Thousands of African Union peacekeepers have been killed and hundreds more injured in Somalia since the forces began their work in that country in early 2007, the head of their mission told VOA Somali. The peacekeepers were deployed to help protect the government and installations from al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabab militants.
Mohamed El-Amine Souef, the special representative of the chairperson of the African Union Commission for Somalia, disclosed the casualty figures during an interview last week with the “Investigative Dossier,” a VOA Somali radio program.
“The troops were not well-prepared, and the administration was not even in Mogadishu. Many cases were not properly documented,” Souef said via the WhatsApp messaging platform.
Originally known as the African Union Mission in Somalia, the operation’s first deployment in Mogadishu came in March 2007 with troops from Uganda. In April 2022, the African Union Mission changed its name to the African Union Transition Mission, or ATMIS, with a view to withdrawing from Somalia by December 2024 after Somali forces assumed security responsibilities in the country. ATMIS currently has around 19,000 peacekeepers operating in Somalia.
“The mission has documented around 4,000 casualties. According to the force officers who served in the mission, the casualties, including those disabled, can be as high as over 5,000,” Souef said.
Souef confirmed estimated fatalities of 3,500. He said troops from Burundi and Uganda suffered the most casualties.
This is the first time that an African Union official has commented publicly about the overall casualties of peacekeepers operating in Somalia.
Souef, the former foreign minister of Comoros, said he will prioritize the families of soldiers killed in Somalia for compensation, as some of them have not yet been recognized “because of a lack of funds.”
He said the troops came to Somalia with good reason because the countries that contributed troops “feel that they are close to Somalia.”
“This is not like a loan that we are giving to the Somalis,” he said. “I can say that we are reimbursing the Somalis because you may remember that Somalia is among the countries who got independence early in the ’60s, and they supported many African countries to get their independence. They supported many African countries in terms of training, in terms of education. So, I think Somalia deserves that, and we are willing to do so.”
The Somali government also paid tribute to the sacrifices of African Union peacekeepers.
Hussein Sheikh-Ali, national security adviser to the president of Somalia, said the government recognizes the work of the AU forces.
“The Somali people are in their debt,” he said. “In Somalia, the areas the Somali government operated, the territories where progress has been established, they liberated with us, they protected with us, and they have lost lots of people.
“Therefore, we are grateful to them, but we want to repay them with mission accomplished. This is why the Somali forces are fighting to eliminate al-Shabab,” Sheikh-Ali said.
AU forces helped Somali troops remove al-Shabab militants from Mogadishu in July 2011 after more than two years of deadly street fighting. AU and Somali forces also removed al-Shabab from all the major towns in the country.
Al-Shabab has been trying for years to unseat the internationally supported government of Somalia.
The expulsion of the militants has come at a cost. Al-Shabab has carried out complex raids on front-line operating bases, killing hundreds of AU forces. The last major attack in May 2022 claimed the lives of more than 30 peacekeepers in the town of El-Baraf.
Previous estimates on AU casualties in Somalia came from Paul D. Williams, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University and author of several books on peacekeeping operations.
“AMISOM is, by far, the most deadly peace operation worldwide over the last 80 years,” Williams told VOA. “There is no other peace operation that comes anywhere close to this many fatalities and casualties.”
Williams said there has been lack of transparency on the part of AU and troop-contributing countries regarding the number of casualties.
“The African Union has never been transparent about fatality figures from its missions in Somalia,” he said. “It has instead deferred to the wishes of the troop-contributing countries, which did not want to publicly announce all their dead peacekeepers. This policy decision did a severe disservice to the peacekeepers who paid the ultimate sacrifice and their next of kin.”
Somali government forces supported by local fighters have been conducting military operations since August 2022, and pledged to defeat al-Shabab this year. Recently, the Somali government said non-ATMIS troops from Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti will participate in a second phase of military operations, which are expected to start once the holy month of Ramadan ends.
Souef described the first phase as a “good initiative,” and reported that ATMIS troops from Burundi and Djibouti were there to provide support.
He said ATMIS supported the Somali forces with information, casualty and medical evacuations, and air support using helicopters belonging to Uganda.