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Withdrawals, lack of pay for African Union's Somalia forces could thwart progress

The African Union Mission in Somalia has been gaining ground against Al Shabab, but threats of countries withdrawing soldiers and failure to pay others could set back that progress.

By Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / June 6, 2011

Burundian peacekeepers from the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) rest during fighting between Somalia government soldiers and Islamist insurgents in the capital Mogadishu on May 27. African Union troops in Somalia are slowly tightening the noose around the nerve-centre of rebel operations in the capital, but seizing control of Mogadishu will not bring peace to the Horn of Africa nation.

Feisal Omar/Reuters

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In Somalia, the joint forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are making military progress against the Islamist rebel group al Shabab. The TFG’s internal political problems, especially a dispute over election scheduling between the president and the speaker of parliament, regularly make the news. Yesterday, though, saw the appearance of several reports on problems within AMISOM. These problems, which could disrupt the force’s capacity in Somalia, concern Uganda and Burundi, the two countries that supply near all ofAMISOM’s troops (Uganda contributes around 5,000, Burundi around 4,000).

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The Ugandan government is upset at the UN’s approach to the TFG’s infighting, and is threatening to withdraw its soldiers:

President Museveni yesterday warned that Uganda would withdraw its troops from Mogadishu if UN-pushed presidential and parliamentary elections in Somalia spark renewed assault by al-Shabaab militants.

“This may allow the extremists to re-organise and cause problems, and also undermine the battlefield gains we have made. We can’t allow to be in that situation,” he said at the ongoing 19th International Contact Group on Somalia conference in Kampala.

“If the current system collapses, or if it is seriously undermined, we can have no justification to stay in that situation – we will leave Somalia,” he added.

[...]

President Museveni told the conference that the mandate of the Sheik Sharif-led Transitional Federal Government (TFG) – due to expire in two months – should instead be extended by a year.

“We believe that to have a win-win situation, we should allow the TFG complete their tasks, after all Somalia has been unstable for the last two decades. Why should one year be a big issue?”

With this statement, Museveni has taken sides in the TFG's internal disputes, backing the president’s position over the speaker of parliament’s. Museveni’s threat, even he does not seriously intend to withdraw troops and is only trying to apply political pressure, raises the stakes for the TFG, the UN, and Somalia as a whole.

Burundi’s soldiers in AMISOM, meanwhile, have a different problem, but one that also undermines the stability of AMISOM: they are not getting paid.

The five months of arrears total an estimated $20m (£12m) for the nearly 4,000 Burundian peacekeepers.

Burundi’s army spokesman Col Gaspard Baratuza said the African Union had paid the money into the Bank of the Republic of Burundi.

But he said the central bank had not disbursed the salaries to the soldiers.

The soldiers, needless to say, are not happy. What happens when their frustration reaches the boiling point?

Between Uganda’s threats to pull out and Burundi’s disgruntled soldiers, AMISOM’s durability is looking a little bit less secure. These problems may not be enough to shatter the force, but combined with the TFG’s problems the situation in Somalia seems to be getting more and more uncertain. That uncertainty could be an opportunity for al Shabab, currently on the defensive, to mount a comeback.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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