Africa's highest security body asked the United Nations on Wednesday to lift an arms embargo on Somalia's government to allow it to equip defense forces facing well-armed Islamist radicals who control large parts of the country. U.N. officials are speaking cautiously of the first signs of hope as Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's administration extends its rule in the capital, Mogadishu.
The African Union Peace and Security Council, or PSC, approved a three-month extension of the AU peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM. Benin's AU Ambassador, Edouard Aho-Giele, who holds the rotating council presidency, said three months was needed because the U.N. Security Council is expected to replace AMISOM with a blue-helmeted U.N. force in June.
AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping's report to the PSC described security in Somalia as "very volatile". In calling for an end to the U.N. arms embargo on government forces, he noted that the radical al-Shabab group had claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack that killed 11 Burundian AMISOM peacekeepers last month.
Ping's six-page report said the foreign-funded al-Shabab had refused to heed calls for an end to hostilities, despite considerable pressure, and that it had stepped up its media propaganda campaign against AMISOM.
Despite the security troubles, Ping reported "significant progress" in the political process in Somalia in the weeks since President Sheikh Sharif took power. Officials noted that the government is operating in Mogadishu for the first time in a month, and that there is a relative calm in the capital despite a bomb incident that killed a security official this week.
Parliament is meeting in Mogadishu for the first time since the transitional government was formed in 2004. Last Monday, a U.N. team made a brief visit to the city for a security assessment. One member of that team, Deputy U.N. envoy to Somalia Charles Petrie, said it is too early to speak of optimism. But he said the changing political dynamic has created opportunities that have not existed in Somalia for years.
"What's clear over the last few weeks is that the security situation has stabilized and it's to a large part to the credit of the government and the leadership of the government, who are reaching out to different groups - even groups that are potentially hostile to them," he said. "So within the U.N. and the special representative, we feel there are opportunities that can be seized. There's a new political dynamic that creates opportunities, and the question of supporting the opportunities and translating them into some form of positive traction."
Among the hopeful signs is a bill being sent to parliament that would establish a cabinet-level committee to examine how to bring the country's constitution into line with Islamic law, or Sharia. Several insurgent groups that control parts of Mogadishu and outlying regions have indicated they would lay down their arms if Sharia were introduced.
The hardline al-Shabab has rejected President Sheikh Sharif's peace overtures and has vowed to continue its armed struggle. But diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa say al-Shabab has been weakened by a recent loss of funding from Arab states in the region and by the recent withdrawal of Ethiopian troops whose two-year occupation in support of the previous transitional government outraged many Somalis.