The United Nations and the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) are studying Al-Shabaab's evolution with the aim of potentially holding talks with the Islamist insurgents, a UN special envoy said on Tuesday.
“We are inviting both Somali and international scholars to help us answer the question of what exactly is Al-Shabaab,” Michael Keating, the UN secretary-general's emissary to Somalia revealed during a presentation at a New York City think tank.
He noted that the group has revised its strategy after being driven out of Mogadishu and other urban areas. And Shabaab's shift has enabled it to remain a potent military force, Ambassador Keating acknowledged.
The severe drought gripping large parts of the country “is highlighting the need to engage with Al-Shabaab” since the group controls some of the areas most in need of humanitarian aid, the envoy added.
But the UN and Amisom have not yet deduced how such an engagement might be carried out, Ambassador Keating said.
“As far as direct political discussions, we're not there yet,” he told an audience at the International Institute for Peace. “There have been various attempts in the past to do that,” but none have been successful, Ambassador Keating said.
The aim of any talks, he continued, would be to persuade Al-Shabaab “to convert violence into politics.” The most ideologically committed elements will never agree to take such an approach, but others might, he speculated.
Ambassador Keating added in his talk that Amisom may not be firm about its projected departure from Somalia by the end of next year.
The countries contributing troops to the AU mission “would be prepared to extend their stay if they thought there was a credible plan whereby Somalis take more responsibility for security,” he said.
And even if Amisom were to withdraw at the end of 2018, not all troops from neighbouring countries would necessarily depart, Ambassador Keating suggested. He noted that some of the Ethiopian soldiers currently operating in Somalia are not formally part of Amisom, and could remain deployed even if the AU ends its mission.
Ambassador Keating also offered a generally positive appraisal of Somalia's political status and electoral process.
“Somalia is a state that is reinventing itself,” he said. The architecture of a federal system is now in place, and the country is trying to determine the forms of governance and accountability that will work best in its cultural and political context, he added.