The UN-mandated African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia has long seemed inadequate considering the enormous significance of the situation for the region, the continent and the wider international community.
In recent years the Somali conflict has risked spilling over into neighbouring states, stoked fears of a new base of operations for Islamist terror groups and given rise to an endemic piracy problem.
However, whilst on one level the force deployed there presents an optimistic sign of African nations helping to stabilise others nearby, the real picture is unstable, unpredictable and this weeks events would suggest – unsustainable.
Set up in 2007 to support the transitional government, the peacekeeping force consists almost solely of Ugandan and Burundian troops.
The involvement of these states has come at a significant cost- loosing soldiers on the ground and facing retribution at home. Yet it is highly unlikely that such sacrifices are being made in the name of altruism, stability or horror at the human rights abuses committed by the Islamist militias they are taking on. It is far more probable that the real motivation lies in a combination of politicking and gain – one which is currently beginning to unravel in dramatic fashion.
Uganda’s contribution has long provided despot Yoweri Museveni with a means of diverting attention away from his own horrific human rights abuses and destabilising role in Central Africa. The likes of the USA and UK are determined to prevent militant Islamists from gaining control of Somali yet are understandably reluctant to become physically embroiled on the basis of public pressure, over-stretched resources and psychological scars from previous US intervention.
American bombing raids during 2008 were as far as any ‘Western’ power was prepared to go – so Museveni’s willingness to ‘put troops on the ground’ was naturally seen in Washington and London as a golden opportunity- not to be jeopardised by condemning his authoritarian rule.
However, in the face of increased public and political opposition to his rule at home, continued losses of troops and open criticism from the international community regarding his government’s barbaric treatment of homosexuals – Museveni is faltering.
Museveni’s threat this week to pull Ugandan forces out if the UN-mandate of the transitional government is not extended, undoubtedly comes less from concern for Somalia’s stable development and more from a calculated desire to create a feasible exit strategy whilst sending a message to the world about the dangers in discontinuing appeasement of his regime.
And whilst the complex and cynical politics of Museveni begin to play out- all is not well amongst the Burundian part of the force.
Troops claim that they have not been paid for some five months, underscoring the greed and corruption of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s administration whilst giving credence to long-standing fears that Burundi’s involvement was only ever a method for the political elite to cream off money from the UN (as well as arms from donor nations). With no sign of urgent rectification forthcoming, the potential for Burundian troops to withdraw, desert or even mutiny is by no means off the cards.
Ominously as Uganda and Burundi commit roughly 50% of the force each- neither could feasibly continue the mission without the other- meaning that if either of these situations develops into withdrawal, the whole peacekeeping venture will be likely to collapse.
It is widely agreed that productive, well-executed peacekeeping and stabilisation now is infinitely preferable to further breakdown of order, regional warfare or full scale US intervention at a later date- all of which are conceivable possibilities.