The longest arms embargo imposed by the UN has just been lifted. On Friday, December 1, the United Nations Security Council ended the sanctions in force since 1992 against Somalia. A symbolic decision which testifies to the beginnings of stabilization in this country in the Horn of Africa, the scene of a civil war for more than thirty years.

“The international community wishes to support the government and encourage its efforts in the fight against Al-Shabaab. But, in military terms, the situation should not change much,” analyzes Omar Mahmood, researcher at the think tank International Crisis Group (ICG), recalling that the embargo had been relaxed in 2013. The Somali government could already, in indeed, import weapons, on the condition of notifying the United Nations sanctions committee.

Diplomatic victory

Seen from Mogadishu, the lifting of these sanctions is nevertheless seen as a diplomatic victory of the first order for the administration of Hassan Cheikh Mohamoud, elected in 2022. “The embargo was perceived as a humiliating measure by Mogadishu” and an obstacle to its sovereignty, confides a Western diplomat. “It was imposed on us at a time when there was no recognized government in Somalia, this is no longer the case today,” Ali Mohamed Omar, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, explained to Le Monde on November 29 . These sanctions prevented us from strengthening our armed forces to defeat terrorists on our territory. »

The ban on the sale, export or transfer of arms to Somalia was decided by the UN in 1992, a year after the fall of President Siad Barré. A quantity of weapons, looted from abandoned barracks, ended up in the hands of warlords. Later, in the 2000s, these same weapons were used by the Islamic Courts, an Islamist alliance which gave birth to Chabab, affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The intervention of Amisom, the African Union force, and the resumption of Mogadishu in 2011, however, led to a relaxation of sanctions.

For a long time, the UN group of experts on Somalia feared that a total lifting of the embargo would cause a proliferation of arms in a country where the government only controls half of the territory and commercial nodes. “We had conditioned the lifting of the embargo on governance efforts, in terms of management of ammunition stocks and traceability of weapons,” specifies a former expert.

“Total war” against Al-Shabaab

Somalia is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world, and arms diversion is rife. A Reuters investigation revealed in 2016 that nearly 40% of weapons imported by Mogadishu thanks to exemptions from the embargo ended up on black market stalls – therefore possibly in the hands of clan militias or terrorist groups.

The coming to power of Hassan Cheikh Mohamoud in May 2022 brought new dynamics. Determined to put an end to Al-Shabaab, the president is waging, in his words, a “total war” to “eradicate” the terrorists. If multiple diplomatic sources consider the objective unrealistic, the initial military successes have encouraged Western chancelleries and donors to support the new administration in Mogadishu with even more force.

In addition to the lifting of the arms embargo, Hassan Sheikh Mohamed has notched two other victories on the diplomatic front: the recent integration of Somalia into the regional organization of the East African Community (EAC), and the debt relief agreement that the International Monetary Fund is preparing to sign in mid-December. The president “scores points on the international scene but remains faced with an unstable internal situation: his two domestic priorities – finalizing constitutional reform and eradicating Al-Shabaab – have not progressed,” comments Omar Mahmood of the ICG.

A new obstacle looms at the end of 2024: Atmis, the peacekeeping force deployed by the African Union and financed by the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom, must leave the Somalia after seventeen years of presence. The departure of nearly 18,000 soldiers raises fears of a return of insecurity as the Somali army’s offensive bogs down against the Al-Shabab.