Somalia’s crossroads: New Arms, New Risks

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A series of pivotal events in early December signaled a new chapter in Somalia’s ongoing story. On December 1st, the UN Security Council lifted a 31-year arms embargo, signaling a policy shift and giving Mogadishu room to maneuver as security challenges evolve.

While sanctions on terrorist group al-Shabab still stand, Somalia can now procure arms on the international market. This comes as the African Union gears up for the next phase of drawdown from ATMIS peacekeeping ops by year’s end.

The subsequent joint announcement on December 2nd by the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), and the United Nations Support Office in Somalia (UNSOS) regarding the commencement of the second phase of ATMIS troop drawdown from Somalia by December 31st adds complexity to the nation’s evolving security landscape.

Questions have been raised about the military capacity of the Somalia government to deter al-Shabab, previously forcing the AU and UN to extend the ATMIS/AMISOM mission. Observers note the lifting of the embargo, which came as ATMIS troop withdrawals begin, could strengthen the Somali government’s military capabilities.

Experts stress that the Security Council’s decision not only enables Somalia to confront security threats posed particularly by al-Shabaab, but also underscores a strategic move to bolster the capacity of Somalia’s security forces.

During the announcement, Abukar Osman ‘Baale,’ Somalia’s permanent representative to the UN, highlighted lifting the embargo as a means to confront security threats and reform weapon management to prevent misuse.

Nevertheless, the decision has elicited both controversy and appreciation, as experts offer their expectations regarding potential implications.

“Somalia has been grappling with significant security challenges, including the presence of extremist groups such as al-Shabab,” said Abebe Muluneh (Com.), security sector program director at Intergovernmnetal Authority on Development (IGAD). “The Somali government needs to strengthen its modern arms and equipment to effectively combat these threats and maintain security within its borders.”

Abebe highlighted the enduring impact of the arms embargo on Somalia, asserting that it allowed al-Shabab to freely acquire weapons, hindering political stability. He believes lifting the embargo will empower Somalia to establish a stable and robust military force crucial for the nation’s security.

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He argues that establishing a formidable National Army could help stabilize Somalia and promote peace across East Africa.

“I don’t see the necessity of ongoing ATMIS presence if Somalia can build a well-equipped National Army,” he asserts, envisioning a fortified Somalia.

According to Abebe, establishing a strong national military that strategically contains al-Shabab geographically, promotes a counter-ideology, and disrupts the group’s financial sources are crucial steps in effectively combating their influence. Such measures, he believes, will mark a transformative phase for both Somalia and the region, significantly impacting Ethiopia’s perspective on peace.

The arms embargo on Somalia dates back to 1992 amid violence and a humanitarian crisis, imposed by the UN Security Council and continually renewed, including targeted sanctions on al-Shabab.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, elected last year, has lobbied hard against the decades-old blockade, declaring it hinders military modernization.

Mohamud greeted the embargo’s lifting with open arms, saying Somalia can now acquire arms unfettered from allies.

But experts sound alarms, cautioning reduced foreign forces may imperil fragile gains.

ATMIS began drawing down 2,000 troops in April 2022, though delays pushed back further reductions. Further drawdown was slated for September 2023 but was delayed due to Somalia’s request to postpone the move.

The second phase of the drawdown of 3,000 soldiers is expected to be completed by year’s end, adhering to the revised timeline and reducing personnel to 14,626.

During the announcement, Mohammed El-Amine Souef, the special representative of the Chairperson of the AU Commission for Somalia and head of ATMIS, emphasized the collaborative efforts of ATMIS, FGS, and UNSOS.

“After extensive discussions at the tripartite technical level among the three parties, ATMIS will resume and complete the drawdown of 3,000 troops by December 31, 2023,” Souef stated at a joint news conference.

While acknowledging the crucial role of multilateral peacekeeping forces in addressing the threat posed by al-Shabab, experts caution that the withdrawal process must undergo thorough scrutiny to ensure a smooth transition in Somalia’s security landscape and maintain regional stability.

However, not all experts agree that lifting the arms embargo will have a positive impact.

Yonas Ashene, a political science and international relations expert at Addis Ababa University, contends that Somalia currently lacks the strength and cohesion needed for a centralized, equitable National Army.

Yonas argues that Somalia’s prolonged fragility hinders the formation of a strong, unified military.

He views lifting the embargo as unlikely to enhance security and instead risks potentially fueling internal conflicts and empowering armed groups without proper oversight.

“Evaluating the situation within the framework of diminishing peacekeeping and multilateral investment is essential,” Yonas told The Reporter. “I don’t think the current government has the ability to establish a monopoly on violence in Somalia.”

He stressed that withdrawing ATMIS represents a threat, as their departure could create a security vacuum extremist groups may exploit, leading to increased violence without a capable national force.

Yonas questioned whether ATMIS has established conditions suitable for the next phase of peacebuilding, saying the process lacks “thorough planning.”

“It necessitates careful examination of evolving regional dynamics to assess the broader implications of troop withdrawal on security,” warns Yonas.

Somalia has long relied on assistance from the African Union and some Western nations to counter militant groups within its borders and maintain stability, enduring prolonged conflict over many years. While celebrating renewed arms access, experts disagree on lifting restrictions and emphasize scrutinizing withdrawal impacts.