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Ambassador Francisco Madeira said that the exit strategy depended on the number of trained Somali soldiers to take over from them, credible 2016 elections, and a successful de-radicalization drive among the youth.
The troops were deployed to Somalia in 2007 to defend the government against the insurgent Al-Shabaab group affiliated to Al-Qaeda.
The African Union troops serving in Somalia will leave the country starting in 2018. The AU mission has trained at least 20,000 Somali soldiers ahead of the planned exit, the head of the mission has said.
AU Special Representative to Somalia Francisco Caetano Jose Madeira said the exit strategy depended on the number of trained Somali soldiers to take over from them, credible 2016 elections, and a successful de-radicalization drive among the youth.
“Our exit should be judged on us having invested in Somalia to take over from us. There is an effort, but there is a huge logistical challenge,” said Mr Madeira in a media briefing at a Nairobi hotel.
“We need to give guns to these people, because a soldier is prepared to fight. We should capacitate the Somalia army and they should be well prepared to take over from us.”
The African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) previously trained 10,900 Somali soldiers, with the additional 20,000 troops coming as the mission prepares to exit.
The exit strategy formulated by the AU’s Peace and Security Council calls for the staggered withdrawal of 22,000 Amisom troops, including Kenya’s, beginning in October 2018 and be completed by the end of 2020.
The troops were deployed to Somalia in 2007 to defend the government against the Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgent group Al-Shabaab.
In the briefing, Ambassador Madeira said the Amisom team is prepared for peaceful, credible elections this year even after delays in the presidential vote that had been slated for October 30.
So far, he said, 43 senators have been elected save for the 11 from Somaliland.
The elections for the 275 members of the lower house were under way in all the capital cities of Jubaland, South West, Puntland, Galmudug, and the recently formed HirShabelle states.
“The Al-Shabaab has tried to impede this process, but it is still ongoing. In all these states, there has been great enthusiasm by the Somali public,” said Mr Madeira.
The ambassador told African states to "keep off our troops” in what he said was an attempt to use them as a political bargaining chip.
“Member states should use other means to obtain whatever political support they want, but please leave our troops alone. We have problems already, do not add more,” the mission head told journalists.
Several member countries, including Kenya and Uganda, have threatened to pull their troops out of Somalia following disagreements that included a bid by the European Union to cut funding to the mission.
Even after Amisom and non-Amisom troops leave, Ambassador Madeira said, Amisom would not let Al-Shabaab regain strongholds previously taken from them.
“Al-Shabaab has the entire Somalia to attack and destroy,” Mr Madeira said.
“We, the Amisom, have the entire Somalia to protect and defend despite the very limited resources.”
This, he said, could only be achieved if the Somali institutions and its people are made aware and empowered to deal with the dangers of the insurgent group.
“We need to empower and capacitate the Somali people and institutions to gather and act on intelligence by befriending the population. The youth must be told the dangers of the Shabaab on themselves and their own country,” said the ambassador.
Mr Madeira said Amisom is ready and prepared to receive the thousands of refugees that Kenya said it will send back to Somalia after closing the Dadaab refugee camp.
The Kenyan government has said the camp — the largest in the world with 285,000 refugees — is a hideout for terrorists and that Somalia has relative peace that the refugees could help build.
Kenya on Wednesday extended the November 30 closure deadline by six months on the request of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
“When they come, we will take them in,” said Mr Madeira.
Despite the huge challenges, Mr Madeira said, the Amisom team had done a good job.
“As you look for what is going wrong, also look for what is going right — and I can assure you that a lot is going right,” Mr Madeira said.