By Haggai Matsiko
Loopholes expose Uganda to terror threats
On Oct.15, the US Embassy in Kampala issued an unexpected security alert to its citizens with a warning that it was “assessing reports that a Westgate-style attack may soon occur in Kampala.” “Embassy officials are sharing all information with the Ugandan authorities. At this time, there is no further information on timing and/or location of this attack,” the statement read in part. “The Embassy will continue to alert US citizens to any credible, specific information about this and any other potential threats.
We again take this opportunity to remind the community to exercise vigilance and to avoid public venues that attract large crowds.” Apparently, the terror alert by the embassy not only took the Ugandan intelligence and security services by surprise but it also appeared to wake them up from their stupor as they immediately swung into action to show that they were doing something to avert an attack and to protect Ugandans.
While the Americans are definitely more sophisticated in intelligence gathering than their Ugandan counterparts, analysts say this has partly helped to put the inefficiencies and weaknesses in the country’s intelligence system under the spotlight.
The loopholes inside Uganda’s intelligence system in the wake of fresh terror attacks in the region are a big cause for worry, security insiders have revealed to The Independent. Sources who didn’t want to be named given the sensitivity of the matter, told this newspaper that at the heart of the problem is the failure to professionalise and disentangle the intelligence agencies from serving the interests of the President at the expense of national security.
This, critics say, is the reason Uganda’s intelligence remains riddled with weaknesses, unreformed and unequipped yet attacks like the September 2001 on the US, the July 2010 on Uganda and the recent Westgate attack have shown that urgent reforms in intelligence are critical if a country is to fight terrorism. Indeed, months after President Yoweri Museveni directed an overhaul of the country’s top intelligence bodies earlier in July; security authorities, insiders say the level of deterioration in the intelligence system needs an urgent fix.
An expose on how an officer, Stephen Kisembo, in the External Security Organisation (ESO) was involved in selling sensitive intelligence information to Sudan, which is the talking point in security circles, is to say the least perplexing, given that Sudan has been one of Uganda’s biggest security threats for decades.
Apart from Uganda’s never-ending friction with the country, Sudan has had a history of hosting top ranking terrorists including Osama Bin Laden, the fallen leader of Al-Qaeda. Top security authorities are also angry that the normal internal counter-intelligence mechanisms have been slow in unearthing such vices.
This is not the first time elements in intelligence bodies are leaking reports to enemies. At the time Uganda was at war with Rwanda in DR Congo back in the late 1990s, classified intelligence that had been gathered for Museveni on Rwanda, found its way back to Rwanda. Lately, the main criticism by Museveni against the army has been the laxity of military intelligence.
In May this year, for instance, the President, while addressing his security chiefs in Entebbe, expressed fury about the fact that military intelligence had failed to detect how soldiers’ food during the Garamba operation was ending up somewhere else and how the army was paying more soldiers than the number on the ground. Ghosts had returned to the army register, among others.
More recently, at a closed door meeting with the army’s rank and file from Somalia, which is Uganda’s biggest success and reputable military campaign in recent times, Museveni heard that some commanders were involved in selling arms, fuel and rations meant for the operation.
Museveni had been angry with the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) headed by Col. Charles Bakahumura. It is not clear whether, a recent expose by Bakahumura, that lifted a lid off how logistics in the army were being misused, has changed Museveni’s view of the CMI.
However, given the magnitude of the problem, which Museveni is now aware of, CMI, also known as Uganda’s most powerful intelligence agency, is yet to convince. The organisation has in the past attracted an international backlash over its alleged human rights violations particularly the torturing of suspects.
Concerns also remain that unlike the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) and ESO, which are established by an Act of parliament, the outfit operates outside the ambit of the law. While these are critical issues, most critical according to sources, is that at a time when Uganda faces a terrorism threat, the agencies are only shadows of what an intelligence body worth its salt should be.
While their central role is intelligence gathering and for which they get billions of shillings in classified expenditure per year, they have almost been beaten to it by the Uganda Police headed by under Gen. Kale Kayihura. Kayihura’s intelligence feats saw him transform the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) into the Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (CIID).
An old hand in intelligence agencies, Kayihura, used his networks to keep supplying critical intelligence to Museveni that the other agencies were in the dark about. Indeed, Kayihura’s intelligence about how renegade General David Sejusa, currently in exile, was involved in gathering intelligence about the army, sources say, was the basis for Museveni to order for the overhauling of the intelligence agencies. But while the President is angry at his intelligence bodies, critics say, he got it coming his way.
These critics say, since Museveni came from the bush, in 1986, he maintained his intelligence system—the kind that he had relied on to survive as a guerrilla, instead of reforming it and morphing it into an independent and professional system. An insider told The Independent that the ultimate objective for Museveni has been retaining power that is why he has built a fortress of loyalty instead of a professional intelligence system.
Intelligence in crisis
A 2009 book, Changing Intelligence Dynamics in Africa, edited by Sandy Africa and Johnny Kwadjo, which features a whole chapter on Uganda’s intelligence since independence, captures this crisis. The book says the intelligence bodies like the ones in Uganda are irregularly used by politicians and remain unreformed, mystified and relatively dysfunctional.
It notes that the fraught relationship between political authorities and intelligence operatives is connected with the failure to define the proper scope and legitimate role of intelligence. “…such organisations have thus come across as instruments for regime survival rather than [for] promoting and consolidating democracy and national interest,” the book notes.
Indeed, Museveni’s intelligence chiefs have mainly used the agencies specifically to concentrate on Museveni’s interests and sometimes on fighting their own battles. Former spy chiefs, Jim Muhweziand Amama Mbabazi (now the Prime Minister) are a classic example of this scenario. While serving as director general of ISO, Muhwezi was almost a demi-god—intelligence belonged to him. He recruited his people and deployed them swiftly.
Mbabazi, had been in charge of ESO, a less influential agency, then. He would also later concentrate on building his own fortress of loyalty when he became Security minister overseeing both ISO and ESO. He swiftly used this fortress to deal a decisive blow to his enemies. Even long after he had left security, his influence would still deliver reports to Museveni about his enemies.
Muhwezi, Justice Minister Kahinda Otafire, former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya and Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, have all had a taste of Mbabazi’s intelligence work. The crisis in Uganda’s intelligence system has at one point seen Museveni and his close security operatives operate and bankroll over 20 security agencies that to critics are a harbinger for insecurity instead of security.
Apart from ESO, ISO, CMI, UPDF and Police CIID, Uganda has; the Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce (JATT), the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), Rapid Response Unit (RRU), Special Revenue Protection Unit (SRPU), Popular Intelligence Network (PIN), State House Counter-Intelligence Unit (SHCIU), among others. With all these agencies delivering intelligence, attention shifted completely from the mainstream intelligence bodies.
Focus switched to politics, with one most important target– opposition politicians or to be precise, former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) President Kizza Besigye. For instance, the Black Mambas had been trained specifically to deal with terrorists or sieges like the one at Westgate. But in 2006, the force was unleashed to lay siege on the High Court to arrest Besigye.
It is under these circumstances that the man who oversaw the operation, Tinyefuza (now Sejusa), consolidated his credentials as the coordinator of intelligence services. But even as the coordinator of intelligence, once his critical role was done, Tinyefuza was sidelined. Museveni always insisted that Col. Ronnie Balya, who heads ISO and Robert Masolo, the ESO boss, deliver reports directly to him and not Sejusa.
As a result, Uganda has failed to mainstream its intelligence services. There are no career intelligence professionals. There is no proper and transparent recruitment process, which has made many people suspicious of the intelligence bodies, whose membership they claim comes solely from Museveni’s clan, according to critics. While so far the intelligence has served to cushion Museveni against any internal threats targeting his seat, critics say, national security is the biggest victim of the intelligence’s failings.
The biggest threat today is terrorism. A few weeks ago, the Uganda Police was all over the place about a terrorist of German origin, Mueller alias Ahmed Khaled, whom they claimed had entered the country Oct.1. While – in the aftermath of the Westgate attack in Kenya – fear is that the terrorists’ next target is Uganda; there is concern that the police is not approaching the threat the right way. The Westgate attack came on the heels of deadly attacks on Turkey’s Embassy in Mogadishu, the United Nations compound and Somalia’s airports.
What is missing on this list is Uganda, which is the biggest contributor of troops to pacify war-torn Somalia. “When I see the current arrangement dictated by naked force, too many policemen in public places with weapons of all kinds,” former ESO chief spy, David Pulkol told The Independent, “I get worried because the enemy we are dealing with cannot be scared by this kind of display of force. Otherwise, you run a risk of exhibiting your weaknesses, your lack of intelligence.”
Terrorists, by their very nature like to lurk in the dark, take their time studying their victim and pounce on them when they least expect them, experts say. The Al shabaab spokesman, Sheikh Abulaziz Abu Muscab, put it even more vividly; “Our aim is to attack our enemy when they least expect us.”
There is concern that Uganda didn’t pick lessons from September 2001 on the U.S and the July 2010 and the Westgate terror attacks.
These offered the greatest opportunity to look at the loopholes in intelligence. Instead three years after, the story remains the same, even the counter-terrorism unit that was supposed to be established remains on paper.
Experts have noted that in its current state, Uganda’s intelligence system is dispersed, there are several semi-autonomous security agencies. To address terrorism, security agencies need to be reformed so as to tighten their operations and improve coordination
As coordinator of intelligence services, Sejusa was supposed to play this role but he was not doing so. Intelligence bodies are working at cross purpose. Sejusa himself noted that some intelligence hands had been planted in his office to spy on him.
If his office was very critical in this coordination, President Museveni should have been very keen to replace him.
Critics also note that although Uganda has for years been reforming the Uganda Police and the UPDF, but the intelligence services remain untouched. Instead, the appointing authority continues to staff the agencies with mere appointees, soldiers from other arms of the army and politicians.
Yet, with the advancement in technology and the changing nature of terrorism, the requisite skills sets of intelligence professionals are much more advanced than mere military training.
Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, the Kyadondo East MP, who reported extensively on security and currently sits on the Defence and Internal Affairs Committee of Parliament, says there is no interest to reform the intelligence services.
“Museveni likes to fill the intelligence with defeated politicians and whoever he feels like as long as they are loyal to him,” Nganda says, “When [General] Ivan Koreta [former Commander of Defence Forces] was in ISO and he insisted that intelligence officers are professionalised, he was removed. Building intelligence requires focussing on the national threat but under Museveni’s rule, intelligence has to focus on his [political] interests.”
A call for reforms
Semuju says that the structure of intelligence as it is, is meant to enable Museveni spend money and extend favours.
“If there is interest to reform,” Semuju asks, “Why would ESO and ISO still be under the Office of the President?”
For him as long as the agencies are feeding on Museveni’s pocket change, they will continue to dance to his tunes and focus more on Besigye and other opposition politicians than critical issues of national interest. ESO and ISO indeed get their budget under the presidency’s budget.
Pulkol, the former ESO boss, however, says that those who say Uganda’s intelligence is in a crisis have not paid attention to its successes.
“In the 90s, the intelligence was able to nip in the bud a number of planned attacks including one on the Parliament and the American Embassy. The intelligence was also able to bring to a halt grenade explosions in omnibuses and buses and infiltrate cells of terrorists, among others,” Pulkol says. “Uganda has not survived all this long because of the good will of the enemy.”
However, he adds that it seems the intelligence has become a bit sluggish and complacent especially now in the face of an enemy that is always advancing and changing in nature.
“Terrorism has now crystallised in the Al-shabaab, who are dealing with the Al-qaeda at a regional and international level,” Pulkol says, adding, “that is why our intelligence now has to be retooled, restructured, reformed and made equal to the task.”
Pulkol says that at the resources level, the intelligence body need to be boosted in manpower, funding and technology.
But most critically, intelligence bodies need to be delinked from the NRM party for them to become professional and so as to cease being partisan and appearing like party militias.
“There is no point for intelligence to be diverted from terrorism to Besigye,” Pulkol says, “You are wasting a lot of resources on peripheral issues when we now have a much bigger threat against national security.”
Efforts by The Independent to reach the intelligence chiefs including Security Minister Muruli Mukasa, for a comment were futile. But Muruli Mukasa was recently quoted admitting that the agencieswere being reviewed. What is not clear, however, is whether these reforms will be as far-reaching as recommended by experts given that these recommendations have been around for some time.
Fear, therefore remains that for as long the status quo serves President Museveni, he will only be interested in reforms that address threats like Sejusa and not the critical reforms needed to consolidate national security.
Some of the reforms that Changing Intelligence Dynamics in Africa, recommends for Uganda is that the country creates a fresh legal framework for the security services that clearly establishes the mandate, accountability mechanisms and oversight by parliament and the judiciary, which it notes would go a long way to improve the performance of the security services and strengthen peace and security.