African Union troops retreat in Somalia as Al-Shabaab attack
AFRICAN Union troops fighting Somalia’s Al-Shabaab insurgents have pulled back from several key towns following a series of attacks by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters, local officials said Friday.
It is a troubling development, which might well herald big trouble for the Somalia mission, and gift Al-Shabaab.
The withdrawal, a rare retreat after AU troops, known as AMISOM, seized swathes of territory from the radical Islamists, includes the towns of Qoryoley and Awdhegele, which have since been taken over by Al-Shabaab in Somalia’s southern Lower Shabelle region.
The Islamic militants have stepped up their attacks during Islam’s holy fasting month of Ramadan.
“They pulled out of Qoryoley, there is not a single soldier left behind,” local government official Mohamed Haji Osman said. Residents reported that the al-Shabaab had since moved in and hoisted their black flag over the town, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of the capital Mogadishu.
“Shabaab fighters entered the town and their flag is flying over the district headquarters. All AMISOM and Somali troops pulled out,” said resident Ahmed Hassan.
Awdhegele district commissioner Mohamed Aweys said he left the town after soldiers from AMISOM retreated.
“This is a complete setback because Al-Shabaab is gaining ground,” he said.
The al-Shaabab is fighting to overthrow Somalia’s internationally-backed government which is propped up and protected by the 22,000-strong AMISOM force.
Last week, al-Shabaab attacked an AMISOM base in Lego village, 100 kilometres (62 miles) northwest of the capital Mogadishu, manned by around 100 Burundian soldiers.
The al-Shabaab later boasted of having killed 80 soldiers and carried off the bodies of 60 of them, before setting the base on fire.
Video images taken by the al-Shabaab and seen by AFP show several bodies scattered around the ransacked base, with one shot showing around a dozen bodies lined up.
Al-Shabaab commander Mohamed Abu-Abdallah said his fighters were celebrating their advance in Lower Shabelle.
“The enemy is fleeing from the region… this is the beginning of the fall of the Christian invaders,” he said.
In recent months, even as US airstrikes killed the militants’ top commanders, there were always signs that events were beginning to favour them.
Several terror attacks by al-Shabaab in Kenya, one of the most horrific being at the Garissa university campus near the Kenya-Somalia border in April where 150 people, nearly all of them students, were slaughtered, have emboldened those calling for Kenya to withdraw its from Somalia – as demanded by al-Shabaab.
Dollars and sense
This has been compounded by the fact that attacks, especially on the Kenyan coast, have devastated the country’s tourism industry. In Kenya, a country with a long pragmatic and dollars-and-sense tradition, signs are that it is getting difficult to maintain political support for the Somalia campaign, because it doesn’t make business sense any longer.
It is significant that leaders in Kenya’s upper house, the Senate, have suggested that the time might be right to hold talks with al-Shabaab.
AMISOM itself is entering a difficult phase. Uganda and Burundi were for a long time the two countries that anchored its operations, having been the first to send troops to a Mogadishu that was then ruled by al-Shabaab. They broke the back of al-Shabaab in Mogadishu and pushed it out of the district.
But Burundi is in political turmoil at home following the violence that has consumed the country in the wake of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to stand for a third term in office that opponents and sections of the international community say is illegal.
The strife resulted in a failed military coup against Nkurunziza in May, and in the purge of the military that followed, Burundi’s army is thought to be divided and weakened to remain an effective force in AMISOM. Perhaps al-Shabaab has figured this out, and its probably no surprise that its targeting its bases in Somalia – and finding them relatively easy to overrun.
South Sudan distraction
It would have mattered less if the Ugandan contingent, was more solid. However, since December 2013 when South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir’s fall-out with his former deputy Riek Machar broke out in one of the deadliest civil wars in the region, Uganda rushed in troops to prop up the Juba government.
Analysts say the withdrawal of Ugandan troops would probably quickly result into a defeat of the Juba government by the growing number of rebel groups allied with Machar.
For Uganda, South Sudan is a more existential issue than Somalia with which it doesn’t share a border. It’s not alone. Kenya has been deeply involved in trying to patch together a diplomatic solution to the South Sudan crisis. Thus in addition to Somalia, it now has to divide its political resources to deal with another failing nation at its northern border.
Additionally, Uganda too has presidential problems at home. In power for nearly 30 years, President Yoweri Museveni, 71, is seeking an unprecedented seventh term in elections early next year. He oversaw the amendment of the country’s constitution in 2005 to remove presidential term limits, that has allowed him to continue in power.
However, his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) is again deeply divided following a fall-out between him and long-time ally, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, in the succession war that is heating up.
With an economy battered by corruption, a currency that seems to be in free fall, and low oil prices that have stalled the exploitation of lucrative new oil fields in the west of the country, Museveni is more wobbly than he has ever been.
His government’s decision to keep the boot on the neck of the opposition and further restrict the freedoms of the media and civil society, have only furthered national polarisation.
The toll of eight years in Somalia has started to show through these pressure points, as the minimal domestic consensus that made that operation politically tenable has largely evaporated.
Al-Shabaab benefits from weakness
Al-Shabaab also seems to have been profited from what, in one sense, is its weakness. At its height, Shabaab attracted many foreign fighters, including from the west. However, because they were seen as more brutal and not understanding enough of local custom, they alienated Somalis.
With al-Shabaab put on the run by AMISOM and its leaders being taken out by US airstrikes, in the Middle East the Islamic State was a rising star. Many foreign fighters abandoned al-Shabaab to join IS, with some even drifting off to Nigeria to link up with Boko Haram.
Though it seemed to have become the least glamorous for international jihadists, their departure allowed Somalis to take back al-Shabaab and return it to its roots as a less puritanical but nationalist organisation that is more accommodating of often messy local compromises. That won back more acceptance for Shabaab, allowing it to re-grow and recruit further afield, particularly in Kenya.
With IS becoming a bigger threat, international emotion and attention seems to be drifting away from Somalia, especially now that the thing that worried world business most, Somali-led piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, has been stamped out.
All al-Shabaab has had to do is wait, and live long enough. Global events, and political convulsions back home for AMISOM troop contributing countries, all look likely to play in its favour.
Unless the AU can reinvent the Somalia mission, find new members willing to replace countries like Uganda and Burundi with similar number of troops, and is also able to raise more money for the AMISOM from Africa itself, the mission could well collapse before the end of next year.
Source: AFP and Mail & Guardian Africa.