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Stay in Somalia or get out?

Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba meeting President of Somalia Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, on June 7 (PHOTO/VILLA SOMALIA)

Debate rages on the future of UPDF in Somalia mission

COVER STORY | IAN KATUSIIME | Jonathan Odur, the opposition MP of Erute South constituency and Shadow Minister for Defence, says the Ugandan contingent in the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) has done a good job in keeping peace. But like many observers of the peace mission in Somalia, he says no external force can stay in another country for years on end.

Odur is concerned that the African Union under whose mandate ATMIS operates has been very slow in ensuring a transition takes place from the foreign peace-keeping armies to the Somalia National Army (SNA). He says following the recent attack in which the Islamic militants of Al-Shabaab inflicted high casualties on UPDF, his colleague; the Defence Minister Vincent Sempijja, should table a concrete plan for Uganda’s exit strategy.

Odur spoke to The Independent as Ugandans continued to mourn soldiers lost in the most deadly attack Al-Shabaab has inflicted on Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) since it entered Somalia on a peace-keeping mission in 2007. Ethiopian National Defense Forces (EDF) had entered Somalia in 2006 but were pulling out. The UPDF was soon followed by Burundian forces (FDND) in December 2007, and Kenya forces (KDF) in 2013.

The attack has left the Uganda army leadership mulling over what could have led to the deadliest ambush by the Al Shabaab on the UPDF or any of the troop contributing countries (TCCs) in the sixteen years of the peace keeping mission now known as ATMIS.

The high number of Ugandan soldiers killed has raised questions about the continued presence of UPDF in the Horn of Africa nation, and the future of the ATMIS itself.

Janale attack

When a similar attack by the Al Shabaab on the UPDF happened in September 2015, there was a lot of uproar from the public on the sustenance of the mission as Uganda kept losing soldiers. At the time, President Museveni while on a trip in Japan revealed that 19 soldiers had perished in the attack on the UPDF in Janale, southeastern Lower Shebelle region of Somalia.

With calls growing louder from the Ugandan public, the opposition and some sections of the international community for Uganda to pull out of the mission, the security establishment has found itself in a dilemma.

According to military officials in Uganda and Somalia, attacks like the one on the UPDF always scuttle drawdown plans of the foreign armies regardless of the timelines.

“The incident will not distract us. We will continue with the Somalia stabilisation processes, supporting the Federal Government, the Somali National Army, and the people so that they can have stability, economic development, and transformation,” said Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Nathan Mugisha, Uganda’s Deputy Ambassador to Somalia.

Mugisha, together with the Head of ATMIS Souef Mohamed El-Amine and the ATMIS Force Commander, Lt. Gen. Sam Okiding, was on June 06 visiting injured UPDF soldiers at Level II Hospital in Mogadishu.

“We are containing the situation, reassessing, and proceeding as scheduled,” he said.

Just a week after the UPDF dispatched one of its most decorated officers, Lt. Gen. Kayanja Muhanga, Commander of Land Forces, on a reconnaissance mission to Somalia following the attack, his predecessor General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, followed suit on what looked like a similar mission.

President Museveni had earlier said in a statement that the UPDF Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Wilson Mbadi had set up a probe team to beef up the investigation into the attack.

While in Mogadishu, Gen. Muhoozi met the President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, on June 7.

The meeting held at Villa Somalia, the president’s office, was attended by Deputy Ambassador Mugisha.

Muhoozi’s trip, shows the high profile investigation the attack on Ugandan troops has taken on.

Muhoozi’s official role is Senior Presidential Advisor on Special Operations but he has also been commander of Special Forces Command (SFC), Museveni’s Praetorian Guard that conducts special operations in Uganda and places like Somalia, depending on how sensitive or strategic the issue is.

Injured UPDF soldiers in the Al Shabaab attack at Buulo Mareer FOB recovering at Level II Hospital in Mogadishu. (PHOTO/ATMIS)

Gen. Kayanja as Commander of Land Forces oversees the UPDF contingent and by extension the 18,000 forces of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) since Uganda is the largest Troop Contributing Country (TCC) with an estimated 6,000 troops. Somalia is also a stomping ground for Gen. Kayanja since he has served there in two stints in 2011/12 and 2016/17.

As details of his report to the Commander in the Chief are yet to be established, the UPDF remains on high alert.

New Intelligence reports

The attack on Ugandan troops in Somalia by the Islamic militants A Shabaab on May 26 claimed the lives of 54 UPDF soldiers as declared by President Museveni.

The incident took place at Buulo Mareer Forward Operating Base (FOB), approximately 120km from Mogadishu, the Somalia capital, where a UPDF company was ambushed in what looked like a mission carefully planned over months.

Intelligence reports indicated that Al Shabaab conducted drone surveillance for weeks on Buulo Mareer FOB before the attack was sanctioned by the terror group leader Abu Ubaidah Ahmed.

Museveni said the company of UPDF soldiers at Buulo Mareer made operational mistakes handing the enemy decisive advantages. According to Museveni, the use of light weapons like two tanks, two 14.5mm anti- air-craft guns and a 107mm Katyusha rocket launcher were insufficient to repulse the invading militants at the time of the ambush.

“Some of the soldiers there did not perform as expected and panicked, which disorganised them and the Al-Shabaab took advantage of that to overran the base and destroy some of the equipment,” he said in a statement analysing the incident.

“The suicide bombers or whatever, were forced to blow themselves up before they gained entry into the base. Moreover, our UAVs were watching the whole scenario from up in the sky and directing fire,” Museveni added. “The terrorists were many, about 800 or so according to the UAVs. Hence, it was a missed opportunity, to annihilate them.”

Security and intelligence analysts have also queried Museveni’s assessment on the presence of 800 Al Shabaab fighters. Al Shabaab, a terror group, that uses guerilla tactics not so different from those of the NRA under Museveni in the Bush War, is known for its lone wolf assassins, detonating Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), kidnaps and suicide bombers.

Al Shabaab has also not been known for gathering its fighters in large numbers either for launching offensives or in its defensive bases but rather conducting operations through cells and signals.

The group is known for staging attacks in markets, hotels and on rare occasions such as the latest on Forward Operating Bases where Uganda and other Troop Contributing Countries usually have no less than 200 soldiers stationed.

Al Shabaab put out a statement claiming it had killed 137 soldiers, championing the narrative of decisively weakening an enemy it has been fighting since 2007 when the first batch of Ugandan soldiers set foot in Somalia.

In one instance, it became a game of numbers between the figures Al Shabaab put out and those mentioned by President Museveni.

In October 2017, Al Shabaab staged arguably its largest attack in a truck bomb that claimed the lives of 500 people in Mogadishu. The truck was packed with several hundred kilograms of military-grade and homemade explosives in one of the most lethal terrorist acts in the world in many years.

Grisly images from the Buulo Mareer ambush are still awash on social media; showing UPDF soldiers subdued by the militants while others are still recovering in Somalia hospitals. The government has been flying back bodies of those who perished.

There are, however, fears over more unknown casualties. Some sources have told The Independent that due to the high death toll of the attack, the army has already been repatriating bodies of fallen soldiers as a way of managing the sensitivity of the affair.

Gen. Muhoozi with Uganda’s Deputy Ambassador to Somalia Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha while meeting Somali President Mohamud. (PHOTO/VILLA SOMALIA)

A source said they saw a certain number of bodies at the old airport although The Independent could not corroborate this information”

Sources say the bodies were flown back at night days ago through the old section of Entebbe airport, fuelling fears that Uganda could have lost more soldiers in the pre-dawn attack two weeks ago.

A source who works in aviation said “it is the norm” for bodies of fallen soldiers to be brought back through the old airport to avoid the unwanted publicity that comes with the ceremony.

“So extras are brought at night and handed over to relatives immediately for burial,” the source who preferred anonymity said.

“He (President Museveni) has not even announced those taken as prisoners of war which was evident on social media distributed by Al Shabaab,” the source added.

Jonathan Odur, the Shadow Minister for Defence says if the government is sure about the 54 soldiers who died, it should also come clean about those who survived.

“I don’t have concrete evidence but Government should account for those who survived as well. If for example about 200 soldiers were deployed there (at the FOB), then it should account for the other 146,” Erute told The Independent in response to a question on the talk of higher number of casualties.

“The government would not have honoured those who died in the attack if it does not provide full accountability for the dead soldiers,” Erute said.

New attacks on Al-Shabaab

Meanwhile, the ATMIS, Somalia and its Western partners have stepped up the fight against the Islamic insurgents after the recent attack exposed the mission’s fragilities.

In a statement, the U.S. Africa Command (US AFRICOM) said at the request of the Federal Government of Somalia, and in support of the Somali National Army, Africom had conducted a self-defense strike in the vicinity of Wayanta, Somalia on June 1.

“The initial assessment is that the strike, approximately 60km southwest of Kismayo, killed three Al Shabaab fighters,” the statement read. UPDF has stated that it has regained control of the FOB after deployments, and reassessments.

ATMIS Forces and the Somali National Army (SNA) have stepped up joint military operations against Al-Shabaab insurgents in Hirshabelle State ahead of the withdrawal of some 2,000 troops by the end of June, an official statement said.

Col. Hassan Djama Farah, Sector Four Commander of the ATMIS troops, said the close collaboration forged with SNA and local communities has played a pivotal role in liberating areas that were formerly under terrorist control.

At a media briefing in Beletweyne, Col. Djama attributed the successes against Al-Shabaab to the extensive knowledge of the local terrain by SNA forces and enhanced information sharing by the local communities.

In January, Somali President Mohamud officials asked for more American firepower including drone strikes. In Somalia, the U.S. provides training to an elite commando unit called Danab for operations against Al Shabaab.

One comment

  1. The soldiers should be more experienced.

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