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Somalia war claims more Ugandan lives

By matthew stein

Where are the Somalis as AMISOM troops pay the ultimate price?

Somewhere in Nairobi there is a Somali man, a member of parliament or a minister perhaps, who has his hand wrapped around a good drink or his mouth filled with the smoke of a fine cigar or his mind set on finding an ace in the hole at a blackjack table. A majority of Somalia’s current parliament resides in the Kenyan capital, flying into Mogadishu, the Somali capital, often just to pick up their pay check or vote on an important issue. In between they live abroad in style, perhaps with thoughts of finding a solution to their country’s two decade old conflict, but many lack the determination and dedication required to do so.

Meanwhile, the boots on the ground—whether Somali, or their 3,000 Burundian or 5,000 Ugandan counterparts in AMISOM—continue to sacrifice.

Since mid-February, when a surge was initiated by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to reclaim large swathes of Mogadishu, the violence has intensified. Two unnamed diplomats in Nairobi recently reported that 53 AMISOM troops have been killed since the new offensive begun and a statement from France’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs on March 1 said that France had evacuated by military aircraft 13 AMISOM troops in need of medical care to neighboring Djibouti where the French have a base. Other reports indicate that Al-Shabab, the Islamist terrorists group battling the TFG claims to be holding the bodies of 20 AMISOM troops.

Although the recent TFG/AMISOM military conquests have not recaptured the entire city, significant gains have been made. According to the TFG information ministry, Somali soldiers backed by their Burundian counterparts recently captured the city’s former milk factory, the Military Officers Club and the former defense ministry, which according to the ministry, “the extremists [had] been using as a logistical and operational base.”

The latest victories have invigorated parts of the Somali population: “There is a new hope,” says Somali, Ahmed Hussein, hours after arriving in Kampala from Mogadishu. Dressed in a beige track suit and Muslim skull-cap, Hussein pronounces his words with a sharp accent, as is common in Somalia, which fall from his mouth with urgency. “There is a new hope,” he repeats.

“Before we were dying without moving forward,” says Hussein. “It’s better to die moving forward and acquiring more territory.”

This new sense of possibilities, he says, is spreading throughout the population. Women and children are risking their lives to accompany soldiers on the frontlines, cooking them meals and carrying their milk. “They chant, ‘“Chase them. Chase them,”’ he says. “When they can, they also provide information.”

And during a press conference in Nairobi on March 5, the AMISOM spokesperson, Maj. Ba-Hoku Barigye said TFG and AMISOM forces now control between 60-70 percent of Mogadishu. “The positions we have seized in the past week break the grip of the extremist militants on the city,” reads a statement issued by AMISOM. “We have taken a very important step towards the stabilisation of Mogadishu and in pursuit of a day many deemed impossible—the day when law and order returns to Mogadishu.”

The expanding government-controlled territory is allowing parts of Mogadishu to regain a sense of security and normality. According to Ba-Hoku Barigye, an estimated 80 percent of the Mogadishu population has shifted into these areas, which he points out, has driven up the rent by three times.

“Air and sea traffic at the airport and seaport has increased as a result of security provided to these installations by AMISOM troops,” added Ba-Hoku Barigye, “This traffic translates into more business opportunities for the Somalis.”

“Even the livestock have moved there,” says Hussein. “It’s the only place where they can find clean drinking water.” The area, he adds, also allows humanitarian agencies, civil society groups and NGO’s such as his Peace Youth Club (PYC) to operate. PYC, which works with vulnerable Somali youth and helps rehabilitate former Al-Shabab militants, needs the protected government zone to convince defectors that they can leave Al-Shabab and live in safe centres out of the terrorists’ reach. If AMISOM were to leave, says Hussein, not only would PYC’s operations breakdown, “there will be no more life there.”

According to local Somalis, the sacrifices being made by AMISOM troops are well-appreciated and valued across the country.

“80 percent of the people I have spoken with support the AMISOM mission,” says Guule, a Somali elder who is currently seeking medical treatment in Kampala. “We need more AMISOM troops.”

And after the UN Security Council on December 22, 2010, authorised the deployment of another 4,000 AMISOM troops over the next few months, it is quite likely that this desire becomes a reality.

But numerous daunting challenges remain: defections within TFGs ranks are alarmingly high. A report issued by the United Nations Monitoring Group for Somalia in March 2010, estimated that up to 80 percent of TFG soldiers had defected to the side of Islamic extremists such as Al-Shabab. Inconsistent pay and fear for the security of family members living in Al-Shabab controlled territory are amongst the primary causes.

“These soldiers are motivated because of poverty, not by the need to liberate their country,” explains John Njoroge, a journalist with the Ugandan Monitor newspaper who travelled to Somalia with the UPDF in November. “They are so preoccupied with their day to day struggle that liberating their country as independent Somalis, they’ve surrendered that responsibility to people of the Diaspora and the UPDF.”

Since July last year, 907 Somali soldiers have been trained in urban combat, Improvised Explosive Device (IED) awareness and first aid skills in Kampala and Bihanga, in Western Uganda by the UPDF and the European Union Training Mission (EUTM). An additional 911 TFG soldiers will be trained this year.

“When they come off the plane they all say that they are healthy and strong and committed to help their country,” says Major Jose Barranco, EUTM’s Public Information Officer. “They really think they can help.”

However, upon their return to Somalia, a proportion of them will eventually use these acquired skills to benefit the enemy once they see that their US$100 a month salary is not being delivered on time, while Al-Shabab is willing to offer them thousands of dollars to fight on their side.

The latest reports from Somalia are reopening the debate in Ugandan society on AMISOM’s presence in Somalia.

According to its mandate, AMISOM serves to defend and protect the TFG and its various institutions, and can only go on the offensive if it or TFG soldiers come under attack. TFG forces, however, can attack any position they deem necessary whether provoked or not. But due to a combination of limited manpower and willingness, says Njoroge, “TFG forces pray that Al-Shabab makes the first move because then AMISOM will have to defend the territory.”

But are Ugandans aware of this? Are they questioning whether sending more troops is the right decision and whether any of the three countries currently involved in Somalia have an exit strategy? Are they demanding transparency from AMISOM?

In the midst of all the recent hard won victories, are Ugandans asking themselves how much of a sacrifice AMISOM soldiers are making in comparison to their Somali counterparts? Moreover, how much planning is being done by the TFG to hold and stabilise their newly acquired territories? AMISOM is not in a position to fulfill this role, but TFG forces have yet to demonstrate their ability to do either.

“[Ugandan] people feel disengaged from the military,” says Alex Atuhaire, the Monitor’s news editor. “It’s one of those subjects they don’t understand well. They don’t think it has a big impact on their life.”

“Senseless violence went on in Congo and there were never any serious demonstrations,” adds Peter Mwesige, former executive editor of The Monitor and current executive director for the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME).”Ugandans are despondent. They leave these things to leadership and don’t seem to care.”

President Yoweri Museveni has staunchly defended the mission as necessary to control the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to Uganda and the region but other politicians such as FDC leader Kizza Besigye have been more ambivalent about the issue, shifting his position in 2009 from a full withdrawal to keeping them there only if other African countries send troops to support the mission.

One factor that has led to the TFG’s recurring failures is the unwillingness of many of its members to live in their country and brave the local violence. In addition to living abroad, many of them have also spent ample time in western Diasporas and are consequently detached from local issues.

“They understand humanitarian and social issues but not the tribal issues,” explains Njoroge. “They have Somalia at heart but do they really have what it takes? No. And that’s why so many of these TFG governments have fallen apart.”

Clan issues, in a country where the entire population is of the same religion and ethnicity, are the primary source of divisions. Somalia has never had a strong sense of nationhood, and divisions amongst Somalia’s five dominant clans were common. When civil war broke out following the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, it exposed years of sectarianism between them.

This tenuous period was followed by the collapse in 2006 of the Union of Islamic Courts, a group of 11 autonomous Mogadishu courts credited with forcing local warlords into retreat and presiding over one of Somalia’s most peaceful periods in the last 20 years. One TFG administration after another has since been established, but each has consistently failed to implement the necessary changes to provide their people with security and peace. Meanwhile, radical members of the Islamic courts have gone on to form Al-Shabab, creating a base for Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa.

The TFG has also been lambasted for their inadequate governance.  In an International Crisis Group (ICG) report released this past February, the authors say the TFG “has squandered the goodwill and support it received and achieved little of significance in the two years it has been in office. It is inept, increasingly corrupt and hobbled by President Sharif’s weak leadership…every effort to make the leadership modestly functional has come unstuck.”

Instead, it has been left to AMISOM to fill the vacuum left by the TFG. According to Maj. Ba-Hoku Barigye, every day AMISOM distributes up to 100,000 litres of water to the Somali population and through its Out Patient Department clinics provides free medical care and medications to 12,000 Somalis every month.

This humanitarian help is not part of AMISOM’s current mandate and as a result it has come under fire in the past for carrying out these tasks. “The UN protests but AMISOM says it can’t protect people who are sick because eventually they will find health care and clean water on Al-Shabab’s side,” explains Njoroge.

However, given the choice, TFG-controlled territory is dramatically more livable for Somalis than Al-Shabab territory where the population is governed according to the most rigid form of Sharia law. Moreover, despite the initial recruitment fee, Al-Shabab militants receive almost nothing afterwards. In interviews with Njoroge in Mogadishu, former militants admitted to living on just bread and water and having to suffer or succumb to death from injuries or illnesses rather than being provided with medical care. Any attempt to defect, they added, resulted in decapitation.

Yet defections still do occur. More often, however, they result from an Al-Shabab fighter being captured by AMISOM and TFG forces. AMISOM is said to recruit Muslims within their ranks to help win over the militants they capture. “They ask them to share their story, and then they explain that they have been brainwashed and they often convert,” says Njoroge. “There are very few cases where they go back.”

AMISOM also faces additional challenges on account of the ongoing chaos and uncertainty surrounding the Muamar Gaddafi regime in Libya. Tripoli contributes 15 percent of the AU budget and, “If the Libyan regime collapses,” said Okello Oryem, Uganda’s Minister for International Relations, “we expect the US and Europe to increase the budget for the Somali mission, otherwise the consequences will be dire.”

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