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Kampala bombings reveal new front in Somalia war

By Independent Team  

Politicians debate Uganda’s role in Mogadishu

The announcer’s voice had hundreds of spectators at Kyadondo Rugby club, a popular bar for local and expats alike, completely rapt’sitting at the edge of their chairs, counting down the last three minutes before extra time. ‘The next goal will likely’ he was saying when – without warning- a loud BOOM shook the ground.

The large TV that had been erected outside went blank. At first people thought it might have been the burst of an electric transformer. But when a second explosion detonated seconds later, engulfing the spectators in smoke, there was no doubting that the bar was under attack.

Crowds immediately ran out through Kyadondo’s grassy field towards the street, screaming with blood and tears pouring from their faces. Several had severed limbs, gushes in the face and body. Kampala, a relatively stable and peaceful city, was in the midst of the worse violence it had seen in 12 years.

‘It is a bomb blast people are dying,’ yelled one man. When the smoke cleared moments later, lives had been taken, dreams had been dashed and the innocence of a city had been stolen. Tens of bodies’young and old’littered the scene. Slouched in white, plastic lawn chairs, covered in blood and still clenching beer bottles in their hands, at least 49 innocent spectators had been killed.

A little less than an hour earlier at 10:25 pm local time, just as Spain and the Netherlands were walking off the field for halftime in Johannesburg, people around the city began receiving text messages on their phones of a reported bombing at the Ethiopian Village Restaurant in Kabalagala, a seedy and wild neighbourhood known for its blaring bars and commercial sex workers. The news was initially greeted with worry and a degree of scepticism. Was this an isolated incident? Who was behind it? Was it really true? But as more information surfaced’at least 13 killed, deliberate terrorist attack’gradually more and more people began exiting the bars and the mood, once erupting with excitement, had been infiltrated with fear and trepidation. When word spread fifty minutes later of the Kyadondo bombing, the party was clearly over.

As the sound of police patrols and ambulances streamed through the city under the cover of darkness, friends and family called one another and urged each other to return home immediately.

Outside the Ethiopian Village Restaurant a mass of security’police, Presidential Guard Brigade (PGB), Criminal Investigation Department (CID), and CIA’had cordoned off the area. Guards with the smell of alcohol on their breath tried to maintain order, segregating the public from journalists and witnesses. Standing above the fray of bodies was a thin man in blue jeans, a beige jacket and designer spectacles. He looked like an average Ugandan except he had an assistant standing by, helping him manage the relentless stream of phone calls he was receiving.

After a little while Major General Kale Kayihura, chief of police, walked out of the darkness and with a determined resoluteness tried to convince the throng of microphones and camera lights pointed at him, that Kampalans should remain calm and out of the streets. ‘As we grapple to find out what has happened and search for the perpetrators, I would appeal to members of the public to avoid big gathering,’ he said firmly.

‘Is the police taking any extra preventative measures?’ he was asked.

‘We had actually started a long time ago because there had been these declarations by Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda saying that they would do something like this,’ he started. ‘We were advising people who own places like this where people converge that they should take extra care. We in the police have been deploying in the city but ultimately fighting terrorism is a job for all of us.’

However, some individuals in Uganda’s security network, such as Abas Byakagaba, Assistant Inspector General of Police, allocated blame for the devastation to the owners of the individual bars. ‘These targets [Rugby Club and Ethiopian Village] had lapses in security, making them ‘sitting ducks,” he told The Independent. ‘[The owner of Ethiopian Village] is too arrogant. Several times we tried to bring her on board security-wise but she declined.’

As the charred, mangled bodies continued to be pulled from the rubble at the Ethiopian Village in the background, it was clear that Kayihura’s police and Uganda’s security network had simply not done enough. In fact, by Monday, Interior Minister, Matia Kasaija, himself would admit that despite the numerous warnings authorities had received from al-Shabab, Uganda had been caught off guard.

But that night, inside the Kyadondo Rugby Club and at the Ethiopian Village, the consequence of their cumulative unpreparedness was just starting to manifest itself. The night had begun with so much promise’a great match, enthusiastic fans and even a rousing performance by Bebe Cool, one of the hottest hip-hop artists in Kampala ‘but, just three minutes from extra time, two quick successive explosions turned the cries of joy into cries of agony.

At Mulago, the injured poured in. By private cars, public ambulances and even by motorcycle taxis, the boda boda, they reached the hospital doors with punctured skulls, massive burns and in unrelenting pain. Resources were scarce and many injured had to be treated on the cold floor. Doctors and nurses, dressed in rubber green aprons, ran from room to room trying to manage the parade of victims. A Dutchman, still dressed in his orange Holland World Cup T-shirt, put on gloves and tried to help out.

‘I’m a psychiatrist,’ he said helplessly.

There was blood and shouts of pain all around. Doctors were trying to identify their patients’to organise them by name’time was running out for some of them.

At 2 am an American woman from a missionary group was standing outside trying to locate missing members from her group. She had cuts on her face and her hearing was damaged.

‘What? What? You need to speak louder,’ she repeated. ‘Where are my friends?

There are four missing.’

She was just hours, she said, from returning home. The game was supposed to be the missionary group’s last event in Kampala. Now, she was injured, her friends were lost, potentially injured or dead, and the prospect of going home seemed far away.

Later that day, President Yoweri Museveni visited the sites of the bombings and the casualty ward at Mulago Hospital where the injured were being treated.

He vowed to hunt down the attackers.

‘This is a barbaric act. We shall get the criminals. The law of Moses will apply to them,’ Museveni said.

Until Sunday night, al-Shabab, to many Ugandans, was some extreme Islamic, remote terrorist group, their country, together with Burundi, was trying to pacify in the deserts of Somalia. Today, the militants are no longer remote. As investigations intensified on Monday, more and more evidence seemed to point to them as the culprits. First, the police said they had found the severed head of a Somali at the scene of one blast, and alluded to the possibility that he might have been a suicide bomber. And then later in the day, there was a confirmation of responsibility from al-Shabab spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage.

But a report by Reuters news agency quoted a man who identified himself as Yonis, assistant to Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, saying: ‘Rage blessed those who carried the attack and expected a long life for them. That shows there was no suicide bomb. These were planted.’

Nevertheless there are some Somali experts that remain sceptical of al-Shabab’s capacity to have executed such a well-coordinated international attack alone, others, such as Bruce Hoffman, an expert in counterterrorism at Georgetown University, believes that al-Shabab’s savvy communications operation, charismatic leaders, and an expatriate Somali population to recruit from, has provided it with this new ability.

‘This was a localised cancer, but the cancer has metastasized into a regional crisis,’ said Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. ‘It is a crisis that has bled across borders and is now infecting the international community.’

In 2006, Ethiopian troops kicked out a government by Al-shabab in Somalia and installed the current one. That invasion sparked the round of insurgency against the government that rages to this day and has sucked in the AU.

Al-Shabab wants Uganda to withdraw its African Union peacekeeping forces from Somalia.

The Kampala bombing is the latest major terrorist attack since the 2002 attack on a hotel and a plane belonging to an Israeli airline in Mombasa, Kenya.

Before that, in 1998, terrorists struck US embassies embassy in Kenya and Tanzania killing hundreds. These attacks were linked to local members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and brought Osama bin Laden to international attention.

The American FBI has warned that the attack in Uganda could mean the group is capable of carrying out successful attacks in Africa and beyond.

It is Al-Shabab’s first successful strike outside of Somalia, according to an intelligence analysis reported by the Associated Press.

After the Kampala attacks, the Kenya security forces were put on heighten alert especially along the Somalia border. Kenya also put its hospitals and other medical facilities and personnel at Uganda’s disposal should that become necessary.

Since the attack, Uganda’s security mechanisms have been actively out searching for clues and suspects. They have cordoned off the blast sites and are prowling the streets for suspicious items. Two days after the attack, the police revealed a suicide vest they had found a day before in Makindye area south-east of Kampala. The black laptop-like bag in which it was found also reportedly contained ball-bearings, explosives and a detonator.

By afternoon that day, at least four individuals had been taken into custody, including one man who was detained for throwing his cellphone in the garbage.

As much as police argue such rigorous enforcement is necessary, Dr Paul Omach of Makerere University says the government is using the attack to justify increased authoritarianism. ‘We will have an increased security presence,’ he said. Museveni will trample on people’s rights in the name of maintaining security.’

Assistant Police Inspector Abas confirmed that the security has been beefed up in and around the city. ‘Our bomb squad is on full alert. It is well trained and facilitated. We have also been offered assistance by the US government which we believe will further boost our efforts,’ he said. ‘But we cannot work effectively without the general public. We are mobilising and have increased intelligence within the public.’

One community that could be susceptible to additional police scrutiny is Uganda’s Somali population. Fortunately, as of Tuesday, residents and community leaders reported no additional security or harassment from police. In the Kisenyi suburb where most Somali live, amidst makeshift garages, metal workshops and taxi parks, they mix freely with their Ugandan neighbours. ‘The relationship is normal as it was before,’ said Hassan Ali, a Somali refugee living in Kisenyi. ‘We are doing business with our Ugandan brothers without any segregation.’.

The chairperson of the Ugandan Somalis Community, Dr Abdullahi Husein Shiire, condemned the bomb explosions and said the attackers intended to strain the ‘good’ relationship Somalis share with Ugandans.  ‘We are disappointed by these acts of terrorism. They want to destabilise refugees and put us in trouble with Ugandans.’ Shiire added that Somalis have lived peacefully in Uganda for years and many look at Uganda as their second home.

In other areas around town the mood seems to have normalised, but the bombings are still on people’s minds. ‘It is disheartening the fear that has gripped the city. Everyone I carry on my bikes talks about the bombings mournfully and asks whether you lost a friend,’ said a concerned boda boda rider.

‘What I’m worried about is that this is the start of something more, that the attacks aren’t over,’ a resident of Muyenga said. ‘Of course, the fact that one of the attacks happened so close [at Ethiopian Village] is also very worrying.’

The bombings have also reignited the debate on Uganda’s ongoing participation in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).  Some political parties in Uganda, such as Democratic Party, argue that Uganda should only stay if other African countries are willing to help shoulder the burden.  As the primary source of troops, Uganda, says DP Deputy Spokesperson Kenneth Kakande, is isolated and the target of attacks. He also criticised Uganda’s immigration policies. ‘All trouble causers in different countries have Ugandan passports. Nigerian drug dealers, goons and now it’s highly possible these insurgents were also free to roam.”

The Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and People’s Development Party, however, have been more stringent with their demands. Guns, they argue, will not solve the crisis in Somalia and the 2,700 Ugandan peacekeepers stationed there should be withdrawn.

On the phone from Somalia, Ba-Hoku Barigye, AMISOM spokesperson, was adamant that withdrawal should not be an option. ‘AMISOM can’t be driven by short-term gains and losses,’ he told The Independent. ‘As long as the conflict in Somalia is not resolved, you cannot rule out the possibility of threats to the region, the continent, the world… we must resolve, must stabilize Somalia.’

As much as AMISOM is an operation created and instituted by the entire African Union (AU), it does not require that member states commit a military contingent to the conflict in Somalia, nor does it bar member states from withdrawing troops from the conflict at any point. Both Nigeria and Malawi initially promised to contribute troops, but went back on their decision. Ghana and Rwanda pledged to train Somali troops but have also left their promise unfulfilled. The AU initially planned for the AMISOM force to be 8,000 strong. Today, there are about 6,300 troops on the ground in Somalia.

The AU is scheduled to meet in Kampala between the 19 and 27 of July. Somalia, as of now, is not on the agenda for the meeting. Reluctant at first to comment on whether the AU should amend the agenda to include the rogue state and the problems associated with it in the wake of the Kampala bombs, Barigye ultimately had this to say: ‘Somalia is part of Africa, and if the conflict is affecting the rest of the continent then the wisdom of the leaders of Africa will lead them to discuss it.’

The AU summit is scheduled to go on as scheduled despite the attacks. There is no doubt that Uganda’s security will be on high alert and use an abundance of resources to keep the leaders of Africa safe. As for the average citizens of this country who remain unprotected and vulnerable, we need to rely on each other’s vigilance. Either that or we can take the advice of the authorities, and stay home.

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