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In the Somali towns of Baidoa, Hudur, Ras Kamboni and the capital, Mogadishu, people are enjoying a peace and stability denied to them for years. Elders, imams, officials, teachers, traders and teenagers all tell of breathing a sigh of relief as the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab – “The Youth” – pulled out over recent months.

Such a turnaround was unthinkable even a year ago. Back then all these towns – and much of the rest of Somalia – were controlled by al-Shabaab, which developed a fearsome reputation for brutal public punishments, deadly terrorist attacks and slick jihadi propaganda. For a while, it was the only al-Qaeda affiliate to openly administer towns and territory.

The change is largely thanks to a military force made of African armies that is on the verge of pacifying Somalia, something the US and the UN have failed to do for more than 20 years. On Somalia’s battlefields, reality is catching up with the rhetoric of “African solutions to African problems”. There will soon be more than 17,700 African Union Mission (Amisom) troops in Somalia, from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Sierra Leone (Ethiopia too, though it insists on commanding its own forces).

Five years of fighting hits hard. “It has taken a huge sacrifice from Amisom fighters – we have had many casualties,” Wafula Wamunyinyi, a senior African Union (au) official, told me. Official casualty figures are not made public, but security and diplomatic sources estimate that 600 have been killed. The au’s special representative to Somalia, Jerry Rawlings – the former president of Ghana who seized power in a military coup before ushering in democracy – puts Amisom’s success down to the heavy involvement of states in the regions that have a personal interest in al-Shabaab being defeated. “What we’re seeing here is a regional consensus, led by regional forces that have demonstrated the courage and the will to fight,” he said, as we bumped along a Mogadishu street in an armoured car.

The first 1,700 peacekeepers landed in Mogadishu in 2007, but found no peace to keep. During a visit to Mogadishu this year, Augustine Mahiga, the UN’s top diplomat for Somalia, described Amisom as a “peace-enforcement mission”. Amisom, he told me, had “pushed its Chapter VII [peacekeeping] mandate to the maximum. This is warfare.”

It took 18 body bags to convince Washington to pull its soldiers out of a wrongheaded, joint UN peacekeeping mission. Fewer than 18 months later, the last of 22,000 foreign peacekeepers left, the world turned its back and Somalia was abandoned to the warlords.

The era of al-Shabaab is the latest iteration of a civil war that has raged almost non-stop since 1989, when clan militias took up arms against the dictatorial government. But as soon as they achieved their aims, chasing out President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, the warlords attacked one another. Brief respite came in 2006 when a grassroots organisation called the Islamic Courts Union (icu) defeated the clan militias, but their timing and choice of name were poor.

Looked at through Washington’s post-September 11 lens, the icu were terrorists and were quickly booted out by Ethiopia’s army, backed by US air strikes. Then al-Shabaab emerged as a more violent and radical offshoot of the icu, making Somalia a magnet for jihadis.

Al-Shabaab’s ability to attract recruits from the US and Europe – and trainers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere – alerted western security agencies helping Amisom get the finances and firepower it needed. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab’s will and ability to strike beyond Somalia’s borders – proven by a suicide bombing in Uganda that killed more than 70 people in 2010 – put neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya on edge. Wary of their security and economies, both countries were drawn into the fight last year.

In Baidoa and Hudur, towns in the east of the country, the Ethiopian military is clearly still in charge despite local administrations and the deployment of government troops. In southern towns such as Dhobley and Ras Kamboni, a powerful local militia backed by Kenya holds sway. It is still the gunmen who rule but signs of a return to life are evident. Children are playing football again in the late-afternoon light, while people sit in tea shops drinking and chatting.

“The most important thing for a human being is freedom,” Ali Noor Kasim, a clan elder in Ras Kamboni, told me. “Al-Shabaab took that away, but now it has been returned to us.”