By Abdi Moalim in Mogadishu
The fear is that al-Shabaab could make territorial gains in other areas should the Ethiopian army pull out of them as well.
When Ethiopian and Somali forces left Hudur on March 17th, about 2,000 residents fled with them. Al-Shabaab then took control of the town, killing civilians in the process.
Ethiopian troops have been supporting the Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) security forces on and off since 2006. They were first deployed during the administration of President Abdullahi Yusuf in 2006 to help install the Somali Federal Government in Mogadishu, and later withdrew in 2009.
Ethiopian forces returned to Somalia in 2011 and re-captured from al-Shabaab large swathes near the border. However, Addis Ababa said it did not plan to deploy its troops in Somalia for the long-term.
Filling the security vacuum
Now there is growing concern that Ethiopia will vacate other regions of Somalia before the Somali army and AMISOM forces are ready to move in and fill the vacuum.
Somali government forces lack weapons, technical ability and adequate supplies to compensate for an Ethiopian departure, said Osman Libah, a parliamentarian from Baidoa who represents Bay and Bakool regions.
"It was the government's job to negotiate these things with the Ethiopians because the Ethiopian army has been responsible for security for over a year," Libah told Sabahi. "But the government has failed to nurture regional forces so that they are strong."
"The security forces located here are not small in number, but they do not have food or weapons, and they are very demoralised, resulting in them fleeing along with the residents," he said.
In addition, Somali forces are relatively green, according to Bakool Deputy Governor Hassan Ibrahim Hassan.
"The government forces in Bakool region were recently formed and do not have the capacity to battle al-Shabaab," he told Sabahi. "Therefore, we need support in order for the army to regain control of Hudur."
Director General in the Ministry of Interior and National Security Hussein Abdi Adam said a joint military effort is still the best way to ensure security, since the Somali government was until recently unable to arm itself due to the United Nations arms embargo, which was partially lifted this month.
"Nothing can be done about the state of security without a joint effort by Ethiopian, AMISOM and government forces, because the government has faced the obstacle of the arms embargo, resulting in the inability of government troops to retain places vacated by the Ethiopians," Adam told Sabahi.
AMISOM vows to replace Ethiopian troops
For its part, AMISOM has said it is ready and able to fill the military vacuum left by the departure of Ethiopian forces.
"Our work is to help the citizens of Somalia and the government, to enable them to regain control of the country in order to bring back and reinforce law and order," said AMISOM spokesman Colonel Ali Aden Humud, according to RBC Radio.
"We are putting final touches on our plan to reach Hudur town and other areas in Bay and Bakool region where al-Shabaab control now and we promise we will take over the control of the areas that al-Shabaab are currently controlling," he said.
AMISOM Commander Andrew Gutti said he was confident there were sufficient troop levels in the area.
"We have in place contingent measures to ensure that areas in Bay and Bakool … remain stable and secure in the event of further Ethiopian troop withdrawals," he said.
Libah, however, said AMISOM cannot cover all of Somalia. "It is possible that AMISOM will secure Baidoa and other places, but it cannot reach far-off districts and villages such as Qansah Dhere and Berdale," he said.
Mogadishu University Professor Abdulkarim Daud, a former army colonel, said AMISOM is capable of replacing Ethiopian forces, but its lack of readiness could end up strengthening al-Shabaab.
"If AMISOM uses its 17,000-strong forces in Somalia, it can do a lot," he told Sabahi. "However, looking at the current reality, it is not prepared and has no intention of quickly replacing the Ethiopians."
To prevent al-Shabaab from capturing militarily exposed regions in the future, the Somali government must focus on breaking its dependence on direct foreign military assistance, Daud said.
"The only solution to this problem is the government building up its forces so that there is no longer a need to depend on foreign troops," he said.