In Somalia, African Union takes the offensive in information war

AMISOM is rehabilitating Radio Mogadishu and publishing articles to 'empower' Somalis and push back against Islamist insurgents.

Ismail Taxta/Reuters
Residents flee renewed fighting in southern Mogadishu Monday, as Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed urged the international community to help his forces fend off hardline Islamist rebels. The U.N.'s refugee agency said 57,000 people have fled the nation's capital since the upsurge in bloodshed this month.

No sooner do officials from the African Union stabilization force arrive in Somalia's battlefield of a capital, Mogadishu, than Islamist insurgents send them a warning.

"AMISOM," reads the text message on their phones, "we're going to kill you."

Fighting in Mogadishu has escalated in the past month, and the undermanned and underfunded African peacekeeping force known as AMISOM is increasingly bearing the brunt of the ugly conflict, which pits extremist Islamist insurgents against a new, more moderate, transitional government.

Analysts say the mission has held up well, given the circumstances. But AMISOM officials say they – and the fragile government they aim to protect – are losing on one important front: the information war.

Insurgents loyal to militias known as Al Shabab, or "The Youth," and Hizb al-Islam, the party of Islam, began this latest round of attacks on May 8. And they have "misled" the international community as to their strength, according to Nicolas Bwakira, the African Union Commission's special representative for Somalia, and head of the peacekeeping mission.

But AMISOM is now fighting back – with words.

Sitting in his Nairobi office – due to the lack of security in Mogadishu, AMISOM's headquarters is in Kenya – Mr. Bwakira is on a mission to set the record straight, as he puts it.

"The image is that the government has no control whatsoever. That's not true," he says.

AMISOM is planning a public awareness campaign – hiring journalists to craft both the mission and the government's message, rehabilitating the defunct state-run Radio Mogadishu, buying air time, and publishing articles in the local press.

"We really want to tell the story as it is," says Fred Ngoga Gateretse, and adviser to Mr. Bwakira. "We're going to [empower] Somalis to tell their real story: that they're against Wahhabism," he says, referring to the extreme form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. The mission will give local nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups resources "to wage their war."

A challenging mission

But the mission still faces huge challenges more than two years after AMISOM began deploying in Somalia, where inter-clan fighting has left the country without a stable government since 1991.

After many promises, AMISOM has just over half of its mandated 8,000 troops, with three Ugandan battalions and two Burundian battalions.

Bwakira says he is "absolutely optimistic and confident" that the mission will reach full strength, with pledges from Sierra Leone and Malawi sure to materialize.

Typical deployment time for a battalion of United Nations peacekeepers is nine to 12 months, but because of their "commitment," AU countries may be able to deploy faster, he says.

Nigeria has long delayed on promises of sending a battalion, and Burundi has hesitated before sending a third.

"You're not sending troops into a situation where they're observing peace. You're sending them in to be shot at," says Roger Middleton, a Somalia analyst at the London-based Chatham House think tank. "I'd be very surprised if anyone else goes."

Facing increasingly sophisticated suicide bombers and an unprecedented quality of weapons, including antiaircraft and surface-to-air missiles, the mission has already lost 43 men.

Analysts say Eritrea is the Somali insurgents' main backer, and may be financed by several countries.

After vehement denials, President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed admitted this week that foreign Al Qaeda elements were present in his country and called on Somalis and the international community to help the government defeat them – a sign, some say, of how bad things have gotten.

Not enough troops to stop fighting

Even AMISOM acknowledges that 8,000 troops wouldn't be enough to stop the fighting. In the 1990s, a UN peacekeeping force had more than 20,000 troops in Somalia, including highly trained US Marines with the best equipment in the world, Mr. Middleton says, "and [even] they weren't able to keep the peace."

The biggest problem facing the mission, he continues, is that "they're a peacekeeping force in a place without a peace to keep.... For AMISOM to be effective, it does come down to there being a political settlement for them to support. That's really the only chance they have of success."

Recent fighting in Mogadishu has forced 57,000 people to flee in less than three weeks, with 8,000 fleeing last Friday alone, when the government launched a counteroffensive, according to the UN.

At least 208 people have been killed and 700 wounded, 80 percent of them civilians, Humanitarian Affairs Minister Mohamoud Ibrahim Garweyne said, according to Reuters.

AMISOM's priorities are threefold: to protect government institutions and strategic points, like the airport and presidential palace; to build the capacity of local security forces; and to facilitate humanitarian access.

"I think it's done really well, especially now with what people are calling the battle of Mogadishu," says Paula Roque, Horn of Africa researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank based in Tshwane (formerly known as Pretoria), South Africa. "AMISOM played a key role in keeping the front line, the line of the government."

AMISOM has started to impress people in the past month just by "holding on under incredibly difficult conditions," says one regional analyst, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work. "They've risen to the challenge."

False rumors of evacuation

Rumors that the mission is considering evacuation, following fears that the insurgents would topple the government, are "absolutely out of the question," Bwakira says.

The government, too, has sung AMISOM's praises. This week, President Ahmed said AMISOM was playing an "important and needed" role in securing peace and stability in Somalia.

"We are grateful for their commitment to the Somali people," he said.

AMISOM has often been ridiculed for securing just the few city blocks of the capital that remain under government control after the insurgents gained ground in recent weeks.

But AMISOM insists the insurgents don't control nearly as much territory as they claim.

"They control territory for a portion of an hour. Then they go," Bwakira says, calling it a "hit and run" approach.

AMISOM has no mandate to be involved in the fighting, except in self-defense. But Bwakira says the often-cited figure of 1,500 or so Shabab fighters in the capital – the majority of them forced conscripts or paid fighters, he charges – are no match for troops from two of Africa's best armies.

Analysts estimate that there are several thousand insurgents nationally, including Shabab, but the figures are hard to confirm, as fighters realign themselves and insurgent groups enter towns, conscript fighters for short periods of time, and then move on. The recent fighting was not an example of the insurgents' strength, analysts say, but rather, of the government's weakness at the time.

"If we were to get into fighting," Bwakira says, "I tell you these Shabab will not last one single day – not one single day."

Allow offensive action?

During the heavy fighting last week, one of the many ideas thrown around was an amendment to AMISOM's mandate that would allow it to take offensive action, the regional analyst says.

But he says such a move would be a "bad idea" because of Somali mistrust for foreign troops on their soil. Opposition groups have already used AMISOM's presence as a rallying point.

For now, Bwakira says, the mission prefers to focus on dialogue and reconciliation.

"AMISOM is active in Mogadishu, but the African Union role in Somalia is much bigger than Mogadishu," he says. "We are looking to assist the international community to formulate a policy that will bring Somalia back into peace."

Could AMISOM be seen as a model for Africans solving their own problems?

"Africa wants to resolve its problems, but this problem is an international problem. It's absolutely not an exclusively African problem," Bwakira says.

He complains of a lack of support from the international community. The AU has been calling for a UN force to replace it, as was originally envisaged. In the meantime, the information war continues.

"We have never tried to use our capacity to crush theses forces," Bwakira says of the insurgents, but "we have a capacity more than they can imagine."

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