By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
Maka al-Mukarama, the strategic main road linking the habour, the airport, and the Presidential Villa in the war-ravaged Somali capital Mogadishu is one of the most dangerous roads on earth.
On Friday, August 27 it was a scene of mayhem as an attack by Somali militants, the al-Shabaab, sent government soldiers and civilians fleeing from the city.
A short distance away, UPDF soldiers who make up most of the 7000-strong African Union peacekeeping force AMISOM desperately guarded parliament building. This was government turf and the al-Shabaab attack was an affront on AMISOM’s ability to protect the fledgling Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia.
Earlier, on the morning of Aug. 24 the al-Shabaab had struck Hotel Muna, right next to the Presidential Villa killing 31 people. The attackers, disguised in government army uniforms moved from room to room at the hotel, killing residents with bullets and grenades. After, they blew themselves up.
It is on this same road that the al-Shabaab fired mortar shells on a convoy carrying the Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in February. Two people were killed.
But the worst attack on Maka al-Mukarama was on Sept. 22. On that day, the Al-Shabaab attacked. Chanting cries of ‘allahu Akbar’, according to eye-witnesses, they fired ferociously for two days. Government soldiers and other allied militia abandoned their positions and fled.
The UPDF commander told journalists after the fighting: “When they ran, they exposed us and made our positions more vulnerable, we had to move to take tactical advantage.”
The UPDF must not let Maka al-Mukarama fall under al-Shabaab control. It is the lifeline of the AMISOM mission used to enter and exit and deliver supplies to them in a city controlled by the al-Shabaab despite recent advances.
In recent weeks, the Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers in Mogadishu have put the Islamist rebel group Al-Shabaab, which is fighting the Somali government, on the defensive.
Areas near Mogadishu’s Bakara Market, like the Taribune Square, the former military hospital, Taleh Hotel and others are now under AMISOM control.
Unidentified helicopters have also been sniping at Al-Shabaab positions. In a major attack, residents of Roobow village in Barawe district, an area controlled by al-Shabaab about 150 miles south of Mogadishu say the attackers killed Saleh Ali Nabhan, 28, a leader of Al-Shabab.
Witnesses on the ground said military helicopters attacked a car carrying Nabhan, killing some passengers and wounding others. The helicopters landed and took the wounded men, and possibly Nabhan’s body, with them, witnesses said. The Americans, EU, and AMISOM deny any involvement in the chopper attacks.
Internally, Al-Shabaab is battling divisions along clan lines and a fight for command between Somalis and their external backers.
Al-Shabaab’s deputy commander-in-chief, Mukhtar Robow, is reported to have quit Mogadishu to form anew group and possibly fight his former allies.
But a journalists who has been to Somalia recently told The Independent that the sound of gunfire and explosion can be heard all day and night in the volatile city. The sense of insecurity is pervasive. Civilians moving in vehicles carry military gear like mortars ready to repulse any attack. Soldiers accompany civilians as they move around places considered most insecure. Visitors are advised not to move outside the AMISOM camp.
“It is the UPDF and Burundian soldiers on the frontline all the time as the government soldiers are greatly demoralised,”says the journalist.
Since 2007 when Uganda first deployed there, at least 30 UPDF soldiers have died in Somalia. The death toll keeps rising. Another 80 people were killed in Al-Shabaab attack on Kampala city in July.
The cost, in men, material, and money, of the Somalia war has become an issue since President Yoweri Museveni announced in September that he is ready to deploy another 12,000 and 20,000 UPDF troops to Somalia to bolster the 7000-strong contingent already there.
The big question is whether sending more troops to Somalia will help stabilise the country which has borne the brunt of war for the last 20 years. Museveni is conscious of this.
The intervention of the UPDF and other foreign forces may not obviously translate into total stability in Somalia, he concedes, but says it could save the country from becoming a terrorism hub. Citing the Ugandan example, he says, the country did not become completely stable after the removal of Idi Amin in 1979 by about 45,000 soldiers of the Tanzanian army.
The UPDF Spokesperson Felix Kulayigye is more laconic. “Do you expect soldiers are going for tea party when they are deployed in a war zone? It is a just cause even when they die,” he says.
He says regardless of how much it may cost Uganda the mission in Somalia is a just one that requires the participation of “fellow African brothers”.
This is not the first time foreign forces are deploying in Somalia since it was plunged into chaos in 1991. Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Ethiopian, and American forces have been there under the UN. They failed.
America has sought to understate its involvement in the fighting in Somalia since the 1993 debacle in which America soldiers were killed and their bodies were dragged along the streets of Mogadishu. However, it is no secret that President Barack Obama’s administration has provided military and financial support to Museveni’s Mogadishu mission.
America’s interest, based on a statement attributed to the Association of American Petroleum Geologists, claims that based on published and unpublished data, the geology of Somalia, ‘proves that oil and gas have been generated with favourable reservoirs, as well as structural and stratigraphic traps. Moreover, continuation of these basins across the gulf, matching the hydrocarbon-producing Marib-Hajar and Say ” un-Al Masila basins of Yemen, raises the hydrocarbon prospect of northern Somalia.”
When the US government in February 2007 established a unified combatant command called African Command (AFRICOM), it was accused of moving to protect the oil. It countered by saying its interest in Somalia was all about fighting terror.
When The Independent sought the opinion of the leaders of the Somali community in Uganda about the UPDF intervention, the reactions were mixed. However, many spoke about negotiation and propaganda and less about intensifying the war.
“Anyone who has been to Somalia and witnessed the suffering the people of Somalia are undergoing will appreciate that sending more soldiers will help improve the situation,” said Ali Mohammed, Secretary General of the Somali Community Association in Uganda (SCAU).
But he added: “The AMISOM forces need to understand that using the radio and television stations explaining to the Somalis the reasons why they are in Somalia will greatly help better the situation as many have been brainwashed and told lies they are fighting a holy war.”
He says because most Somalis are illiterate and live in rural areas rearing camels, the Al-Shabaab have taken advantage of them by spreading harmful propaganda that the Christian forces (AU forces) have invaded Mogadishu and must be fought. “Most Somalis listen to radio, if the AMISOM used it to emphasis their ideology it would help even more in addition to sending more troops,”says Mohammed.
Abdulahi Hassan Roble, vice chairman of SCAU told The Independent that Somalia’s Transition Federal Government (TFG) should initiate negotiations with the groups that are willing to talk peace as a way of achieving total stability for Somalia.
Observers argue that Uganda will pay a big price for deploying its forces in Somalia as some Somalis look at the AU forces in their country as an occupation force.
Museveni has vowed not to let the Al-Shabaab, which controls most of Somalia, take over power.
Along the way he has suffered some setbacks. When he hosted the 15th AU Summit in Kampala a few days after the terror bombings in July, he had hoped that it would endorse his plans for increased deployment. His resolve was thwarted when the African Union member states, some of whom had promised troops but later reneged on their commitment, resolved that such a big number would require the approval of the United Nations.
Recently, however, Museveni’s military campaign looks to be falling into place. A number of envoys from the western countries have flown into the country to express their support for the war against terror in Somalia.
This month, Uganda assumed the rotating presidency of the powerful UN Security Council.
Uganda’s representative at the UN in New York, veteran politician Dr Ruhakana Rugunda moved quickly to put Somalia on the UN agenda.
When on Oct. 3, Rugunda led a United Nations Security Council delegation to a meeting with Museveni at State House in Entebbe, two issues were top on the agenda; a pledge from the UN for support to Uganda’s mission in Somalia and increased scrutiny of the upcoming referendum in Southern Sudan.
Museveni told the UN team that Uganda’s contribution of peacekeepers in Somalia under the AU Mission is proof of the history of solidarity among Africans. He said it would be disastrous for the international community to let the Al-Shabaab take over Somalia and spread terrorism in the region and beyond.
In the same week, Museveni hosted 27 members of the European Union’s top military organ to rally efforts against the resurgent Al- Shabaab.
The EU generals also were to visit a training camp for Somali soldiers in southwest Uganda.
In the same month, the security chiefs of states in the Great Lakes region were in Kampala. The fight against terrorism dominated their agenda.
These high profile delegations are aimed at salvaging the fledgling Somali government of Sheikh Ahmed Sharif that is bedeviled by internal power struggles following the recent resignation of the prime minister.
But they are also designed to stamp Museveni’s position as the world superpowers’ footman in the fight against terrorism and guarantor of peace in the Great Lakes region.
Museveni, who has been in power for 24 years, needs to re-invent himself. Unbridled corruption, nepotism, and a breakdown in social services have made his government lose popularity at home. As a reaction, Museveni has muzzled free expression in the media and other public spaces and clawed back the little democratic space his government previously let citizens enjoy. The demand for democracy has become more incessant at home and abroad.
Unwilling to open up at home, Museveni has sought to assuage international donor opinion by pandering to the whims of the western powers. Whatever they ask he gives.
He has deployed forces in Sudan, the DR Congo, and Somalia. Uganda has also offered her military air base in Entebbe to serve as the logistics base for the UN missions in African countries like Chad, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When he attended the UN General Assembly late last month in New York, Museveni met with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the summit to discuss the Somalia situation and the pending referendum in Sudan under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan’s 22-year old rebellion.
Museveni’s biggest impediment to increasing the number of troops in Somalia is the funding and other logistical support for the additional troops. “We can raise any number which our brothers and sisters ask us to raise. But they must bring the money and the equipment. We have the human beings, we have the experience, we have the training, but we cannot provide the money,” Museveni told the press recently.
He said money is needed to procure military hardware and related supplies and to meet operational costs like wages for the troops, which are required to launch and sustain a full-scale offensive against the Al-Shabaab.
Uganda is lobbying for attack helicopters and armoured vehicles that will be used to launch an offensive to rout the Somali insurgents who control most of the country.
Museveni asked the Security Council delegation to commit more money for his increased deployment but they were noncommittal. However, they gave him something the AU Summit in Kampala had denied him; a promise to review the mandate of the African Union peace keeping forces in Somalia, which could shift from being peace keepers to peace enforcers. This would allow the AU forces to attack the Al-Shabaab without waiting to fire back in self defence. Museveni is known to take unilateral positions if consensus seeking fails him. For now, however, he is waiting. But it will not be for long.