Somalia: Lifting Arms Embargo Key to Battling Islamist Militants

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Somalia is getting support for its campaign to have an arms embargo lifted after Ethiopia joined Uganda in backing the action. The U.N. Security Council is set to vote in November on renewing the partial ban, which Somalia says should be removed so it can better fight al-Shabab terrorists.

Ethiopia’s support came after a rare July incursion by Islamist militants into Ethiopia amid a large-scale offensive by Somalia and its allies against the group.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed say the three-decades-long U.N. Security Council sanctions should be removed so Somalia can better fight the militant Islamist group al-Shabab.

The two leaders issued a joint statement September 30 amid an offensive by Somali troops and their allies.

Somalia called on African Union member states in July to support its campaign to lift the embargo, which includes bans on high-caliber weapons and military vehicles.

The Somalia-based security research group Hiraal Institute said in a February report the arms embargo was failing to stop al-Shabab from smuggling weapons that federal forces were not allowed to buy.

The institute’s Samira Gaid said Somalia’s capabilities are limited because it needs permission from U.N. security council members to buy certain arms.

“But on the other hand, you have al-Shabab, that is able to purchase from the local markets and illegally smuggle these weapons from, say, Yemen or elsewhere,” Gaid said. “And so for them, they have access to anything without any obligations. But on the other hand, the government is restricted.”

Despite the restrictions, Somali forces and their allies have been making gains against the militants.

Somali President Mohamud’s “all-out war” against al-Shabab has seen scores of villages recovered from the militants in recent weeks of intense fighting.

The terrorist group says it has inflicted losses on the Somali military, though casualty figures cannot be confirmed.

Mohamed Muse Matan, who teaches political science and international relations at the University of Somalia, said the sanctions mean Somali forces do not have enough firepower to defeat the militants.

But Matan admits allowing Somalia to get high-caliber weapons is risky.

He said giving high-caliber weapons to Somalia is dangerous due to lack of regulatory mechanisms, but that it is essential that the government’s weapons be better than those of al-Shabab if the government is to win the war against al-Shabab.

The U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Somalia in 1992 because of civil war and factional violence. The embargo was partially lifted in 2013 to help Somalia’s security forces develop and fight the Islamist militants.

The remaining sanctions, which require requests for certain weapons to be approved, are renewed annually.

While Somalia has for years called for the embargo to be lifted, Mohamud has been campaigning since he was elected in May for the support of neighbors.

In August, Mohamud and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called for the embargo to be removed during Mohamud’s visit to Kampala.

Former Somalia national intelligence deputy director Abdisalam Guled said Somalia needs heavy weapons like battle tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs).

Guled said the arms embargo on Somalia was mostly supported by neighboring countries because they were afraid if Somalia got heavy weapons, it could use those weapons against its neighbors. Now that Ethiopia, which is among the strongest countries in the region, is campaigning for lifting the arms embargo, it’s a good step that has already been taken, Guled added.

Analysts say al-Shabab’s July incursion into Ethiopia’s Somali state, one of the deadliest reported in recent memory, was a major factor in Prime Minister Abiy’s public call for lifting the embargo.

Ethiopian officials say they repelled the invasion, killing more than 800 of the Islamist militants. It’s not possible to confirm the casualty figures directly because the area is off-limits to journalists.

At the last U.N. Security Council vote on the embargo’s renewal in November 2021, Kenya was among the 13 council members that endorsed the extension of the partial ban.

With the next vote just weeks away, it’s not clear if Kenya will back Somalia’s push to have the embargo lifted. There was no response to requests for comment from Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Even if Nairobi supports the move, Somalia would need more support on the council for the embargo to be lifted.

Somalia argues it will need the weapons as it is expected to eventually take over its own security from international forces helping in the fight against the militants.

In a step toward that goal, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) changed its name in April to the African Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS).

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