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African troops - 'fig-leaf' for Somalia?

African Union troops in Mogadishu

By Mark Doyle
BBC World Affairs correspondent

An African Union summit has opened in Libya amid calls for more African troops to be sent to deal with the crisis in Somalia.

But given the limited mandate of the African Union (AU) force currently in Somalia, and its very limited resources, critics say it is not clear what difference more soldiers would make.

Ahead of the first full session of talks for African leaders in the Libyan coastal town of Sirte, East African leaders in a regional grouping that includes Somalia itself - the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development - called for a boosting of the AU force.

And African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping told the AFP news agency that Somalia had been "abandoned" to its fate:

"We have a contingent of 4,000 soldiers" in Somalia, Mr Ping said, "when an estimated 8,000 are needed. This summit needs to produce concrete decisions."

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Nigeria has been considering sending soldiers to Somalia for some time now, while Sierra Leone and Malawi are also mentioned as possible troop contributors.

But what would more troops do?

Armed opponents of the internationally recognised Somali government attack it almost daily, causing a security crisis that has rendered about three million people, or nearly half the population of Somalia, dependent on aid.

Some aid agencies say Somalia has the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.

Experienced United Nations disaster relief officials certainly agree that it is "one of the most complex and dangerous" crises.

So the need for "something to be done" cannot be doubted. But what?

The roughly 4,000 African Union troops currently in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, are essentially engaged in guard duties rather than active peacekeeping.

They guard the Somali president and they keep the main seaport and airport in Mogadishu open for business.

Bravery

If these troops from Uganda and Burundi were not there, the Somali government would almost certainly have fallen a long time ago to domestic Somali clan opponents or radical Islamists widely accused of being associated with al-Qaeda.

No-one doubts the bravery of the Ugandan and Burundian soldiers on the ground, or their personal commitment to helping ordinary Somalis.

Children with food aid
Up to half the population needs food aid

But the African force does not actively intervene to stop fighting between the government and its opponents.

And it does not actively provide physical protection to the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled fighting in Mogadishu in recent months.

It simply does not have the resources to do this - and it probably would not have even if its numbers were doubled to 8,000 soldiers.

Critics of the African Union presence say it may, in the long term, have served as a distraction to solving the fundamental problems.

These are the disputes between domestic Somali clans and the proxy war which two of Somalia's neighbours, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are accused of engaging in on Somali soil either directly or through local Somali allies.

It is the failure of Somali clan leaders and international bodies such as the United Nations to solve these disputes that has opened the door to radical groups such as al-Qaeda - not to mention criminals and pirates - to operate with relative impunity in a "failed state".

Critics of the African Union says its limited military presence may be a convenient fig leaf that allows the wider international community to say "something is being done" while in reality the basic political power struggle remains unresolved - and millions live on the brink of starvation.



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