When I returned from Somalia, I wrote this article that was published in Uganda’s main independent paper, Daily Monitor, on May 3, 2012 with the title “In Somalia The UPDF Finally Found Its Freedom And Peace”. I was afraid when I was writing the article that I had allowed myself to get sentimental and misty-eyed after seeing for myself and being confronted with the price the Uganda and Burundi troops in the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia (AMISOM), have had to pay in their five-year mission there. I didn’t for a moment imagine that the article would bring down the wrath of Uganda’s president Lt. Gen. Yoweri Museveni, in an angry 3,200 words article in which he refers to “Obbo” or “the Obbos” a record 35 times – although I wouldn’t have been surprised if he found it a minor irritant. That article, “The Empires Strikes Back: President Museveni Fires Back At ‘NRM Enemy’s’ Over Somalia” follows. – Charles Onyango-Obbo
A month before I went to the battered Somali capital Mogadishu last week, I met over coffee in Nairobi with a senior diplomat who had just been there and visited with the African Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM.
Uganda provides the majority of AMISOM troops, in part due to the fact that it was the first to put boots on the ground there in 2007. Burundi followed some months later.
The diplomat told me he was struck by “how different” the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) in AMISOM were from other Third World armies he had seen in peacekeeping. He said they were “very professional”, and by the time he left Mogadishu, he could tell which one was a Ugandan soldier just by looking at the way they held their gardens.
He and his colleagues had also been for a meeting in Ethiopia of the army chiefs of the countries that had troops (including Kenya, which sent its army into south Somalia last October; Ethiopia which followed a few weeks later; and Djibouti). He said that Uganda’s Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima had “displayed a level of political astuteness rare among these African generals”.
I took him seriously because, from his last remark, he is a chap who doesn’t think much of African armies. His credits, therefore, don’t come easily.
Until you get to Mogadishu, there is no description that will prepare you for what you will encounter. The AMISOM headquarters is at the edge of the airport. It is 12 kilometres long, and about 4 kilometres wide. It is so heavily fortified; even the world’s best army would need weeks to kick AMISOM out of it.
For me one of the things that got me was that most spots in the compound had Wi-Fi, giving a faster connection to the Internet that you will get anywhere in Kampala (and most African cities).
The UPDF clearly has first-mover advantage in the AMISOM operation, so it is deeply entrenched and provides security to the most strategic installations – the airport, the Mogadishu seaport, the prime minister’s and President’s offices, and so on. Even Somalia Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali’s ADC is a UPDF officer.
Today the Burundi and Uganda troops have all of Mogadishu’s 16 districts firmly secured. The remarkable thing is that they have done this with 9,500 troops; just 25 percent of the 38,000 the USA deployed in “Operation Restore Hope” between 1992-1994 – and was defeated by the Somali militias in end.
The UPDF in Somalia is, in many ways, a very different force from the one most people in Uganda know – especially the one that made that disastrous invasion in eastern DR Congo.
In Somalia it confronted an opponent like it had never faced. The militant Al Shabaab were more determined to stand their ground and fight than all the rebel armies UPDF has battled with.
Because most of the soldiers in Al Shabaab had grown up as younger people amidst the wars in Somalia’s various towns, they became of age while learning how to escape bullets. As fighters, they are as good an urban insurgent force as you will find anywhere in the world.
While the UPDF prides itself as master of the bush war, they were alien to urban warfare, and faced a disadvantage against the Shabaab because of the latter’s superior knowledge of battered Mogadishu. Secondly, the AU mandate for AMISOM limited its ability to fight back. Thirdly, they were woefully underfunded and lacked the weapons they needed.
Ironically, it’s these difficulties that helped remake the UPDF. With their limited numbers and lack of equipment, they needed to develop efficiencies and multiply their advantage.
So, first, they worked on civilian relations. It is interesting to go to a place in Mogadishu with a senior UPDF, and to see how much they avoid confronting Somalis or making them feeling small. In most of these situations, because AMISOM is the one holding the place together, if they pulled rank, the Somalis would back down. But they don’t. They are obsessed nearly to a frustrating degree with the idea of making Somalis feel they are in charge. That has helped, because they have a largely friendly population.
Not having to worry about a hostile population behind their lines, they turned their attention to the war. The defininh point for the UPDF in Somalia came following the July 2010 World Cup Final Al Shabaab bombings that killed over 70 people in Kampala.
Two weeks later, the AU summit in Kampala authorised AMISOM to carry out “preemptive” strikes on militias, and to pursue them when attacked. From the time when the UPDF and Burundi forces got the nod to push back, within weeks Al Shabaab had been beaten out of nearly 25 percent of the positions it held.
By 2010, the UPDF had been in Mogadishu for three years. They had finally learnt some tricks of urban warfare. Still, the true lesson was to come in the post-July 2010 changed situation.
Unlike in the bushes and forests in Uganda, DR Congo, and Southern Sudan, in Mogadishu UPDF positions would often be separated from Al Shabaab by a street. They were so close, if they chose to; they could spit in each other’s faces.
The battle was such that on many occasions, after a day of fighting, the UPDF could gain only 5 metres. When they moved to take the Mogadishu stadium, which was being used as a training base by Al Shabaab, it took three days of fighting and many casualties, to take a critical road junction.
The stadium is a few hundred metres from that junction. That battle lasted another six days.
The UPDF was forced to improvise and be creative. It became very adept at using small armoured vehicles that could be driven along narrow alleys into the corners where the Shabaab were dug in.
Because even the new expanded AU and UN resolution allowing them to engage Al Shabaab did not allow them to shoot into areas like markets and schools (from where Al Shabaab was shelling them), the UPDF and Burundians developed an intimidating pincer movement to squeeze their foes out of positions that had civilian populations.
That was how Al Shabaab was ejected from Bakara Market, one of the biggest in Africa. “I don’t think any African army has ever done what we did to force Al Shabaab out of Bakara. It was strategy at its best”, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the AMISOM spokesman, told me.
Because the UPDF in Mogadishu had to molly coddle civilians in ways it has never done before, and they were embroiled in urban warfare that was largely alien to them, the Somalia operation opened doors for the appointment of some of the army’s most creative minds to work there.
So even if President Yoweri Museveni wanted to promote an officer from his village or a loyalist, he had to find one that was qualified. Appointing an incompetent one would be to condemn him to a quick death at the hands of the Al Shabaab.
Beyond that, scarcity also helped. As already noted, if the UPDF and Burundians had got all the equipment they needed at the start, they would not have had to innovate. Thus the factors that forced the UPDF to reinvent itself in Somalia would have been absent.
For reasons of the very different dynamics, unlike the DRC war, the role of the experienced bush fighters was diminished. My sense is that because the army’s old guard knew nothing about urban warfare, they could not go over the heads of commanders in the field in Mogadishu and try to direct the war from Kampala as they did with DRC.
Today, as a UPDF officer told me; “We are probably the best army in urban warfare in Africa because of the lessons we learnt in Mogadishu”. You will not be surprised to learn that while they criticise Al Shabaab’s ideology and actions, the UPDF officers have total respect for their fighting mettle.
And, crucially too, because AMISOM is an international operation, most of the money is actually spent on salaries and soldiers’ warfare. There are no ghost troops in AMISOM.
Politics back home also seems to have an unintended effect on UPDF. It all started with the setting up of the massive and highly loyalist force, the Presidential Guard Brigade, as the mainstay of President Museveni’s hold on power. The PGB, now part of the Special Forces Group, absorbed most of the Museveni partisans, with fewer of them going into the UPDF.
Then, the Uganda Police was expanded and effectively turned into a paramilitary unit. There was another an influx of partisans and loyalists into this new-look Police.
Today, even at home, it’s the paramilitary police and the Special Forces Group that beat down and generally harass the opposition and market protestors.
Apart from a few commands, the UPDF has nearly become like the neglected wife of a polygamist who goes on to work hard and find greater success than her co-wives (to use that uniquely Ugandan expression).
A great irony then is that Museveni has actually succeeded in professionalising the UPDF. It seems, though, that this has been by accident, not deliberate planning.
All this now presents an interesting “Gravedigger Problem” for the president.
Apart from the Somalia operation, cooperation with the US on the ongoing hunt in the DRC and Central African Republic for the Lord’s Resistance leader Joseph Kony, have become critical for his domestic power because it insulates him against international pressure over his dodgy governance and democracy credentials.
But over time as the UPDF gets training for ambitious roles, and sprouts different values in foreign theatres of war, it slowly becomes like a child outgrowing its parent. A good thing for Uganda and Africa, but perhaps inconvenient for the president.
The next big test for the UPDF in the coming months is going to be taking the Somalia town of Afgooye – just over 20 kilometres from Massilah where the UPDF “frontline” is. They took the position from Al Shabaab three weeks ago.
We arrived there shortly after the UPDF had repelled an attack on their positions by Al Shabaab the previous night. The site used to be the Shabaab’s car bomb factory. It is full of carcasses of cars the militants allegedly stole. They would rip out bits and pieces from other cars, and use them to rig up deadly bombs.
I learnt how terrifying the bombs were the following day. We stopped at a camp for displaced people, and I remained inside the Casspir armoured car that we were travelling in.
A lorry was approaching from the side and a station wagon car from the front. One of the UPDF gunners jumped, and went to the machine gun on top of the Casspir.
After the cars passed, he explained that what Al Shabaab suicide bombers do is drive up a lorry loaded with fuel up to their selected target, then they race a small car from the opposite direction which collides into the lorry. If that had happened, one of the soldiers told me very casually, we would all have been “muchomo” (roast meat).
The capture of Massilah, which also used to be an expansive estate belong to dictator Somalia Siad Barre’s son, deprived the Shabaab of an important bomb-making asset.
But the real prize is up the road, 20 kilometres away in Afgooye. The Shabaab have retreated there, and most of their fighters and officers are there.
Whoever controls Afgooye, controls strategic access to nearly all of south-central Somalia.
Just like they have done on the edge of Mogadishu University, which is still remarkably pristine and was captured in January, in Massilah the UPDF were building a long line of barricades and defences that has become their trademark in Somalia.
Now that they have moved to the outskirts of Mogadishu, the terrain has changed. The expanses are open and wide like in Karamoja. Not surprisingly, UPDF units that were operating in Karamoja were flown in for the next stage.
“We beat them [Al Shabaab] in urban war at which they were initially much better than us”, one officer told me, “Now we are going into the terrain where we are masters”.
The Al Shabaab have admitted openly that there is only one category of weapon that truly terrorises them – the Ugandan tanks. Now is when these will fully come into play, and it is the Shabaab’s turn to adapt.
However, the UPDF will also be moving farther away from its logistics base, and will need helicopters to ferry troops and the wounded back to base. However, they don’t have these yet, although some are expected from Ugandan stocks. They will need fixed wing aircraft. They don’t have them, but at least have a drone.
So Afgooye looks set to be the decisive battle for AMISOM. In Massilah, you could see that the UPDF were already planning on an assault on it.
Ingenuity might have handed them victory in Mogadishu, but in a last stand fight with the Shabaab, the UPDF will need more than that. Virtually every officer will tell you that the international support for things like helicopter is now desperate.
They have reason to worry. At the Mogadishu stadium, which is headquarters of the deputy Uganda continent commander Col. Kayanja Muhanga, one can see why.
The Al Shabaab had a huge plate where they were testing out their armour-piercing bullets. The metal has the thickness of the casspir and tanks that UPDF will use. Several of the bullets had shot clean through the metal plate! With the tanks finally fully coming to the Somalia fight, it seems Al Shabaab has a secret weapon waiting for them.
“This mission is possible. We can give Somalia freedom and peace”, said Brig. Paul Lokech, the baby-faced Uganda Contingent Commander in Somalia.
Time will tell. It seems though that in Somalia, the UPDF too finally found its freedom and peace. Now if only they can bring that home with them when they are done with Somalia.
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