Somalia has made gains in security and state-building over the past year, but the threat from al-Shabab persists. Operation Black Lion, launched by the Somalia government, aimed to paralyze or eliminate Al-Shabab further. However, data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project shows over 250 political violence events and nearly 700 reported fatalities from April to May 2023, mostly in Lower Shabelle and Banadir regions – an increase from last year.
Earlier this year, leaders from Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti met in Mogadishu to launch a joint offensive against Al-Shabab, supported by AU forces. However, Al-Shabab has remained resilient, carrying out attacks. In the last two months, Al-Shabab attacked camps of Ethiopian and Ugandan forces stationed in Somalia, though they were repelled.
Catriona Laing, special representative of the secretary-general for Somalia and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) praised Somalia’s “tremendous progress” in state-building but warned that more support is needed given Al-Shabab still poses a threat. She said Al-Shabab has been pushed back from its strongholds but the threat persists.
While Somalia has made gains, Laing called for “additional support” to enable Somalia to counter Al-Shabab itself.
The plan was for the mandate of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) to end within six months and peacekeeping forces to drawdown as Somali security forces assume control of some bases. The first phase, currently underway, involves a drawdown of 2,000 troops as Somali security forces assume control of some bases. But when AMISOM withdrew, a security vacuum emerged.
Al-Shabab exploited this, gaining territory until ATMIS helped Somalia push Al-Shabab to remote areas, degrading it. The terrorist group uses asymmetric warfare like suicide attacks and ambushes and gets logistical support from groups like Al-Qaeda, helping it persist.
While ATMIS has degraded Al-Shabab militarily, Somali security forces remain weak. This week, the UN Security Council (UNSC) extended ATMIS’ mandate, worried that a full withdrawal would risk a recurrence of violence.
For Abebe Muluneh, head of IGAD Security Sector Program, ATMIS renewing its mandate is key for Somalia. “Al-Shabab remains in the region,” he said.
Abebe outlined three goals Somalia’s President needs to prioritize to limit Al-Shabab: ideological struggle, cutting financing, and strong military operations. The security expert said to ensure this, ATMIS’ presence is unquestionable: “Somalia Security Forces (SSF) cannot contain Al-Shabab alone. The peacekeeping forces are important.”
The Somali authorities are demanding greater control over their own security forces, which they say requires action by international bodies.
During his address to the Council on June 22, 2023, the Somalia President emphasized that the arms embargo has hampered his government’s ability to safeguard its citizens and has exacerbated the proliferation of unregulated arms in Somalia. The Security Council has maintained an arms embargo on Somalia that has been in place for a year and is set to remain until November 15, 2023.
Somalia is currently at a crucial juncture in its history, fighting terrorism and striving to strengthen state institutions, according to the President. Given significant improvements in politics and security, he called for a complete lifting of the arms embargo to pave the way for a peaceful and prosperous nation.
“The political and security situation in Somalia has improved significantly,” he said. “We want the total lifting of the year-old arms embargo to build a peaceful and prosperous nation.”
A representative from Mozambique, also speaking for Gabon and Ghana, addressed the Council in support of the Somalia government’s request to lift the arms embargo. They called upon the international community and the Council to back ATMIS and SSF efforts to carry out their duties, noting that the SSF’s success in combating Al-Shabab will depend on government capacity with ATMIS assistance.
Amidst calls for help, members of the UNSC noted that Somalia’s challenges continue to mount, many of which are exacerbated by the conflict, including drought and acute hunger across the country. They expressed concern about the looming humanitarian disaster in Somalia, exacerbated by a mix of factors including the continued violence, drought and the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Laing, military actions have inflicted major damage on Al-Shabab and created opportunities to reach the affected population. However, Cindy McCain of the World Food Programme (WFP) said violence and climate change are converging and threatening the livelihoods of millions in the country.
“I was horrified by what I witnessed,” she said. “Violence, fear and starvation are a daily reality. Much of Somalia’s infrastructure has been destroyed by conflict and thousands urgently need help to survive.”
An estimated 8.25 million Somalias require urgent humanitarian aid as the threat of famine looms, according to United Nations officials.
The crisis involves approximately 1.5 million children under the age of five, 1.8 million girls aged five to 17, 1.8 million boys aged five to 17, 1.3 million women, 1.4 million men and 412,000 elderly people. Large segments of the population are on the brink of starvation.
Without sufficient funding and aid capacity, famine is projected to hit between April and June 2023 for three population groups in Baidoa and Burhakaba rural districts as well as among internally displaced people in Baidoa and Mogadishu.
McCain called on all member states to immediately contribute to the humanitarian response plan to save thousands of lives in Somalia.
Shakhboot bin Nahyan al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates and Council President for June, urged the Council to be vigilant about drought-affected Somalis, saying “Somalia is at a critical juncture” and called for support for humanitarian and climate response programs.
The Council discussed regional peace, security and humanitarian access in Somalia, addressing ongoing violence and Al-Shabab presence. Pedro Alonso of Mozambique, on behalf of Gabon and Ghana, called on the Somali government to intensify efforts to combat terrorism and strengthen security forces to prevent in and out of border attacks.
“We urge this Council and the international community to continue supporting Somalia to ensure the government can effectively combat Al-Shabab,” he said.
Alonso went on to say the international community must do more to combat the threat posed by Al-Shabab, including providing more assistance to the Somalia government and security forces.