NAIROBI, Kenya – Should Somalia's fledgling government be allowed to import weapons to arm its nascent military? With areas under government control increasing and the threat from al-Shabab militants decreasing, that's the question being put to the U.N. Security Council.
The African Union this week appealed to the council to allow arms and other military equipment into the country to equip Somalia's military. It is a request being made as the international community begins to look at how long it will be before Somali troops can provide security on their own, allowing the departure of African Union troops, who have been in Somalia since 2007.
Somalia's ambassador to Kenya, Mohamed Ali Nur, said Wednesday that it is time to increase the capabilities of the country's military, after a year of military and political progress. The Islamist extremist rebels were pushed out of Mogadishu in August 2011, and over the last three months a new government has been installed.
"Now we are a government and a sovereign country and we will request through the U.N. to lift the arms embargo so we can arm our forces," Nur said.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has asked the U.N. to adjust its arms embargo so that the government can bring in rifles, light machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades with which to fight the militants. The embargo, the argument goes, was designed to keep arms away from al-Shabab, not the government. With some additional help — like the building of new weapons armories — the government believes it can make sure weapons don't fall into the hands of the insurgents.
The African Union force, known as AMISOM, is primarily made up of troops from Uganda, Burundi and Kenya. The force has pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu and more recently the southern port city of Kismayo. Many are looking for when the African troops can leave.
"AMISOM troops can't stay there forever. We want our Somali forces to be trained," Nur said. "It will be diffcult and it will take some time but it has to be started."
The U.S. is determined to help create a new Somali army subservient to civilian and constitutional control that will "take on increasingly new responsibilities that are much broader than anything AMISOM has been equipped and manned to do," said the top U.S. diplomat on Africa, Johnnie Carson, earlier this month.
African Union troops will leave as soon as the government has the capacity to take over security, said James Gadin, a political officer with AMISOM, speaking at a forum on AMISOM held in Nairobi on Wednesday. Military and police trainings are ongoing to improve Somalia's military, he said.
"With the arms embargo in place we cannot give to the Somali National Army what is required," Gandi said.
Somalia has no shortage of weapons, and Somali troops typically carry guns. But the U.N. ban prevents the importation of new weapons. Officials in the diplomatic community caution, though, that the government needs to have the capacity to track and control any new imports of weapons.
Separately, Kenya's deputy foreign minister, Richard Onyonka, told the AMISOM forum on Wednesday that more than 2,700 Ugandan troops have died in Somalia since 2007.
The number of African Union troops killed in Somalia has always been shrouded in mystery. AMISOM does not release death tolls and neither do the countries that contribute troops, citing political sensitivities back in home capitals. Onyonka, though, was upfront with what he said was a major sacrifice by Ugandan forces.
"We should never forget that Uganda lost more than 2,700 troops during this process," Onyonka said. "This exercise has its cost, which has been heavy. It's important that we should not forget that. This is a critical aspect."
A Ugandan military spokesman did not immediately answer calls seeking comment. Ugandan officials have in the past declined to release death tolls, saying that the high cost has been worth it for the increased regional security the ouster of al-Shabab seems likely to bring.
Two officials told The Associated Press last month that about 500 Ugandan and Burundian troops have died in Somalia since 2007.
Onyonka said that roughly three dozen Kenyan forces have died in Somalia over the last year.