Somalia’s entry into the East African Community (EAC) as well as promising domestic reforms helped earn the country a lifting of an arms embargo imposed 31 years ago, initially to tame warlords but later target Al Shabaab militants.
But celebrations for the move by the UN Security Council (UNSC) last week could come with new worries among peers in the EAC where irregular flow of weapons through porous borders has often led to frequent violent extremism.
Lifting of the embargo allows Mogadishu to arm its police and military forces with modern weaponry. But peers in the EAC face Somalia’s big task of ensuring weapons that fall in the wrong hands are not used perpetuate violence in their borders.
Diplomats who spoke at the UNSC’s briefing on Friday cited Somalia’s continued legal reforms in security and financial sectors, as well as its readiness for integration with neighbours among biggest influences to lift the restrictions.
Japanese Diplomat Shino Mitsuko said her country supported the new resolution because it targets violators rather than a government seeking to rebuild.
She argued Somalia will now be free to engage in “enhance greater regional cooperation to degrade Al Shabaab in the region”.
Al Shabaab remains banned from purchasing or accessing weapons in the international market and countries must work together to ensure no violations.
Abukar Dahir Osman, Somalia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, said his country will now be ready to “confront security threats, including those posed by Al Shabaab”.
“Sustainable peace and security can only be achieved through a comprehensive approach that integrates security measures with initiatives aimed at fostering long-term stability and prosperity,” he said.
Somalia announced it will immediately proceed with the second drawdown of African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis) with a new batch of 3,000 troops expected to leave Somalia by end of this month. Atmis should be completely out of Somalia by December 2024.
The move by the UN Security Council meant President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had delivered two of his three promises; joining EAC and having an embargo imposed in 1992 lifted. The third goal is to attain debt relief, allowing Somalia to discuss lending terms with international financial institutions.
All three are important but the arms embargo could affect relations between Somalia and its federal states, as well as be forced to make urgent reforms that could stop illegally re-arming Al Shabaab from the national armoury.
In addition, critics say it will not be Mogadishu’s headache alone. Hilaal Institute, a security think-tank in Mogadishu, suggested the embargo which has lasted 31 years, was being lifted prematurely.
“The evidence suggests that the premature lifting of the arms embargo could precipitate a range of adverse outcomes, from intensifying clan conflicts and enabling illicit arms flows to posing broader threats to regional and global stability,” Hilaal concluded in advisory last week.
“The interplay of domestic dynamics – the clan-based societal structure, limited government control over ports of entry, open arms markets in Mogadishu, and instances of Somali National Army (SNA) weapons appearing on the open market.”
Just a week after Somalia had been formally admitted into the EAC, the arms embargo lifting generated a celebration in Mogadishu.
President Mohamud and his Prime Minister Hamza Barre were saying the same thing: Somalia is ready to confront its arch-enemy Al Shabaab now that it will be allowed to arm itself.
“The voting in our (Somalia’s) favour has several benefits,” said the president, noting that Somalia’s armed forces will be sufficiently empowered.
“Next, this empowerment will pave the way for clearing the Khawarij (religious deviants) from the country,” he added in clear reference to the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab.
Mohamud reiterated that this total permission gives Somalia a leeway to buy the weapons it needs to defeat terrorists and secure its borders.
“Besides, members of the international community can have the faculty to offer us arms and ammunitions that can help our drive to stabilise our nation,” he said.
Perhaps Mogadishu’s first headache is to ensure it remains united on the issue given the federated structure the country has adopted in the last 15 years with regional governments enjoying significant autonomy and laws leaving gaps for anyone to interpret.
Somaliland, the breakaway region that self-declared independence more than 32 years ago, on Saturday said the UN Security Council must tighten checks on Somalia to ensure warlords do not emerge.
“We believe that lifting the embargo at this time would have detrimental ramifications for Somaliland, the Horn of Africa region, and the international community,” Somaliland government said after the vote in a statement.
Somaliland is yet to be accepted internationally as an independent country even though it runs its own government, military, currency and central bank.
Its history with the Somali civil war, that led to the initial imposition of the embargo in 1992, is that the government of then Somali leader Siad Barre bombarded its capital Hargeisa where a rebellion had first emerged against Somalia.
Somaliland claims some 200,000 people were killed in those episodes and says part of the problem was irregular flow of weapons and no accountability on usage.
Recently, clan militias engaged Somaliland in Las Anod, a region straddling Somaliland and Puntland federal state. The clan militia have since pledged allegiance to Mogadishu which they want to directly administer the region until it creates sufficient structures to become a new federal state.
But that is both a problem and benefit for Somalia. A problem because the law does not yet guide on the formation of federal states nor does it create a limit. But with the clans aligning with Mogadishu, it means Somaliland loses more ground at seeking international recognition.
“The emergence of clan militia groups such as Lasanod ones, aligning themselves with extremist entities presents a clear and present danger in the region. Lifting the embargo could fuel these groups, jeopardising regional security and exacerbating ongoing humanitarian crises,” Somaliland argued in a statement.
Both Hargeisa and Mogadishu however agree that there are gaps in weapons management, something which the UN Panel of Experts on Somalia had argued in previous reports after it found weapons donated to the government forces had been sold off in the black market to Al Shabaab.
Hargeisa argues there has been no demonstration that Mogadishu can account for its weapons and hence there is a danger of diverting weapons to terror groups. The two sides also can’t agree on the definition of terrorists.
Yet, Mohamud did admit his government faces the challenge of establishing a proper weapons management system.
“It is the mandate of the government to keep strict records of arms inventory,” said Prime Minister Hamza Barre.
Usually, Al Shabaab tends to increase its tempo of attacks both inside and outside Somalia when it gains more access to weapons and money.
Previously, the militant group smuggled charcoal to fund its terror attacks in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda. Then the group changed its tactics by infiltrating key government agencies like the revenue authorities and security agencies. A top diplomat in Kenya said they have genuine concerns about management of arms inventory, but said Kenya welcomed the lifting of the embargo because it allows Somalia and peers to collaborate better on security management as regional forces under the Atmis start to leave Somalia this month.
In the past, Kenya had been among countries that sought tougher sanctions on Al Shabaab including having them listed in the same regime as Al Qaeda. But strong lobbying from activists curtailed the move as some argued it could lead to collective punishment of innocent civilians in areas Shabaab’s control.
In Mogadishu, local radio shows aired call-ins from locals, with some being bland about the arms embargo.
“There is no point in celebrating the lifting of the arms embargo unless the authority establishes a demonstrable means of controlling the arms,” quipped a listener of Kulmiye Radio, an independent broadcaster in Mogadishu. Several other political figures in Somalia also took the same cautious view.
But government officials see it as a first good sign. The Resolution 2714/23 lifted Resolution 733/92, which had been amended several times to reflect the menace of Al Shabaab.
The council however will still require Somalia to submit a list of weapons purchased to its sanctions committee, and Mogadishu is required to establish a national inventory of weapons besides promoting adequate training of the police and military.
The council also says Somalia must also vet and license private security firms that seek to import weapons into the country and that it must ensure those weapons are not resold, transferred or supplied to entities that are not entitled to use the equipment.
Ghanaian Diplomat Harold Adlai Agyeman, speaking on behalf of Gabon and Mozambique (African members in the council), said Somalia had already made positive steps in setting up a weapons management system, “which has been recognised in the resolution”.
The East African