Al Shabab terror attacks dominate African Union summit

The African Union summit got underway Sunday in Kampala, Uganda, amid calls for greater cooperation on terrorism following the city's deadly July 11 bombings by Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked militant group, Al Shabab.

James Akena/Reuters
African head of states and delegates pose for a photo opportunity after the opening of the African Union Summit at the Commonwealth Resort in Munyonyo, near Uganda's capital of Kampala July 25. The Al Shabab terror attacks in Kampala earlier this month has been a discussion topic during the summit.

Just over three weeks after a pair of suspected suicide blasts killed 76 people watching the World Cup final in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, around 35 African leaders are meeting in the city for a scheduled African Union (AU) summit.

Although the nominal theme of the meeting is maternal and child health, the subject of regional security and what can be done to tackle the Al Qaeda-linked Somali Islamist group, Al Shabab – which claimed responsibility for the July 11 attacks – dominated the discussion.

In his opening speech to the summit Sunday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called on the continent’s leaders to unite against those responsible for the attacks.

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“Let us work in concert to sweep them out of Africa,” Mr. Museveni said, after a two-minute silence for those killed in the attacks, which Al Shabab claims were in revenge for indiscriminate shelling of civilians by Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia.

A stronger mandate?

By "work in concert" Museveni means boosting the number of troops deployed to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and strengthening the mission’s mandate so that it can go on the offensive against Al Shabab.

At present, the mission’s main task is to protect the isolated patches of the capital, Mogadishu, that are still held by Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government.

“These reactionary groups have now committed aggression against our country,” Museveni said in a separate statement released ahead of the meeting. “We shall now go after them.”

The call for a new offensive comes on the back of recent reports that – even given its currently limited mandate – AMISOM has been indiscriminately shelling civilian areas in Mogadishu and sparked fears of more civilian casualties.

Plagued by funding, payment, and personnel problems, it has taken AMISOM three years to reach just over three quarters of its mandated 8,000 strength.

Despite previous pledges to contribute troops from Nigeria, Ghana, and Malawi, the only two countries to have actually sent troops are Uganda and Burundi.

More troops to Somalia

In the aftermath of the bomb attacks, Museveni pledged to send an extra 2,000 troops to the mission, finally boosting it to full strength. Museveni also backed calls from east African regional body the Intergovernmental Agency for Development, or IGAD, to raise final troop numbers to 20,000.

Now there seems to be some movement from other African countries.

Guinea and Djibouti will likely send troops to supplement the AMISOM force, and eventual troop strength could top 10,000, AU President Jean Ping announced late last week. A battalion of Guinean troops is ready to go to Mogadishu, Ping said. They are just waiting for transport to be provided, a series of research trips to be completed, and Guinea to be reinstated to the African Union after it was suspended following a military coup in 2008.

Backroom chatter at the conference has been that other countries could follow suit and AU commissioner for peace and security Ramtane Lamamra said South Africa is “considering” a request to send troops to AMISOM.

When asked about that, however, the country’s president Jacob Zuma – in Kampala for the summit – laughed off repeated questions from journalists.

Money, but no troops from the West

Despite a high attendance by delegations from outside Africa and an admission by UN deputy secretary general Asha-Rose Migiro that the crisis in Somalia impacts global security, there is almost no political will to send in peacekeepers from beyond Africa. Money, not manpower, is being promised from donor nations in the West.

President Obama’s envoy to the summit, Attorney General Eric Holder, promised in a speech to the African leaders to “maintain” – but not increase – support for the AU’s Somali mission. Since 2007, the US has given support worth over $176 million to the mission and intends to give Ugandan and Burundian troops “enhanced pre-deployment training” to help tackle Al Shabab, the state department says.

EU officials at the meeting – responsible for funding the $750 monthly allowances for each AMISOM soldier – said that the current €47 million budget for the second half of 2010 was meant to support 6,000 troops but that money could be shifted around to cover any new deployment.

'Limited' options in Somalia

In the end, though, the international community has little leeway on Somalia, regional security experts say.

“A completely new game plan is not on the cards,” says former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn. “The options are limited.”

For Shinn – a leading State Department figure during American involvement in Somalia in the early nineties and now a professor at George Washington University in Washington – a foreign peacekeeping force is not the answer to Somalia’s problem.

“There is too much Somali resentment against foreigners who, in any event, are not prepared to stay the length of time required to defeat a committed opponent such as Al Shabab,” Shinn says.

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The delegation from Somalia’s beleaguered transitional government agrees.

On the sidelines of the summit, Somali foreign minister Yusuf Hassan Ibrahim said that what is most important is not building up AMISOM but strengthening the fledgling Somali national army.

“You have to have a Somali national army equipped, trained, and organized in such a way that there will be thousands and thousands of Somalis who can deal with the Al Shabab incursions,” he said.


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