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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

Somalia left in the lurch as peacekeepers withdraw

In recent weeks, Ethiopia has been withdrawing its troops from the strategic Hiraan region in southern Somalia, where Al Shabab militants have battled the Somali army and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping forces.

Reports indicate that Ethiopian troops have also withdrawn from Halgan, El Ali and Tiyeglow in Somalia’s Bakool region. The withdrawal paves the way for Al Shabab’s return to rural areas that were hitherto under AMISOM control.

Several recent media reports suggest that Somalia is facing a renewed series of challenges, which could undo some of the stability the country has been gaining over the past few years. This comes at a time when Somalia plans to hold its first election since former Somali dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre was ousted in 1991. Presidential and parliamentary polls are scheduled for this November and December, in an attempt to bolster the country’s weak institutions, and an Al Shabab return to areas currently under AMISOM and Somali government control would be a major blow for the government and its international backers.

Since Barre’s ouster, Somalia has been dealing with constant political crises that have crippled its economy and created several humanitarian crises. The chaos led to the rise of Al Shabab, which evolved from an Islamist political movement that took power across much of southern Somalia in 2006.

Yet over the past few years, the security situation in many of Somalia’s major cities had improved, thanks to the efforts of AMISOM, a regional peacekeeping force made up of 22,000 troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. AMISOM was created in 2007 with approval from the UN Security Council and financial support from the European Union.

‘Preparing for the unexpected’

Despite AMISOM’s successes, many rural areas in south-central Somalia still lie under the control of Al Shabab, and major transport routes are inaccessible due to the presence of the militants and criminal groups.

Although Ethiopian Minister of Communication Getachew Reda declared that only a small portion of the country’s troops are being withdrawn, there are reasons to believe that Ethiopia is removing its troops from Somalia due to growing domestic upheaval. The Ethiopian government recently declared a state of emergency to tackle a growing demonstration movement led by ethnic groups that feel disenfranchised by the Ethiopian state.

An AMISOM spokesperson confirmed the withdrawal took place, though it is unclear how many Ethiopian troops are leaving. He said the troops withdrawn were in Somalia as part of a bilateral agreement between the Ethiopian and Somali government, and were thus not part of the AMISOM contingent. Somali Minister of Defense General Abdulkadir Ali Dini also confirmed the withdrawal, adding that it took place without consulting the Somali government. The responsibility for defending the country from Al Shabab, he said, now rests upon the shoulders of the Somali army.

“Any country can help you, but for how long?” he said. “It’s up to the people and the leaders of Somalia in confronting this, and to prepare for the unexpected, which is happening without consultation.”

Funding cuts

Amid slow economic growth in the European Union and the emergence of multiple conflicts elsewhere, including in the Sahel, the Central African Republic, the Lake Chad region, and the Syrian civil war, the EU is cutting its funding for AMISOM by 20 percent. The funding gap is expected to be filled by the African Union and the countries whose troops are deployed in Somalia.

However, both Uganda and Kenya, two of the main contributors to AMISOM, have made clear their intention to re-evaluate their troops’ presence in Somalia in light of the EU’s signalling that it will no longer foot the bill for AMISOM. Troops from Burundi, too, have threatened to leave Somalia due to non-payment of their salaries.

The withdrawal of peacekeeping forces may cause Al Shabab to become emboldened. In recent years, Al Shabab has shown a remarkable degree of resilience, managing to stay united, adapt its strategy to realities on the ground, and strike regularly at the heart of Mogadishu and other major cities. Although the withdrawal’s full implications and scale are difficult to determine at this early stage, it is reasonable to believe that Al Shabab will gain in confidence and territory, and portray the withdrawal of the Ethiopian troops as a sign that AMISOM has run out of steam.