The onset of COVID-19 has impacted State and multilateral interventions aimed at preventing and mitigating conflict in the Horn of Africa region. The pandemic has shifted attention away from the peace and security responses, with the already limited resources being re-allocated towards immediate humanitarian measures such as food security and the purchase of medical equipment. Despite these limitations, structural and normative responses to the prevailing peace and security challenges in the region have continued.
Multilateral policy responses to the pandemic have not expressly responded to the impact of COVID-19 on peace and security. They have, however, taken a human security lens. The African Union’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) dubbed the pandemic an “unprecedented threat to human security and national economies” making room for human-security centred responses, focusing on food and livelihood insecurity with attention being paid to vulnerable groups including Internally Displaced Persons, refugees and youth, as well as a gendered response to the rise in sexual and gender-based violence.
Taking the case of Somalia, the UN Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), in close collaboration with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have continued to support the peacebuilding and state-building efforts especially in elections, constitutionalism and the rule of law, as well as conflict prevention and mediation. Detailed in the May 13th UN Secretary General’s report on Somalia to the UN Security Council, in preparation for the proposed first-past-the-post electoral model scheduled for 2020-2021, technical and financial support to the National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC) have continued. Similarly, the National Electoral Security Task Force has continued to review the draft concept of security for voter registration. The efforts employed to meet the slated electoral deadline have, however, been curtailed by the outbreak of the coronavirus. Delay in the resumption of Parliament due to the pandemic, subsequently delayed the reading of the amendments to the political parties law. Further delay and the final postponement of the election to March 2021, announced on June 27th, was to be expected as social distancing measures would have made electoral preparation measures such as voter registration impossible.
Restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus have also impacted the ongoing efforts aimed at preventing and countering the spread of radicalisation, violent extremism and terrorism in the region. As a preventive measure, AMISOM, in addition to the fourteen-day compulsory quarantine measures, has suspended scheduled rotations and new deployments. In contrast, non-essential and civilian staff have taken on e-working methods. These measures will “likely delay much needed offensive operations as mobile forces are forced to hold defensive positions longer than anticipated” argues the AU Peace and Security Commissioner. These disruptions come against the backdrop of the continued indiscriminate threat posed by Al-Shabaab, with the most recent attack on a Turkish military base claiming two lives. In the same realm, cooperation between AMISOM and the Somali security forces will likely be impacted as the national security forces tasked with crucial counterterrorism measures are redeployed to enforce government measures such as lockdowns, curfews and border security. Despite these challenges, the AU reiterates that the fight against extremism “remains unwavering demonstrated by the continued offensive operations undertaken across the continent”.
Notwithstanding these limitations, COVID-19 has provided the region with an opportunity to respond to security challenges as one. In April, the AU convened a virtual High-level meeting on Somalia, aimed at mobilising international community towards a common response in support of Somalia. This meeting comes at a time when the discussion on the future of Somalia’s security and state-building capacity are ripe, characterised by the imminent end to the Somalia Transition Plan (STP). Similarly, the June 24th High-level meeting on Somalia-Somaliland dialogue underscores yet again that the concept of collective security in the region is still relevant. Hosted by H.E. Ismail Omar Guelleh and attended by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, H.E. Abiy Ahmed, the summit breathed new life into the dialogue between the two parties. More recently, the call by the President of the Federal Republic of Somalia, HE Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo, to initiate the much-needed dialogue between the federal government (FGS) and federal member states (FMS) is a step in the right direction to not only ending the stalemate between the FGS and FMS but also to revitalise the National Security Council apparatus critical to the state-building agenda.
The pandemic has, arguably, highlighted fissures in the responses to peace and security in the region, with the coordination between the UN, AU and IGAD being critical now more than ever. The response to COVID-19, therefore provides an opportunity to enhance inter-institutional coordination in the peace and security realm. The call by the UN Secretary-General and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission for a Global Ceasefire is a step in the right direction to refocus the discussion of COVID-19 and its implications on the regional peace and security landscape. In this regard, the implementation of the March 30th IGAD Heads of State declaration that called for a coordinated, comprehensive regional response strategy that takes into account “a whole-of-government approach” is crucial towards delivering as one for the region.
Hafsa Maalim is a Horn of Africa Policy Analyst at International IDEA seconded to the African Union Peace and Security Department. She is writing in her personal capacity.