Work in Progress: Weapons and Ammunition Governance in Somalia

6 November 2020
Work in Progress: Weapons and Ammunition Governance in Somalia

Somalia is on the progressive path to recovery after decades of conflict. The armed violence it has experienced is in many forms underpinned by the prolonged absence of effective governance structures. The civil war has shaped the security landscape and drove a complex relationship between Somalis and arms – with political, cultural and economic connotations. The sources of illicit weapons entering the country, their trafficking patterns and actors involved, as well as their end users, are equally varied, compounding the challenge posed by legacy weapons that have been in circulation within the country since the collapse of the State.

The prospects for stability in Somalia are more promising today. In 2017, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and the Federal Member States (FMS) reached an agreement on a National Security Architecture for Somali Security Forces (SSF), which entails integrating regional forces and clarifying command structures to form coherent security institutions at both the Federal and State level. This was followed in 2018 by the adoption of the Transition Plan, setting Somalia on a path to ensuring its own security and stability in tandem with AMISOM’s drawdown. Building and sustaining effective capabilities of the relevant security institutions is essential for achieving this goal. This requires deeper consideration of how to adequately equip and arm the SSF, and how to efficiently manage and account for those capabilities down the supply chain.

The effective management of weapon and ammunition throughout their lifecycle will be crucial to ensuring operational readiness, protecting the national strategic assets, and reducing the risk of loss and diversion to non-state armed groups. Bearing in mind these medium and long-term objectives, the FGS elevated this matter to an issue of strategic importance placing it at the top of the security agenda and entrusting the Office of National Security to work with all Federal and State security institutions to develop a national weapons and ammunition management framework.

The partial suspension of the arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council in 2013 has allowed the FGS to import arms, ammunition, and military equipment to strengthen the SSF. The FGS has been equally committed to complying with its obligations pursuant to the suspension to ensure that weapons are not diverted to unauthorized end-users in violation of the arms embargo. The Presidential Decree on the Control of Arms and Ammunition, signed by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo in 2018, is an example of Somalia’s high-level commitment. The decree, together with a set of standard operating procedures, provides the basis for a centralized system to authorize the import of weapons and ammunition into the country and for their distribution to the federal and state armed forces in an accountable and transparent manner.

However, managing the transfer of arms in transition is complex and requires a comprehensive strategic and operational approach. Several lessons have been learned, albeit the hard way, in managing weapons and ammunition under an arms embargo.

The Halane facility was designated the central armoury for processing newly imported weapons. Between 2014 and 2019, a total of 20,240 weapons were marked and registered. More recently, and to strengthen accountability and oversight over distributed weapons, arms registration has been integrated into the wider security sector biometric system and so, individual weapons are now linked to individual biometric files of soldiers of the Somali National Army.

In mitigating the risk of post-distribution diversion, the FGS established the Joint Verification Team (JVT) which operates in partnership with Conflict Armament Research. The JVT conducts routine inspections of the security forces’ stockpiles, inventory records and the supply chain of weapons. Since its establishment, it conducted 30 site visits resulting in the verification of more than 2,030 weapons and 500,000 rounds of ammunition across the Somalia National Army, the Somali Police Force, and the Custodial Corps. The team is required to physically count weapons and ammunition and verify them against the records. This is a complex task given that ongoing security operations dictate rapid and frequent movement of weapons and ammunition in the supply chain. Even in less dynamic situations, it is not always possible to verify all items as security personnel may be away on duty. Nonetheless, the JVT has proven its utility in strengthening post-distribution oversight and improving its working modalities and logistical capacity is a priority for the FGS.

Since the partial suspension of the arms embargo in 2013, and until recently, the FGS was required to submit an advance delivery notification to the Security Council Committee five days before any delivery of weapons, ammunition or military equipment intended for the development of the SSF. Alternatively, the supplying entity – be it a State or organization – may notify the Committee. The FGS must also provide post-delivery confirmation to the Committee no later than five days after delivery. Further, within thirty days of distribution, the FGS must provide a written post-distribution notification stating the destination unit in its security forces or the place of storage. The requirement for the post-delivery confirmation was finally dropped pursuant to resolution 2498 (2019)

While this process seems linear and simple, the reality on the ground is far more complex. Previously at the level of the FGS, the lack of internal coordination resulted in shortcomings and delays in complying with the notification procedure. But there are several other exogenous factors beyond the FGS control. For example, the Security Council resolution had originally assigned the FGS the primary responsibility for advance notifications, however, external actors directly engaged and supplied Federal Member States without involving the FGS or bypassed the designated coordinating FGS body when supplying to specific units at the FGS level.  This practise by supplying States was noted with concern by the Security Council in paragraph 18 of resolution 2498 (2019). Such practices not only undercut the ability of the FGS to provide timely and complete advance notifications, but also denies it the ability to form a comprehensive picture of military capabilities across the country and to maintain oversight and accountability. This procedural gap was partially addressed in November 2019 – whilst the FGS retains the primary responsibility to notify the Committee of materiel supplied, the Security Council has requested its Committee to transmit advance notifications upon receipt from supplying States to the FGS, thus addressing challenges in the aforementioned practises by supplying States. This ensures that the FGS has records of all materiel received and that weapons and ammunition are accounted for prior to distribution to units. This is a crucial prerequisite for the JVT to work effectively. Nonetheless, this measure depends on the good will of individual States and entities and does not shield against deliberate acts to circumvent the arms embargo and supply weapons and ammunition to unauthorized non-state actors.

To further strengthen compliance with the arms embargo, the FGS is currently pursuing an electronic central national registry as a long-term solution. This is an area where assistance, including the sharing of experiences of other countries in transition would be of great value. The FGS has also developed a mobile application for the SSF which aims to capture the data of all existing weapons already in circulation, which will further strengthen JVT efforts.

There are other important lessons learned that are essential, not only to safeguard weapons imported under the partial suspension, but to achieve its underlying objective, which is to ensure that Somali forces can effectively defeat terrorist groups and ensure long-term stability and security. In its current form, the arms embargo allows the FGS to acquire large calibre weapons, but only upon explicit approval by the Committee. This exemption procedure is often unknown or misunderstood and could therefore dissuade potential suppliers with considerable implications for military operations on the ground. Without superior firepower relative to Al Shabaab’s and other terrorist groups, the FGS cannot effectively implement the Transition Plan. The resulting risk is a prolonged and inconclusive armed conflict.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to reconsider the conditions of the partial suspension of the arms embargo to ensure that its objective to reduce violence in Somalia can be realized without compromising the ability of the security sector to extend and consolidate security. The progress made over the past years, and the continued efforts to build an accountable weapons and ammunition management system testifies to the willingness and capacity of the FGS to mitigate the risks involved. Concurrently, there is a greater need to balance the focus and efforts of the Security Council, and the international community more broadly, in enforcing the arms embargo, particularly with regards to restricting acquisition of weapons by non-state actors. At the national level, the FGS intends to institute forensic capabilities to gather and analyse evidence of captured weapons to enable it pinpoint how terrorists are obtaining their weapons. But curbing the flows of weapons to terrorists and non-state armed groups in Somalia is a task that far exceeds the capacity of the FGS. It requires regional and international actors to cooperate with Somalia, not only within the framework of the arms embargo, but also in line with Security Council resolution 2370 (2017).

Abdikarin Ali-Hassan was appointed in 2019 as the National Focal Point of the Federal Government of Somalia on Weapons and Ammunition Management. His position is situated within the Office of the National Security. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of UNIDIR.   

UNIDIR has cooperated with the Somali authorities since 2014 on reviewing and strengthening the national weapons and ammunition management framework in the country. In 2020, UNIDIR will release several publications capturing experiences in the implementation of the arms embargo in Somalia.