It was June 28.
In a dusty military compound in Somalia’s coastal town of Adale, soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping force and the Somali National Army gathered in a makeshift building.
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The AU commander gave signed documents to his Somali counterpart, marking the handing over of the military base, approximately 150km from Mogadishu, to the Somali Army.
Since the beginning of June, similar ceremonies have been taking place at military bases across Somalia. These ceremonies come as the African Union (AU) is winding down its peacekeeping mission in the country, leading to concerns about what will happen when AU soldiers finally depart at the end of 2024.
Established in 2007, the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), previously known as the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), gradually drew an estimated 22,000 troops from Uganda, Burundi and neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
The AU peacekeeping forces aimed to assist Somalia’s federal government in its war against al-Shabab.
When peacekeepers were first deployed, the al-Qaeda-linked armed group controlled nearly all territories in south-central Somalia.
Working with Somali security forces, the AU soldiers pushed the fighters into rural areas, and as it stands, al-Shabab mainly controls only those.
However, the combined efforts to defeat the group over the years have killed thousands of civilians and now, as the phasing out of ATMIS begins, there has been a debate about its success – or lack thereof.
“Though we appreciate AU force’s efforts, back then when they were deployed, we were hopeful that they would bring stability across the country since civilians, especially the women and children, have mostly suffered the conflict, but unfortunately, nothing much has changed,” said Batulo Ahmed, the chair of Somali Women Association.
According to a report compiled by ACLED, an independent data collection group, more than 4,000 civilians have been killed in al-Shabab attacks since 2008, and many more were injured, while four million people were internally displaced due to the conflict.
In April this year, the head of the AU mission in Somalia, Mohamed El-Amine Souef, confirmed that about 3,500 troops, mainly from Uganda and Burundi, were killed and more than 5,000 were injured since the mission started.
Professor Paul Williams, director of security policy studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, Washington, told Al Jazeera that “ATMIS faced many challenges but achieved the key strategic elements of its mandate”.
“Namely, protecting the transitional federal government, expelling al-Shabab forces from Mogadishu in 2011, and securing the process that established the country’s federal government and federal member states across south-central Somalia,” he said.
Al-Shabab, one of Africa’s deadliest armed groups, has recently been avoiding active combat with the joint forces but instead adopted night combat tactics and increased its use of suicide bombing. The group also maintains limited but effective administrative control over local populations in south-central Somalia.
According to Omar Mahmood, a researcher at the International Crisis Group focusing on Somalia, ATMIS has had mixed success.
“The mission’s main tasks were to essentially defeat al-Shabab and support the political process. We can say they have liberated major towns but struggled to secure rural areas,” Mahmood told Al Jazeera.
Somalia’s defence minister did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment. But the country’s national security adviser, Hussein Maalim, who is involved in the transition process, in July this year told state media that Mogadishu is optimistic about changing the guard.
“We have revived the national security architecture which dictates a unified national army, we are hoping to start a new offensive against al-Shabab soon and towards the end of the year, we are expecting the UN Security Council to partially lift the arms embargo,” Maalim said. “Since the transition process was initiated, we have recruited more than the required military personnel.”
However, not everyone is as confident.
Over three decades, the Horn of Africa nation has been lacking a professional army due to prolonged conflict, and there is a widespread belief that it is a long way from having a truly effective national force.
“Somalia’s national army are in no position to take over responsibilities in the foreseeable future, the main reason being the lack of an agreed national security architecture, and when there is consensus, we lack a unified national army, as the regular army is now mostly clan militias,” Mohamed Mubarak, chairman of the Hiraal Institute, a Mogadishu-based security think tank, told Al Jazeera.
“Somalia needs a professional military, ability to pay for it by itself, and political stability,” Mubarak added.
However, the winding down of the mission has created uncertainty about whether Somalia can build an effective country-wide security presence, and its limited resources are also a key factor.
Mubarak believes Mogadishu will be unable to fund its forces in the foreseeable future and will continue to rely on external support, even after the ATMIS drawdown.
‘Resources to sustain their presence’
A January 2023 report by the Heritage Institute, a Mogadishu-based think tank, revealed that more than two-thirds of the Somali government’s $950m annual budget comes from external donors, which poses a question of readiness and whether Mogadishu can afford its own national security.
Experts say the timetable set by the UN Security Council is too ambitious since Somalia’s forces are unlikely to be fully autonomous by then, nor is it likely that al-Shabab will be defeated militarily.
“The Somali security sector has certainly progressed over the years, but it remains an open question if they can fully take over locations vacated by AU forces and have the resources to sustain their presence, including logistically,” Mahmood said, adding that Somali security forces are still developing as they simultaneously fight al-Shabab and seek to hold territory.
“Transitioning from external to Somali forces before the latter are fully ready could result in ground lost to the group.”
The United States, which trained the Danab Brigade, an elite Somali special operations unit which has been carrying out drone attacks, is also believed to have played a vital role in defeating the group.
“The US support to Somalia isn’t linked to the AU mission since Washington is supporting the federal government itself. Even if ATMIS ends, the US still has a partner on the ground, and it will continue to support it,” Mahmood said.
In recent months, al-Shabab has intensified its attacks on Somali and AU troops, with its most recent raid killing more than 50 Ugandan soldiers after its fighters stormed the AU base in Bulamarer, 130km (80 miles) southwest of the capital.
Rights groups, too, said they are concerned about the transition and any resolution of human rights abuses during the peacekeeping mission.
Despite there being no accurate figures showing the number of civilians killed by ATMIS, dozens of people are believed to have been killed by the AU forces. Rights group Amnesty International also says the troops have committed various human rights violations as they responded to al-Shabab’s attacks in south-central Somalia.
“The mission leadership said they have carried out investigations and even promised to act, but unfortunately now that they’re expected to leave, there is no justice or compensation for the victims’ families,” Abdullahi Hassan, an Amnesty International Somalia and Sudan researcher, told Al Jazeera.
Hassan says concerns are growing on whether the security situation could worsen for civilians under the new troops.
“The transition process seems to be focusing on the military aspect and doesn’t accommodate civilian protection, especially in providing training programmes for the Somali forces on international humanitarian law, and vetting the Somali security force leadership to avoid giving responsibilities to those believed to have committed human rights violations.”