21 May 2020

COVID-19, Severe Locust Outbreaks Compound Economic, Security Woes in Somalia Ahead of Long-Awaited Elections, Experts Tells Security Council

The COVID-19 pandemic poses grave consequences in Somalia ahead of long-awaited elections as the Government grapples to address terrorist attacks, floods, an extreme locust infestation and at least 5 million citizens requiring humanitarian assistance, including 2.6 million internally displaced persons, briefers told the Security Council in a videoconference meeting* on 21 May.

A range of repercussions are expected as authorities brace for a predicted 11 per cent decline in the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 as the nation confronts the spread of the novel coronavirus, said James Swan, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), briefing from Mogadishu on the Secretary-General’s latest report (document S/2020/398).  While Somalia has benefited from COVID-19 response efforts, including support from the United Nations, World Bank and other partners, the number of infected persons is believed to be much higher than the 1,500 reported cases.  At the same time, he said, the parliamentary and presidential elections so highly anticipated in February now depend on all stakeholders involved, adding that:  “the coming weeks will be decisive in determining how Somalia will proceed”.

Providing an overview, he said the parliamentary Joint Ad Hoc Committee is expected to present its recommendations for resolving the issues omitted in the Electoral Law passed in February, including designating constituencies, allocating Upper House seats, and guaranteeing 30 per cent of the parliamentary seats for women.  In addition, Parliament must also adopt amendments to the Political Parties Law to conform to the Electoral Code.  Ahead of voting, he continued, the Chairperson of the National Independent Electoral Commission will also report to a joint session of the Houses of Parliament on plans for conducting elections within the constitutional time frame:  November 2020 for the Parliament and February 2021 for the presidential elections.  The National Electoral Security Task Force must also expedite efforts to put in place the necessary security arrangements for voting, and consensus-building among political leaders and across Somali society is needed to ensure the elections enjoy broad support.

Highlighting Somalia’s progress on other State-building priorities, he pointed at the formation of the Constitutional Court, Judicial Services Commission, an independent Human Rights Commission and a review of the federal Constitution.  He also called on the Federal Government and federal member states to protect the rights and freedoms needed to ensure democratic competitions are fully respected, especially during this critical election year.

With regard to security, he said institutional reforms have continued in the security forces, and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) completed its troop reduction ceiling by 1,000 troops on 5 March, as decided by the Security Council.  The United Nations Support Office in Somalia (UNSOS) is currently providing logistics support to 19,626 AMISOM uniformed personnel, and to 10,900 Somali Security Forces, supported by donor contributions to the Somali Security Forces’ Trust Fund.  While Somalia has made progress in recovering Al-Shabaab-occupied areas, liberating the strategic town of Janaale in Lower Shabelle, the group’s terrorist activities persist.  A joint threat assessment conducted by the Federal Government, African Union and the United Nations concluded that the threat of Al-Shabaab is evolving, as it engages in intimidation and violence through improvised explosive devices, mortar attacks and assassinations, alongside extortion, illegal commercial activities and criminal tactics on the communities it controls.

Welcoming the Federal Government’s commitment to revise the Somalia Transition Plan accordingly, he said efforts must also focus on non-military responses, such as combating terrorist financing.  Regrettably, COVID-19 has slowed international partners’ training of forces needed to fight Al-Shabaab, which may impact operations, he said, underscoring the importance of updating the Transition Plan to reflect any changes to the force generation timeline.  Regarding the federal member states, he was encouraged by recent progress in Galmudug, South West and Jubaland on dialogue and reconciliation, and by ongoing talks involving Somalia-Somaliland relations.  Urging all actors to commit to dialogue and improved cooperation between the Federal Government and the federal member states, he regretted to note that it has been more than one year since the President and state leaders have met, adding that achieving national priorities urgently requires all to work together.

Despite COVID-19 restrictions and challenges along with security threats to UNSOM, the United Nations stands ready to support Somalia.  “We have temporarily reduced the staff working physically from Mogadishu and our field offices,” he said, “but our colleagues telecommuting remotely remain working and engaged, wherever they are in the world, and continue to demonstrate their determination to support the people of Somalia.”

Francisco Madeira, Special Representative of the African Union Commission and Head of AMISOM, said that despite the threat posed by COVID-19, Somalia is making headway in containing terrorism and building peace.  In terms of economic recovery, it faces major hurdles along its path to full debt cancellation under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Debt Initiative.  The Federal Government must embark on a set of short-term targets that include feeding 5.2 million people, addressing the needs of internally displaced persons, educating those out of school and creating 400,000 jobs each year.  “This is a daunting task if we take into account the adverse conditions brought about by the combination of terrorism, recurrent natural disasters and the impact of COVID-19 on Somalia’s economy.”  Already, there are signs that remittances, trade and household incomes are declining.  If such trends continue, the Federal Government could struggle to meet some of its obligations.  Somalia’s partners must find ways to help it overcome those trends and meet the conditions for full debt cancellation, he said.

On the Federal Government’s relations with federal member states, he reported “a degree of readiness” to move forward on key national issues.  The President of Puntland’s intention to advance dialogue with Mogadishu, among other initiatives, will hopefully generate a common vision for Somalia.  Progress is also being made on reconciliation and dialogue at the state and local levels.  In Galmudug, the deployment of AMISOM troops helped to create a good environment for a successful clan reconciliation conference.  In Jubaland, the state’s leader and Ogadeni opposition figures reached a settlement that led to mutual recognition and cohabitation.  At the local level, similar reconciliation efforts have helped to end violent clan conflicts.

“It is abundantly clear that holding national elections is a top priority for Somalia,” he said, adding that several outstanding — and potentially contentious — issues must immediately be addressed.  Those include ensuring a 30 per cent quota for women’s representation and Parliament’s adoption of amendments to the Political Parties Law.  Above all, the elections will require the political support and involvement of all federal member states.  Time is running out, he said, calling on all stakeholders to overcome their challenges and allow the National Independent Electoral Commission to prepare for a credible, free and fair vote throughout the country.

Turning to security matters, he reported tangible gains in degrading and disrupting Al-Shabaab’s capabilities.  The recovery of Janaale represents a serious blow to Al-Shabaab, as the town was a strategic stronghold for the group in Lower Shabelle and Mogadishu.  Elsewhere, targeted operations by AMISOM and Somali security forces in Bula Xaaji on 20 March considerably reduced the group’s capabilities.  He warned, however, that if the process of generating sufficient, well-trained, well-equipped and regularly paid Somali security forces remains at the current pace, it may not be possible to achieve the goal of a critical mass of Somali forces capable of taking over from AMISOM by the end of 2021.  “The current rate of force generation is too slow and, if not changed, will take several years to reach the threshold for effective transition,” he said.

Agnès Marcaillou, Director of the United Nations Mine Action Service, provided an update on threats posed by Al-Shabaab’s increasing use of improvised explosive devices and their impact on the civilian population and efforts to mitigate the situation.  From 2017 to 2019, the reported use of the devices climbed to 529 from 402, with 161 incidents reported so far in 2020, killing a total of 153 AMISOM troops and 489 Somali security forces.  Without counting almost 600 people killed in an attack in October 2017 in Mogadishu, a reported 787 civilians have been killed and 1,779 were injured.

However, she attributed the drop in civilian casualties in the city this year to the positive impact of the current Mogadishu Security Plan.  In addition, Operation Badbaado in Lower Shabelle has limited the infiltration of explosive devices into the capital, whereby the 2019 monthly average of 1.17 vehicle-borne improvised explosive device incidents has dropped to only one for the whole of 2020 to date.  Meanwhile, military operations in Lower Shabelle since the second quarter of 2019 have seen a concomitant increase in Al-Shabaab’s attacks targeting the Somali National Army, causing an alarming rise in casualties which, in the first quarter of 2020, and for the first time, have exceeded civilian deaths.  In recent years, Al-Shabaab’s manufacture of these devices has shifted from using military-grade explosives to more readily available compounds and components, demonstrating its ability to adapt and its determination to continue to use this method of warfare.

Turning to the Mine Action Service’s activities, she said that since 2017, it has trained more than 50,000 AMISOM troops, on subjects ranging from threat awareness to search, detect and deploy techniques.  Training and mentoring of AMISOM Mission Enabling Units has increased troop confidence in the utilization of main supply routes and led to vastly increased consignment movements on main supply routes from Mogadishu to the sectors.  The Mine Action Service provides AMISOM with a variety of services, including an explosive ordnance clearance capacity of 21 teams, working with 42 explosive detection dogs, to protect key infrastructure, such as airports, airstrips and Mission bases.  While the number of incidents reported as targeting AMISOM has remained high, the Mission casualty rate per incident has decreased since 2017.  Despite COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, all Mine Action Service support activities for AMISOM are ongoing, except for pre-deployment and in-person training.  To date, the Service has trained and equipped the existing 14 Somali Police Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams.

The Service’s action has proven, and continues to prove, that it enhances AMISOM’s force protection, mobility, and operational effectiveness, and contributes to the reduction of casualties and fatalities amongst AMISOM ranks, she said.  According to Service analysis, Al-Shabaab is likely to continue its improvised explosive device attacks against national armed forces personnel, using available precursors and ever-evolving and complex designs.  Effective, sustainable and accountable threat mitigation capabilities for the Somali security forces would support the transition of security responsibilities from AMISOM, she said, expressing hope that the Security Council will consider expanding the categories of the United Nations non-lethal support package provided to the Somali National Army, through the United Nations Trust Fund for Somali security forces, to include mitigation support.  If so, she appealed to Member States and other partners to channel appropriate funding.

In the ensuing discussion, Council members shared the briefers’ concerns, including persistent terrorist attacks and the preparations required for holding elections.  Many voiced their support for Somalia’s COVID-19 response plan as it deals with a range of other challenges in the lead-up to elections.

South Africa’s representative, speaking also on behalf of Niger, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said that dialogue, inclusive political participation and the resolution of differences between the Federal Government of Somalia and the federal member states is critical for the success of the upcoming elections and for national cohesion.  The international community must continue to mobilize resources to supplement the Government’s funding of the polls.  He expressed deep concern about the volatile security situation, as demonstrated by persistent terrorist acts by Al-Shabaab and elements of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).  “More has to be done to improve security in Somalia, particularly to mitigate mortar and [improvised explosive device] attacks.”  AMISOM has been playing an important role since its deployment in 2007, but more must be done to strengthen the Somali National Army to consolidate gains and avoid a relapse in recovered areas.  He reiterated previous calls for the international community to do more, including replenishing the Trust Fund for AMISOM, to help the Somali security forces to further degrade Al-Shabaab and stabilize liberated areas.

Turning to the humanitarian situation, he said that Somalia is facing a triple shock of floods, desert locust infestation and the COVID-19 pandemic.  The threat of food insecurity remains high and, in some areas, unpredictable rainfall due to climate change has triggered flash flooding.  “The rains have further created conducive conditions and heightened the locust infestation that has affected the whole of Horn of Africa,” he said.  In response, the international community must adequately fund the Somalia 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan and steps must be taken to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on peacebuilding and State-building activities.  He went on to note that Somalia has made significant strides towards improving its economic prospect and called on the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union, the United Nations and the international community to strengthen regional cooperation in the Horn of Africa.  On the renewal of AMISOM’s mandate, he said a 12-month extension would create space for Somalia, the Mission, the United Nations and other partners to deal with the pandemic, the security situation, the elections, the comprehensive review of the Somalia Transition Plan, effective force generation and the need to preserve the gains made thus far.

The United Kingdom’s representative commended Somalia for the measures taken to contain the spread of COVID-19 and voiced solidarity with its people.  The United Kingdom gave Somalia $420 million in the last financial year, and in light of the current response plan, it is considering what more it can do.  Noting with concern that Al-Shabaab continues to launch attacks despite the Secretary-General’s calls for a ceasefire, he said that — while the pandemic poses clear challenges in Somalia — it should not distract the international community from supporting progress on security, greater political engagement and elections.  Efforts are needed to update the Somali Transition Plan, which is vital if the country is to meet its own December 2021 deadline to take over lead responsibility for national security.  Welcoming progress on preparations for elections, as well as efforts to help the Somali Parliament reconvene virtually, he also praised efforts to facilitate timely, constitutional and inclusive “one-person-one-vote” elections.  “There is no reason why COVID-19 should prevent the key preparatory work from taking place,” he said.

The representative of the United States welcomed positive developments in Somalia, including new access to international grants resulting from recent debt relief measures.  She also noted that the recent meeting between Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo and Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi provides hope for ongoing reconciliation efforts in Jubaland and Galmudug.  However, other challenges remain, including ongoing attacks by Al-Shabaab and ISIL/Da’esh, and despite some gains, more work is needed to expand State control.  Calling on the Federal Government to equip and deploy a police presence to liberated towns in Lower Shabelle and elsewhere, she also voiced concern that plans for elections later in 2020 are falling behind schedule and noted with regret that the Federal Government and the federal member states have still not met at the leadership level to discuss national priorities and reforms.  Such cooperation is even more critical given the humanitarian crises facing Somalia as a result of COVID-19, flooding and locusts, she added.

The Russian Federation’s representative said that Al-Shabaab’s non-stop terrorist activity is particularly worrying.  The Somalis themselves recognized that improvised explosive devises have killed more Government soldiers and civilians than bullets.  AMISOM remains an extremely important element of Somalia’s stabilization, and reducing the number of peacekeepers is unacceptable, given the upcoming elections and the COVID-19 pandemic.  A Council resolution to renew AMISOM’s mandate should send a clear message that the Somalis will get all the support they need from the international community.  He went on to ask the Director of the United Nations Mine Action Service how the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons could be used to help Somalia address the issue of improvised explosive devices, and what else could be done to deny Al-Shabaab access to explosives and ammunition abandoned on the battlefield.

The Dominican Republic’s delegate echoed concerns about the continued political stagnation between the Federal Government of Somalia and the federal member states, noting that overcoming it is the key to resolving the country’s challenges.  Urging all leaders to put aside their differences, he said that — even amid the challenges posed by COVID-19 — preparations for timely, credible and transparent “one person, one vote” elections are vital.  Advocating for a 30 per cent quota for women’s participation, he said continuing the country’s Constitutional review process is another top priority.  “The fragile humanitarian situation context, paired with the increased number of registered cases [of COVID-19] and a weak health system, makes Somalia one of the most vulnerable countries facing this pandemic,” he said, urging the international community to contribute to the country’s humanitarian fund.  He also condemned grave violations against children, urging the Government to adopt and implement a national strategy to prevent their recruitment and to facilitate their release and reintegration.

The representative of Belgium welcomed Somalia’s progress in preparing for elections, noting that the country has demonstrated the capacity to advance its priorities.  The signature of the electoral law is an important step and more efforts are needed to work out its implementation.  Encouraging the Federal Government to stay on track with technical preparations for the upcoming elections, including on electoral security, he also asked it to re-establish dialogue with the federal member states.  While Somalia has not been spared the impacts of COVID-19, seasonal floods or locust infestations, the authorities and their international partners must not lose sight of critical development and political objectives while responding to those crises.  Welcoming the Government’s willingness to revise its Transition Plan, he pledged the European Union’s support for its implementation.

Indonesia’s representative said the challenges posed by COVID-19 in Somalia could also serve as a kind of common momentum for all parties to resolve their differences.  Underscoring the need to ease tensions between the Federal Government and some federal member states, he said the pandemic has highlighted the need for them to come together in the spirit of unity and compromise.  In that vein, he welcomed efforts to resume political dialogue, as well as the enactment of the electoral law, stressing that the holding of a “one-person-one-vote” election as planned remains a priority.  Calling for more progress on other critical State-building issues, such as the Constitutional court and the judicial service, he joined other speakers in condemning recent attacks by Al-Shabaab and voicing concern that the group remains capable of conducting larger, more complex attacks.  In that context, it is crucial to equip the Somali National Army with the necessary training in countering improved explosive devices.

Germany’s representative said that political cooperation between the Federal Government and all federal member states “cannot be stressed enough”.  Coordination meetings should be resumed swiftly and take place regularly to resolve such issues as constitutional reform and the electoral process.  Credible, free and fair elections in late 2020 or early 2021 will be the yardstick by which the current Somali Administration will be measured.  Challenges posed by COVID-19 should not hamper the Federal Government from addressing unresolved questions based on broad political consensus and full cooperation with the federal member states.  He called for a constructive discussion on international support to the Somali security sector in the coming months and noted that the European Union has extended almost €2 billion to AMISOM since 2007.  He went on to say that flooding and the increased spread of desert locusts clearly show the aggravating consequences of climate change on the humanitarian situation and Somali statehood, with COVID-19 creating even more challenges.  “It is essential that under these circumstances, humanitarian access is maintained and humanitarian principles are fully respected,” he said.

France’s representative echoed other speakers’ concerns about COVID-19, noting that his delegation mobilized €1.2 billion to support African partners.  At this critical juncture, all Somali actors must continue to prepare for peaceful, inclusive, transparent elections.  Encouraging authorities to address remaining issues regarding the electoral law, he also called on the Federal Government of Somalia and all federal member States to urgently resume their dialogue.  The dialogue will be key both for the holding of upcoming elections and other critical reforms, especially in the security sector, he said, strongly condemning clashes in the Gedo region that are guided by political interests at the expense of the security transition.  Indeed, the security situation is also at a critical turning point.  Somali authorities and their key partners, including the European Union, African Union and AMISOM troop-contributing countries must now seriously engage in the discussions on international support for Somalia’s security sector after 2021.

China’s delegate, citing gains made ahead of elections, expressed support for Somalia’s electoral and political processes.  In this vein, the international community should adhere to the Somali-led and Somali-owned principle and provide constructive assistance.  Indeed, China has consistently advocated for African countries to address African issues in African ways, he said, adding that AMISOM, which plays a significant role in maintaining peace and stability in Somalia, must continue to discharge its mandate.  With the African Union Peace and Security Council having made requests and suggestions, the Security Council should give sufficient attention and a positive response.  UNSOM and AMISOM have made notable contributions to help Somalia combat terrorism, he said, calling on the relevant parties to take pragmatic measures to effectively guarantee the safety and security of United Nations and African Union facilities and staff in Somalia.  Turning to the conditions worsening Somalia’s humanitarian situation, he said the international community should continue to provide aid to the country.  In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world truly is a community with a shared future, he said, noting that China’s Government and enterprises have donated supplies and shared their experiences and best practices through videoconferences with Somali medical personnel.

The representative of Estonia, Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity, saying that even in the face of the obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Somalia, together with the international community, should not lose sight of long-term State-building goals.  The elections must remain a priority, and the Federal Government of Somalia and all federal member states must urgently resume their dialogue.  Welcoming the authorities’ commitment to update the Transition Plan, he said clear timelines, tasks and a clear vision are crucial to achieve the end goal of Somalia taking full responsibility for its security.  All stakeholders must work closely together, he said, encouraging authorities and key partners to engage in inclusive discussions about international support on the post-2021 arrangements.  He welcomed action taken against Al-Shabaab in the Lower Shabelle but said joint operations must comply with human rights and international humanitarian law.  To address the persistent use of improvised explosive devices, the Council should support Somalia in developing a national regulatory framework and building the capacity of security institutions and the Somali National Army.  Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing challenges, he called on the international community to address the shortfall in Somalia’s humanitarian response plan for 2020, which remains only 17 per cent funded.

The representative of Somalia, thanking the United Nations and partners for their continued support, outlined ongoing security sector and economic reform measures alongside challenges ahead.  With Somalia almost completing its verification exercise, he said security sector reform continues to gain momentum, noting advances in liberating areas from terrorist groups.  However, taking over from AMISOM requires that the armed forces are given more training, mobility and equipment, he said, emphasizing that the arms embargo is greatly hindering capabilities to effectively eradicate terrorist groups.

Somalia’s economic and financial sector reform initiative has been a priority and a prerequisite to the success of other national reforms, he continued, citing a range of activities.  The Financial Ministers Fiscal Forum has advanced financial reform, fiscal federalism and resource sharing, and an interim poverty reduction strategy has been adopted.  Thanks to these efforts, Somalia qualified for a debt relief plan and re-established financial relations with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  The country also paid back Bridge loans from development partners, including Norway, the United Kingdom and the European Union, enabled Somalia to pay back its arrears with the World Bank and African Development Bank.  In light of the reform fatigue associated with implementing IMF and European Union benchmarks, additional resources provide opportunities for Somalia’s citizens to reap the development dividend from implemented reforms and align that success with incentives for further socioeconomic reforms, including those continuing under the IMF debt relief initiative.

But, challenges persist, he said, pointing at such climate emergencies as flooding and droughts.  Somalia is also grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, which threatens to derail reform efforts and poses a serious security challenge in an already fragile context.  Training by partners has been suspended to stall the spread of the novel coronavirus at a time when security personnel who screen road users face high risks of infection and protective gear is in short supply.  Meanwhile, the global economic shutdown has caused a reduction of domestic revenue through, among other things, a ban on international and local flights, partial curfews and the waiving of taxes on essential food and non-food items.  In addition, food prices have sharply increased, while remittances and trading activities have declined considerably.  Families will need to be supported, and small and medium-sized business enterprises must be cushioned against the negative impacts associated with the pandemic.

The representative of Viet Nam also participated in the videoconference.


* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.