Center for Strategic Communication

AU/UN IST Photo – Stuart Price

As the new chair of the African Union’s political and security commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, took up her post today, she vowed to tackle the growing ills of Mali and Islamic extremism in the Sahel . In large part, she was responding to last week’s United Nations Security Council resolution which empowered Africa’s regional institutions to come up with a solution, amid growing concern from the United States and others, about the convergence of crises in the west of the continent.

Earlier this month, Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Affairs, laid out why the United States wants to see action in Mali, including dealing with the threat to security from weakening governance and the reported growing threat from Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.

It will be no surprise to those watching developments on the continent that United States policy makers are looking at the African Union efforts in Somalia as a starting point for tackling instability, diminishing government power and the humanitarian plight of Malis. There are some important lessons from the African Union’s involvement in Somalia should such a model of peace enforcement be transferred hundreds of miles west.

In these times of financial stringencies, a regional peace enforcement mission by the African Union has obvious attraction. The Somalia mission is seen as a success story given its relative low cost, both politically and financially for the United States. There are no American boots on the ground in that troubled country which risk attracting international terrorists looking for another high-profile theatre to play out their vicious struggle. For a mission to Mali to be a success though, judgements need to be based on hard lessons learned from the Somalia intervention not simply by solving the financial equation.

It is in the provision of a clear and, what has turned out to be, achievable task for the African Union force that has become a fundamental hallmark of operations there. Although the mandate for operations in Somalia was dressed up under the terms of Chapter VII peacekeeping, the success so far of the mostly military mission stems from a war-fighting objective. In the wake of the bombings by the Somali rebel group in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010 it became crystal clear that the African troops were no longer going to sit on the fence as neutral peacekeepers and became, what is called in legal parlance, a party to the conflict. International partners came together to agree a robust interpretation of the mandate effectively allowing offensive operations, which then developed into a campaign, in the name of “pre-emptive self defense”. The troops have provided the other ingredient for success; a dogged determination to carry out their task to find and destroy Al Shabaab, even when the odds were stacked against them.

Countries considering contributing troops to a mission in Mali will be aware that success has not come without a cost, though. It has been the troops of Uganda and Burundi that have paid the heaviest sacrifice though the total casualty count is not known. It remains a secret for a good reason; exposure of the suspected vast numbers of casualties could well remove popular support back home in the countries contributing troops to the Somalia mission. Political support from African countries for contributing to the Somalia mission was initially built on the expectation that a United Nations peacekeeping force would one day take over and has tangibly grown as funding has become a little more generous and predictable. In contrast, it is worth remembering that the forerunner to the African Union mission, led by the east African Intergovernmental Authority on Development, never got off the ground due to a lack of troops.

View From Mogadishu – AU/UN IST Photo – Stuart Price

The African Union troops’ finest hour was in August last year when they pressured the Islamic militants, Al Shabaab, to withdraw from their trenches and defences that made up a frontline dividing the capital in Mogadishu. This was the conclusion of a phase of conventional, sometimes hand-to-hand urban warfare that the Ugandan and Burundi troops took to with determination. Yet, events have also contributed to the demise of the militants. They exited Mogadishu last year at the peak of a famine which cost the militants a serious setback in public support when they clamped down on emergency aid and prevented the movement of starving people.

More recently, real time mentoring and advice from western partners has allowed the African Union force to expand rapidly outside Mogadishu to exploit the demise of the militants, pushing them out of urban centers around south central Somalia, despite little air support and an ageing fleet of Casspir mine resistant vehicles. Often seen as under-resourced, their success has been built on a tenacious resolve to gradually roll back the enemy and an incremental expansion of force numbers. Yet, as this blog said last week, the transition from war-fighting to keeping the relative peace, is set to be the hardest phase.

This success has been long in the making. The need for patience will weigh heavily on the mind of United States policy-makers as they see Islamic extremism grow day-by-day in Mali. The fundamentals of learning urban fighting, building international support for a greater force and carefully managing popular support among Somalis were developed gradually since the first couple of thousand soldiers were sent to Somalia in 2007. It has taken years for the African troops to gain ground, block by block, in the capital, and to build international support for a larger force size.

Over time too, the African Union force has maintained support from the Somalis through a difficult process of learning how to minimize harm caused to civilians when the fighting was at its most lethal, and providing clean water and medical assistance to the Somali population. Though the force in Somalia was given a humanitarian mandate, it has managed to keep out of the vicious politics of aid delivery in Somalia, avoiding the tangle that so ensnared United Nations deployments to Somalia in the nineties. In the way the international intervention is structured today, it is the fervently independent humanitarian agencies of the United Nations that have had to walk the difficult line of aid delivery in the middle of a complex, clan-based conflict.

During the recent process of political transition the African Mission’s leaders managed to keep outside the fractious wheeler dealing of Somalia’s elites while keeping separate from the barrage of international pressure as the country prepared for a new constitution, a downsized Parliament and new elections for a President. Again, it was another United Nations agency that had the task of generating the political will for the process of change, albeit small, and balance competing interests.

The African Union’s story in Somalia is unique. Its mission was born out of a high degree of skepticism. Many doubted sufficient troops would be provided, that funding from international partners would appear and fewer expected any results. That the peace-building mission has come so far over five years seems to have been because of the tough journey it has taken, a lesson that should shape policies and expectations for any similar mission to Mali.