LONDON (Reuters) – Somalia’s government and its foreign backers said on Thursday they were hammering out a plan to try and strengthen the army to take over the fight against al Shabaab militants from over-stretched African Union troops.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May told a London conference the scheme would aim to unite Somalia’s main army with a range of regional forces based across the divided and chaotic territory.
The African Union troops have clawed back most of Somalia’s main towns and cities from al Shabaab since they helped drive the Al Qaeda-linked insurgents out of the capital Mogadishu in 2010.
But the soldiers from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and other states are due to start leaving in 2018 – and the Islamist militants still manage to launch regular deadly attacks in the capital and beyond.
“Al Shabaab has tripled its attacks on Mogadishu, and Somali forces do not yet have the capability to take over control of their own security,” May said in opening remarks.
“We want to see the integration of Somali regional forces and an increase in Somali capacity, as this will be crucial in allowing the resumption of offensives against the remaining al Shabaab strongholds in southern Somalia,” May said.
A spokesman for the Somali delegation said the government and regional leaders had already agreed the framework of the deal, and the London conference was focused on getting funding from international partners.
Somalia has been mired in violent chaos since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Siad Barre and then turned against each other.
May said Somalia had made progress since five years ago, when al Shabaab controlled large parts of it, piracy was costing global trade $7 billion a year and the country was recovering from a famine that killed a quarter of a million people.
Despite this progress, May said, Somalia was still ranked the most fragile state in the world and was suffering from a severe drought that had left more than 6 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and driven millions from their homes.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the conference that 275,000 malnourished children were at risk of starvation, and said the global body was seeking a further $900 million this year to respond to the Somali crisis.
Analysts say the national army is also poorly equipped and underfunded.
Partly as a result of that, a range of regional forces including clan militias, the Ethiopia-backed Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamea militia, the U.S.-supported Puntland forces and a regional force in Jubaland have been reluctant to join a centralized force.
In an article published on Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson suggested the international community would provide concrete incentives to draw the different forces together.
“Put simply, I want to strike a bargain whereby Somalia’s leaders carry out vital security reforms – including drawing up a clear plan for a National Army – in return for more help and training from the international community,” Johnson wrote.
“And when conditions allow, Somali troops will take over from their AMISOM allies,” he wrote, referring to the African Union force in Somalia.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in London and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Editing by Andrew Heavens)