of the total civilian causalities over a year and a half period in 2016-2017 were due to direct AMISOM action. Although this pales in comparison to the 13 percent due to inter-clan conflicts, or the 60 percent—roughly 1,200—killed by al-Shabaab during that same period, the AU nonetheless rejected the UN’s findings, arguing that the report contains ”significant misrepresentations.”

However, the perception—according to a study conducted by the International Refugee Rights Initiatives, which the AU has likewise rejected—that AMISOM continues to be responsible for civilian deaths, regardless of the low official number and the progress that the AU peacekeeping force has made, is especially worrisome. The lack of acknowledgement and independent investigations into civilian deaths as a result of AMISOM action further solidifies the perception that peacekeepers, and by extension the Federal Government of Somalia—including the Somali National Army, which is responsible for a relatively high number of civilian deaths as well—are indifferent to the issue of civilian casualties.

For the emerging Somali Federal Government to succeed it needs to be seen as a viable governing body. That means it must be able to provide government services, including the essential provision of security and justice. As emphasized in a number of AMISOM related UN Security Council resolutions, “the Federal Government of Somalia has the primary responsibility to protect its citizens.” However, AMISOM continues to operate as the de facto provider of state security in many places throughout the country, and neglecting to provide those services or to take seriously the needs of the Somali population undermines state-building efforts in Somalia.

The troop contributing countries of AMISOM have all called for a halt in the mission’s troop withdrawal. They argue that the plan, as mandated under UN Security Council Resolution 2372, would lead to a reversal in the gains that the mission has made against al-Shabaab. This sentiment is mirrored by the head of UNSOM, who has noted that any premature drawdown would be a gift to the terrorist group. While a significant reduction in AMISOM’s troop strength in the current circumstances will be a boon to al-Shabaab, had the mission prioritized POC and building trust with the Somali population the implications of such a drawdown would not be as serious. In failing to do so, AMISOM has neglected the importance of getting the support of local communities—a crucial element in being able to decisively defeat al-Shabaab.

Harley Henigson is an International Protection Officer with Nonviolent Peaceforce.