Taking Stock in Somalia

Ugandan troops participating in AMISOM in Somalia. Courtesy of AMISOM Public Information / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

Amid a prospective transition for AMISOM, the UK should re-examine its own approach.

The fall of Kabul in August 2021 reinvigorated debate over the relevance, feasibility and limitations of international state-building, exposing the paradox of a model that often breeds dependency in the pursuit of empowerment and self-sufficiency. With the impending replacement of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – a multilateral ‘peace enforcement’ mission propping up the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) in Mogadishu – analogous questions have become increasingly pronounced in relation to the Horn of Africa: what are the plausible outcomes of such interventions; what thresholds would be palatable to domestic and foreign stakeholders; and how can these aspirations be realistically achieved?

As the second-largest aid contributor (£147 million in 2019–20) and UN penholder for Somalia, the UK has a clear interest in these discussions. Referencing support for AMISOM and any successor mission in the 2021 Integrated Review – one of the few concrete actions cited for East Africa – Whitehall itself has elevated the process as a strategic priority, calling for sustainable, long-term solutions. Yet in recent deliberations the UK – alongside many other donors – seems short on specifics, reflecting a possible disjuncture between the rubric and realities of UK foreign policy in Somalia.

Reforming or Rebranding?

The UN Security Council’s approval of resolution 2614/2021 in December 2021 re-hashed a familiar script of delays and stop-gap measures: extending AMISOM’s mandate by three months to cater for unresolved debate over its future shape, purpose and composition.

The collective indecision was understandable. With an iterative scope that has been repeatedly reconfigured and expanded to accommodate new demands, AMISOM gradually ‘morphed’ from a six-month ‘bridging’ effort in 2007 to a broad-based ‘peace enforcement’ mission. This not only involved a surge in personnel – rising from 1,400 to a peak of 22,000 – but a drastic increase in responsibilities:

  • Reducing the threat from al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, al-Shabaab.
  • Enabling the transfer of security provision to Somali forces.
  • Providing a conducive environment for stabilisation, reconciliation and peacebuilding.

Inroads were undoubtedly achieved, with AMISOM pushing al-Shabaab out of most major cities, facilitating a series of relatively peaceful government transitions, and protecting a ‘rudimentary state security structure’. Yet, the mission’s cumulative design and – at times – rather makeshift disposition left it struggling to meet the benchmarks necessary for exit while grappling with resource shortages, incongruent mechanics, poor coordination and – most importantly – a lack of political unanimity among Somalis themselves. With no quick fix readily available, it has become the African Union’s (AU) ‘longest, largest, most expensive and deadliest peace operation’, one now firmly embedded in the conflict systems it sought to mitigate.

Against a backdrop of donor fatigue, frustration from Somalis, and competing proposals by the AU and UN, it was perhaps surprising that a new ‘Transitional Mission’ (ATMIS) was therefore agreed by the FGS and AU Peace and Security Council in late January 2022. Oriented around supporting the Somali Transition Plan (STP), a phased transfer of security responsibilities to national forces by 2023, these arrangements bake in a greater focus on domestic agency from the beginning, reflecting preferences long expressed by Mogadishu and international partners. The ambition is laudable and could be framed as the concluding phase of a long-term state-building process. However, the lack of technical details around modalities and financing is already stoking concern that ATMIS may be more akin to a repackaging of AMISOM than a wholesale reform. Additionally, the mission’s drawdown – like that of its predecessor – appears contingent on achieving key milestones, but there has so far been little explanation as to how these will be delivered.

In recent deliberations the UK seems short on specifics, reflecting a possible disjuncture between the rubric and realities of UK foreign policy in Somalia

Aspirations vs Local Realities

This is not just a problem for the AU and FGS, but reveals the shortcomings of external actors such as the UK, which has subscribed to the STP and called for ‘realistic and affordable’ support without articulating what this means in practical terms, or how it translates into a workable strategy given the limited resources, time and capital at stakeholders’ disposal.

The UK has long sought to expedite some sort of transition process through bilateral and multilateral efforts, meaning the emphasis on the STP should really be considered a push for continuity. UK interventions have generally coalesced around building a viable federal state, with policymakers co-chairing the 2017 London Conference to help sketch a ‘basic framework’ for Somalia’s national security architecture. At a programmatic level, cross-government Conflict, Security and Stability Fund activities continue to back law enforcement, stabilisation, and security sector reform, and the Ministry of Defence offers various training schemes to the Somali National Army (SNA) under Operation Tangham. While the content and targeting may have fluctuated over time to reflect contextual shifts and institutional learning – leading to greater bottom-up support and investment in local governance – the underlying aims of UK engagement remain fixed around bolstering a self-sufficient security apparatus capable of enforcing federal authority and at least containing the threat of al-Shabaab.

However, there are still fundamental challenges facing this approach.

For a start, an International Crisis Group report casts the STP as short on ‘operational detail’, especially in the absence of a reliable domestic partner. While AMISOM has managed to hand over some responsibilities to Somali authorities, the SNA still arguably functions more as a ‘conglomeration of clan militias’ and a ‘strategically deployed brand’ than a unified entity. Successes have been achieved, most strikingly under Operation Badbaado (2019–20), but Vanda Felbab Brown, a regional expert, argues up to 60% of personnel lack ‘real military capacity’. Weak coordination between foreign donors has not helped: numerous countries supply training to discrete strands of the SNA, creating inconsistencies in doctrine and equipment down to the ‘way soldiers salute’. In response, several – including the UK – have considered extending financial and ‘non-lethal support’ to those militiamen – dubbed State Darwiish or ‘Special Police Forces’ – capable of holding liberated areas. But ‘territorial control’ is not necessarily synonymous with 'security provision’ and would possibly come at the expense of longer-term state-building, given the reluctance of regional politicians to integrate their paramilitaries within a federal structure.

This speaks to a wider set of issues in relation to the performance of, and confidence in, the Somali state itself. The country’s ‘extraverted’ political economy has long been enmeshed in circuitries of transnational patronage that tend to accentuate elite competition, often at the expense of domestic governance. The legacies, logics and pathologies of violence – stemming from three decades of conflict – likewise reproduce and condition insecurity at a national and local level, creating space for a myriad of ‘warring parties’ and competing power centres. Amid this context, tensions between the FGS and various federal member states (FMSs) have hampered the consolidation of formal institutions and a working bureaucracy, with reforms ‘falling by the wayside’ and understaffed ministries exercising little capacity to deliver reliable public services. Consequently, it can be difficult to secure popular buy-in for a peace dividend often seen as superficial or unsustainable – misgivings that carry serious implications for counterinsurgency work as al-Shabaab exploits local grievances to preserve territorial or ‘semi-territorial’ control in rural areas. Maintaining some semblance of a ‘jihadist proto-state’ since 2008, the group’s tax collectors and judicial mechanisms routinely reach further than those of the FGS, with anecdotal stories of officials and policemen turning to al-Shabaab courts for dispute resolution. In short, the problem is not just one of military inadequacy but getting Somali administrative systems to a point where they can satisfy the day-to-day needs of their constituents. Progress has been made via initiatives like the UK-backed ‘Public Resource Management in Somalia’ programme, which coincided with an incremental improvement on the Fragile States Index over the last five years, but Somalia remains the second most ‘fragile’ country in the world, just below Yemen.

The problem is not just one of military inadequacy but getting Somali administrative systems to a point where they can satisfy the day-to-day needs of their constituents

From a strategic standpoint, political instability also risks undermining the STP’s credibility. UK support for the plan partially derives from the perception of a broadly inclusive, Somali-led process in 2018 that won backing from FMSs. In contrast, recent updates reflect FGS preferences but appear to lack sub-federal input or consultation, raising concerns over their implementation. Accounting for previous bouts of violence in Mogadishu, rifts over rescheduled elections, and ongoing competition between different government branches, the durability of national commitments – even at the top – is uncertain.

It is therefore unclear how the UK’s call for ‘realistic and affordable’ support can translate into a strategy commensurate with the STP’s lofty ambitions. The plan offers a valuable set of ‘guiding principles’, but its delivery remains lacklustre. Having already received $1 billion in external assistance since 2012, the FGS is still heavily dependent on external troops, and Somalia’s civic, institutional and political infrastructure does not yet have the necessary heft or coverage. Nor is there a roadmap for accelerating improvements to meet the STP’s revised timeframes. With key proponents like the UK slashing aid spending in Somalia by 41%, donors instead seem to expect the same outcomes at a reduced cost.

These problems may be reflected, at least tacitly, in the lack of reference to the London Conference across recent UK communications, including the Integrated Review. But if this approach is no longer considered plausible, Whitehall must either explain how the STP’s objectives can be accomplished or answer more existential questions over the feasibility of its state-building aspirations. Broad strategic ‘contours’ are not enough: programmatic successes – and the ‘catalytic effects’ UK interventions prioritise – need to plug into a clear, sufficiently resourced framework, otherwise they risk being piecemeal and short-lived. Nor can these responsibilities simply be deferred to ATMIS. The UK stepped in to plug a £25 million shortfall in AMISOM’s finances after the EU cut donations by 10%, but the arrangement lapses in March 2022 and neither party has the appetite for further open-ended commitments. Given Somalia’s ‘political and developmental challenges’ may not ‘change significantly in the next five years’, donors need to clarify how their goals can realistically be achieved within the proposed timeframes if they do not want to be lumbered with the costs of another protracted intervention.

Of course, there is no obvious panacea for what are systemic, intergenerational issues. Crises in Ukraine, Sudan and Ethiopia are consuming diplomatic bandwidth, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is still grappling with its own restructure and budget cuts. Additionally, while international stakeholders enjoy ‘limited’ clout when it comes to influencing Somali ‘calculations and practices’, excessive foreign interference also has distortive propensities, potentially sapping space and momentum for domestic solutions. But if the UK is to fulfil its self-appointed role as a constructive voice in the Horn, it must at least ensure its approach is feasible, appropriate, and commensurate with the overarching objectives it advocates.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Michael Jones

Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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