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Why Museveni, Ruto want Atmis exit from Somalia revised

Outgoing African Union Mission in Somalia (Atmis) troops arrive at Jalalaqsi, Somalia on February 9, 2023. PHOTO | POOL

By JULIUS BARIGABA

The imminent exit of more African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis) and the ultimate expiry of the force’s mandate at the end of this year have triggered unease among troop-contributing countries, with Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and his Kenyan counterpart William Ruto raising the alarm for a need to revisit the pullout plan to avert a security vacuum.

The two leaders, whose countries contribute troops to Atmis, said after a meeting at State House, Nairobi, on Thursday that they were concerned about the threat of terrorism and insecurity “in our region and affirmed commitment to strengthen regional peace and security approaches and programmes.”

According to the United Nations Security Council road map, 4,000 Atmis troops are expected to leave Somalia at the end of June, in addition to the 5,000 who exited the mission last year in phases one and two of the drawdown, a situation that has created gaps for Al Shabaab elements to reclaim some lost territory.

“During my meeting with President Museveni, we expressed concern about the drawdown of Atmis in Somalia and we urged that the timelines for the drawdown align with the security conditions on the ground in Somalia,” President Ruto said in the joint communique.

This is a cautionary position but one that is popular within Somali civic leaders, whose communities bear the brunt of Al Shabaab attacks regularly, and who also support a review of the drawdown plan in view of the security situation in parts of Somalia that are currently prone to attacks.

“We don’t support anyone saying Atmis should leave Somalia. Our Atmis brothers have brought peace here. The day they leave is the day Shabaab will take over this place,” said Haji Issa, chief of civic affairs at Ceeljaale town in Lower Shabelle region, southwest of Mogadishu.

Issa was speaking last month at a meeting between the town’s elders, women’s council and the Atmis area commander Col Topher Magino.

Central and southern Somalia remain security flashpoints, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (Acled) project, which last month recorded more than 200 cases of violent extremism, with at least 539 fatalities reported between March 23 and April 19.

Most of these were in Lower Shabelle region, where 117 killings were recorded after Al Shabaab increased attacks targeting security forces, Acled reported, while 114 were also reported killed in Mudug region in clashes between security forces and the militant group.

In the previous month, security-monitoring groups had also recorded violent extremism and related deaths in Galmudug and Hirshabelle regions, where Al Shabaab regrouped, regained and took control over swathes of territory that Atmis forces had liberated.

Officials of the Federal Government of Somalia have also previously conceded that continued shedding of AU force personnel leaves a security vacuum, which in September last year saw Hussein Sheikh Ali, Somalia’s national security adviser, write to the UN Security Council to request a “technical pause” to delay by 90 days the drawdown of 3,000 troops who were to exit the mission at the end of that month.

This, he said, was out of the need to address significant challenges revealed by the Joint Technical Assessment report of the previous drawdown, which laid out profound implications for the security transition in Somalia – if more Atmis troops left the mission without adequate replacement.

Brig-Gen Felix Kulayigye, spokesperson of Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF), says it is too soon to comment on the position that the Kenyan and Ugandan leaders have taken. The Ugandan military deploys the biggest contingent to the AU force since 2007.

Last month, Ugandan officials said the country’s army will continue to deploy troops in Somalia beyond the expiry of the current mandate on December 31, 2024, as part of the post-Atmis stabilisation force that will be an AU-led mission focusing on protection of civilians.

Ugandan commanders under Atmis say that Somalia needs more time to generate a force that can defend the vast territory, and a security vacuum could arise when the AU force exits, giving Al Shabaab a window to take control, like the Taliban did in Afghanistan when US forces withdrew in 2022.

In an interview with embedded journalists, the Uganda contingent commander Brig-Gen Anthony Lukwago Mbuusi last month alluded to open spaces that are left behind as the peacekeepers pulled out in the previous two drawdowns in June and December 2023, allowing Al Shabaab space to attack civilians.

“They are telling us to drawdown but we shall still have a force on the ground. We are not about to create an Afghanistan here,” he said.

“What happens to these places? The population will either become vulnerable to Al Shabaab attacks or subscribe to the militias. You can see the fix they are in.”

Out of the 4,000 troops who are expected to leave at the end of June, Ugandans will be 1,000, making the stakes higher to protect civilians under its operation area over vast territory that covers more than 240 kilometers of the Somalia shoreline, its main highways, coastal and nearby hinterland towns with many security flashpoints.

The AU force has just more than 13,000 troops left in Somalia, down from 22,000 at the peak of deployment of all the five troop-contributing countries. After the June drawdown, the mission will be down to 9,000 military personnel.

In an interview with VOA last year, the head of Atmis Souef Mohamed El-Amine described the Somali National Amy as a “young force” that still needs a lot of support in training new personnel to grow the numbers but also to skill it to rise to the task of protecting civilians from Al Shabaab threat.

International partners led by the EU – a key Somalia partner in the rebuilding the country’s security sector – have consistently warned that while drawdowns are taking place, the Somali government has not achieved adequate force generation to replace the lost capacity of Atmis numbers.

Somalia’s military strength is 15,000, with a 2,000-reserve force, mostly trained by Uganda, while regional neighbours such as Eritrea and international partners such as Turkey have also trained others.

Source: The EastAfrican

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