By Special Correspondent
Burundi’s threat to withdraw from the African peacekeepers in Somalia over delayed payment has been rescinded but the mission remains shaky.
With insufficient funding, limited troops and lack of adequate equipment, the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) is facing hard times as Al Shabaab increases its attacks.
Approximately 5,432 Burundi troops had gone without pay for several months because the European Union (EU)—that pays Amisom troops—had imposed sanctions on Bujumbura as a result of the controversial third term of President Pierre Nkurunziza.
As a result, the EU suspended paying the soldiers through the government and requested the African Union (AU) to find new mechanism where the soldiers could be paid directly.
The Burundi government took offense and President Nkurunziza threatened to withdraw his troops, which could have been a major blow to the mission given that Burundi is the second largest contributor of troops to Amisom after Uganda.
Pierre Nkurunziza had threatened to sue the AU over failure to pay its peacekeeping troops that had gone for more than one year without salary. The EU and Burundi relation started deteriorating in 2015 when the EU suspended all its aid to Burundi after violence broke out prompted by President Nkurunziza seeking a third term in office contrary to the 2000 Arusha Accord (that ended the 13-year civil war in 2005).
The EU had accused Burundi security forces of cases of human rights violations during the protests in which over 300 people died and over 300,000 took refuge in neighbouring countries of Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It took the intervention of the AU Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui, in which the Burundi government signed a new payment agreement with AU for the threat to be withdrawn. According to the new agreement, the Burundi troops will now be paid through a commercial bank rather than the Central Bank as it was previously the case.
The Military Operations Coordination Committee — which comprises chiefs of general staff from Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs)—had also rejected EU’s proposal to pay the soldiers directly because it amounted to discrimination where Burundi’s mode of payment is different from other troop contributing countries.
Inside sources say that EU slashed funding due to concerns that some troop-contributing countries are inflating troop levels, which means that some ghost soldiers were being paid but which was benefitting some government officials in some countries.
The EU pays $1,028 each per month per soldier and the respective governments then deduct $200 for administrative costs before remitting the remaining amount to the soldiers.
AU Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui and the Burundi government signed a new payment agreement with AU for the threat to be withdrawn. According to the new agreement, the Burundi troops will be now be paid through a commercial bank rather than the Central Bank as it was previously the case.
Still, there are concerns that Burundi’s action could influence other TCCs to follow a similar path, in the future, because the Amisom funding still remains fluid. Burundi’s problem was not only an issue of concern to the country but for a continent as a whole since the AU can’t fund its peacekeeping missions.
In 2015, the AU failed to deploy 5,000 troops to Burundi mainly because the continental body could not fund the deployment besides stiff resistance from the Nkurunziza administration.
In January 2016, the EU slashed its annual $200 million funding by 20 per cent as other humanitarian crises emerged around the world. The AU Security Council has gone back to the drawing board to find ways of filling the gap, where they are now reaching out to Gulf countries to help fund the Somalia mission.
The AU has also established Peace Fund for peacekeeping missions across the continent but the programme is yet to be fine-tuned.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Uganda’s parliament have also expressed concerns about lack of international support for Amisom. In October last year, Ethiopia withdrew 4,000 non-Amisom troops in what the country termed as lack of international support. Ethiopia had provided these 4,000 additional troops as part of a bilateral agreement with the Somalia government. The withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces saw Al-Shabaab recapture six towns in Hiraan region, central Somalia.
Amisom spokesperson, Col Joseph Kibet says that Amisom will need a maximum of 49,000 to fully secure the remaining areas, but the AU Security Council has only recommended additional 4,000, with no indication where the troops will come from.
Currently, there are a total of 21,129 Amisom troops from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia and Djibouti. However—Amisom that entered Somalia in 2007—first needs additional 28,000 troops to capture regions still under Al-Shabaab such as Jubba Valley, Hiraan and the north eastern coastline of Somalia.
With the new Donald Trump administration promising to review America’s involvement in Somalia, Amisom could be facing more difficult times ahead. The US has been providing military equipment, drone facilities and intelligence information which have been instrumental in keeping the Al-Shabaab on its toes. However, military experts say that there still many areas that are not covered by Amisom and the solution is to train and equip more Somalia National Army (SNA) to be able maintain security before Amisom withdraws completely at the end of 2020.
AU Special Representative to Somalia, Francisco Madeira, who is also the head of Amisom, says that the African peacekeepers are trying very hard to ensure that Somalia security institutions are made capable of securing the country when Amisom begins its drawdown in October 2018. The African peacekeepers, with the support from donors are supposed to train about 30,000 SNA troops before the withdrawal.
While the EU and other donors funds training and supply equipment to SNA, the UN Support Office for Somalia (UNSOS) (with the help of donors such as the US), provides non-lethal support such as food, fuel, water, tents and transport. The amount is capped at $10,900 per year.
According to the Hubert Price, the head of UNSOS, the withdrawal will depend on improved security situation in Somalia, especially the success of the outcome of the 2017 elections that will determine whether Somalia will become more stable to allow Amisom to withdraw.
Mr. Price said a group of UN experts will visit Somalia early this year to carry out a review of the security conditions on the ground and assess the kind of resources all the security actors will need to capture the remaining territories.
Amisom plans a new offensive in early 2017 to capture all the remaining regions in the hands of Al-Shabaab. However, the militants are continually attacking Amisom military bases besides constant suicide bombing in Mogadishu.
On January 27, Al -Shabaab killed dozens of Kenyan forces at base in the southern town of Kulbiyow. The Shabab had similarly killed more than 100 Kenyan soldiers in El Adde in January last year. Experts say that AU must now review Amisom strategies besides finding concrete sources of funding to avoid a repeat of Burundi-like withdrawal threats.