British PM Theresa May Calls for Partners to 'Step Up' Support for Somalia

Somalia conference Theresa May
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at Lancaster House to attend the 2017 Somalia Conference in London, May 11, 2017 Jack Hill/Pool/Reuters

British Prime Minister Theresa May is appealing to the international community to increase support for Somalia as the country confronts a potential famine and ongoing insecurity caused by an al-Qaeda affiliate.

The U.K. pledged £100 million (US$129 million) in February in aid to Somalia, where more than 6 million people— more than half of the population —are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. A devastating drought in the country is threatening to escalate into a famine.

May said Britain would provide an additional £21 million (US$27 million) over the next two years for training Somalia's security forces, as a 22,000-strong African Union force that has led the fight against al-Shabab prepares to withdraw in 2018.

"I strongly encourage others here today to make their own commitments to support this process," said May, speaking at a major conference for Somalia in London on Thursday.

Despite the U.K.'s withdrawal from the European Union, a "global Britain" would continue to "drive international efforts" to support Somalia, she said.

Somalia descended into chaos in the early 1990s after civil war broke out and since then has been plagued by drought and insurgency. But the country recently elected a new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, in its first peaceful transfer of power in several decades.

Restoring security is top of the conference agenda. Al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group allied to al-Qaeda, is waging war against the Western-backed federal government. AMISOM, deployed in 2007, has gradually reclaimed much of the group's urban territory—including the capital Mogadishu, which al-Shabab was rooted out of in 2011—but the militants still control much of the country's rural areas and regularly carry out suicide bombings in Mogadishu.

May said that al-Shabab no longer posed "an existential threat" to Somalia, but that more must be done to prepare Somali forces to take over the country's security once AMISOM withdraws. British soldiers in Somalia are training security forces in Baidoa, a southern Somali city plagued by the militant group.

Somali President Farmajo said he believed al-Shabab could be defeated in "the next few years" but called for a lifting of the U.N. Security Council arms embargo on Somalia. The state has been under an arms embargo since 1992 and that has severely restricted the Somali army's access to weapons, Farmajo said.

"The government needs the necessary tools to be able to defeat al-Shabab. For far too long, our security forces and terrorist groups have been fighting using the same type of light weapons, mostly AK-47s," said Farmajo.

Representatives from more than 40 countries are attending the London conference, including U.S. Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis.

U.S. security advisors have been based in Somalia for at least a decade, launching dozens of drone strikes against al-Shabab. The United States suffered its first military casualty in Somalia for two decades on May 5, when Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed during a joint U.S.-Somali operation targeting al-Shabab.

President Donald Trump recent authorized the first deployment of regular U.S. troops to Somalia since the early 1990s and has changed the rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Somalia, loosening the restrictions on calling in drone strikes.

The conference is also being attended by European officials and regional heads of state, including the presidents of Kenya and Uganda and the prime minister of Ethiopia. Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia are major contributors to AMISOM.