by Dennis Mbae
Next year, AMISOM forces will have spent a decade in Somalia; the longest that any foreign force has spent on Somali soil in its independent history. That, in itself, is an achievement. Many forces have come and gone away, defeated by the enormity of the task of bringing lasting stability to Somalia, or at the very least, pacifying the sometimes rabid violence that made world headlines as yet another desperate Somali story punctuated by bullets.
The gains that it has made notwithstanding, the fact that troop contributing nations to AMISOM have mourning huge losses to the AL-Shabaab since September last year means that it is time for a hard look at what AMISOM faces. Al-Shabaab’s repeated, high-profile attacks on African Union troops in Somalia depict the latter as a vulnerable force struggling to degrade a formidable foe.
The attack in El Adde base on January 15 exposed AMISOM’s underbelly and consequently cemented al-Shabaab’s status as a potent threat. Not only was this damaging to AMISOM’s goals, but in the information war about the battle, AMISOM was badly exposed as well.
During the dawn attack that lasted several hours, Al-Shabaab militants overran the base killing tens of Kenya Defence Force troops, putting the survivors to flight, and taking hostages.
As soon as news of the onslaught broke, KDF hastily denied that its camp had been attacked saying it was that of Somali National Army.
KDF spokesperson Colonel David Obonyo later issued a statement acknowledging the attack on Kenyan troops.
The Al-Shabaab’s propaganda wing went into overdrive; pictures, statements and figures were blasted onto the internet, with the counter from AMISOM being a very soldierly stoic “We are bloodied but unbowed” response. One that fed the anxiety of Kenyans over how many people exactly they were going to mourn.
In fact two days after the El Adde attack, al-Shabaab released audio clips of alleged KDF soldiers it had captured.
The commander of Somali troops in Gedo region, General Abbas Ibrahim Gurey, has been quoted saying that KDF unit commander had been informed earlier about the possibility of an attack long before it happened.
To date, the exact number of AMISOM soldiers who perished in the deadly attack is enveloped by what military men call “the fog of war”; the lack of certainty about anything in an ongoing confrontation. Also unknown is the number of soldiers who were on base in El Adde; the number of SNA troops who were in the neighboring base; facts and figures which, especially in the wake of the attack, would help the region make sense of what happened, and be used as statistics for frank learning points for the mission. AMISOM’s knack for not cataloguing its fallen soldiers and casualties has been all grist to the mill of Al-Shabaab, who, almost invariably, exaggerates the facts to their benefit.
No official figures
The absence of reliable figures for AMISOM fatalities has led journalists, commentators, analysts, and academics to speculate on how many AU personnel have died while serving on this mission, says Paul D Williams, an Associate Professor of International Affairs at the George Washington University.
High ranking officials and diplomats have in the past come under fire for giving “incorrect information”.
For instance on May 9, 2013, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told a news conference at the UN Headquarters in New York that up to 3,000 AMISOM soldiers had died by then.
Eliasson singled out Uganda and Burundi as countries which had paid ‘a tremendous price’.
A day later, UN distanced itself from the figures given by Eliasson.
“The casualty figures used by the Deputy Secretary-General were an estimate based on information from informal sources; dissemination of exact casualty statistics is solely the responsibility of the African Union and the individual troop contributing countries,” read a statement by the UN.
While AMISOM’s then spokesman Ali Aden Hamoud told the media he could not ‘confirm or deny’ the fatalities, AMISOM dismissed the 3,000 death toll via its twitter account.
“AMISOM has learnt that media reports indicate that it lost up to 3000 peacekeepers since 2007. That figure is simply untrue.”
Eliasson’s statement came six months after Kenya’s then Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Richard Onyonka told a forum on Somalia held in Nairobi that Uganda alone had lost 2700 troops since 2007.
“This exercise has its cost, which has been heavy. It’s important that we should not forget that. This is a critical aspect,” he said on October 31, 2012, adding that three dozen Kenyan troops perished the previous year.
His remark however elicited an angry response from Uganda People’s Defence Forces then spokesperson Colonel Felix Kulayigye who upbraided him for giving ‘wrong figures’.
According to Kulayigye, both Burundi and Uganda had lost less than 500 troops, including the injured.
UPDF current spokesperson Colonel Paddy Ankunda told Africa Uncensored that information on fatalities is always classified.
“On numbers, our policy is not to discuss figures of the dead in public. However, all the dead are duly compensated by the African Union,” he said.
The best probable estimates
According to data AMISOM furnished the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in a special report authored by Professor Williams, 1,108 soldiers died between 2009 and 2014 as follows: 200 in 2009, 300 in 2010, 94 in 2011, 384 in 2012, and 261 in 2013.
AMISOM stated that the 69 fatalities in 2014 only covered soldiers who perished as a result of hostile action.
Most notably, there is no data for AMISOM fatalities for the period between the start of the mission in March 2007 and December 31, 2008.
Medical and financial records
According to records from AMISOM’s medical facilities, there were 205 fatalities and 798 wounded between March 2007 and February 2011.
African Union financial records related to death and disability compensation indicate that AMISOM lost 439 soldiers between August 2009 and September 2012. The number is broken down as follows: 22 in 2009, 59 in 2010, 298 in 2011, and 60 in 2012.
A comparison of AMISOM figures and SIPRI estimates obviously reveals a marked discrepancy.
While AMISOM gives its fatalities as 22 in 2009, SIPRI records 200. The variance is projected in subsequent years as shown below:
Evidently, it is relatively hard to establish the exact number of AMISOM troops who have died since March 2007.
The Managing Director of Security Advisory Services Andrew Franklin says AMISOM is reluctant to release figures on its fatalities due to poor coordination and lack of a unified command structure.
According to him, there are a lot of questions they would be required to answer if investigations (which are hardly carried out) were to be conducted.
“As a result, we are left with no other choice but to believe the al-Shabaab. Sometimes, the militant group is fairly accurate owing to its ability and opportunity to count the dead bodies of AMISOM soldiers,” he says.
Arguments about AMISOM’s fatalities will continue to form an important part of the propaganda war waged by all sides in this bloody conflict, notes Professor Williams.
This clearly undermines AMISOM’s ability to fulfill its mandate. However, AMISOM has left it to troop contributing nations to disclose their casualty numbers, something that Kenya did until the El-Adde attack.
The number of AMISOM troops and a seemingly resurgent Al-Shabaab also points to another uncomfortable question about numbers: Are the boots on the ground enough to ensure that at the very least, the Al-Shabaab is outgunned and cannot expand into unclaimed territories, as it is doing now?
AMISOM’S mandate excludes any airstrike capability. Every airstrike that has taken place in Somalia since AMISOM went in nine years ago has either been as a result of an ad hoc arrangement between AMISOM and a nation with firepower or a states unilateral decision to go after its perceived enemies inside Somalia (as is the case with the numerous drone strikes conducted by the United States in Somalia, pivoting off its base in Kenya’s Manda Island. General Samuel Mwathethe, The Kenya Defense Forces Chief of General Staff’s comments about Kenya’s delays in conducting airstrikes, as the El-Adde attack was ongoing have this fact set squarely as an undertone.
A classic case is last month’s deadly raid on KDF in El-Adde.
It took KDF 10 hours for reinforcements to travel from El Wak to Mandera then Wajir to reach the base.
This attack stood in stark contrast to the European Union’s cutting back on its funding to AMISOM. Some would complain that the EU is undercutting AMISOM’s efforts given the as yet un-numbered casualties in El-Adde; but what is almost always forgotten is that this is very much an African problem. Perhaps it’s time that the AU breathed life into that worn saying “ African, problems, African solutions”, and put up enough of Africa’s own money behind its troops.
Dennis Mbae is a writer and researcher at Africa Uncensored