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Taking the war beyond Mogadishu

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How the UPDF generals are tackling the new challenge

On July 26, I boarded a plane to Mogadishu, Somalia “to visit our troops” as the Americans would say.On the same flight was Lt. Gen. Andrew Gutti, overall commander of the Africa Mission to Somalia (AMISOM).

I was with a friend, Mohamed Ahmed Yahya, aka Mo, a Briton of Somali origin and Idil Abshir, a 24-year old Somali woman with a passion for creative writing and journalism.


For Mo and Idil, it was the first time they would be setting foot on the land they call home. I sensed that the anticipation had created in them a combination of anxiety and fear of the unknown and the unexpected. I too had a personal reason to be expectant: my brother, Col. Kayanja Muhanga, is the commanding officer of Uganda’s Battle Group Eight and is also deputy commander for the Ugandan contingent in Somalia.

When we disembarked at the airport in Mogadishu, we were treated like VIPs; a factor that I admit as a journalist could have been aimed at “morally bribing” us to report well about their activities. We did not even go through the normal immigration process. Instead, we were picked off the tarmac without going through the airport terminal directly to a waiting vehicle. Our passports were taken from us, our bags were given to us in the airport’s parking lot and we were driven in an armoured vehicle to “base camp” – the expansive military base occupied by AMISOM troops around the airport. There, we were put in modest but convenient UN accommodation with every fabricated house behind walls of bulletproof sand bags.

Soon, I was standing with Mo and Idil admiring the beautiful beaches at the airport and the majestic hills covered with short trees behind and beyond.

“Andrew, can you believe we are in Mogadishu?” Mo said to me with a broad child-like smile, “I just cannot believe that I am in Mogadishu, the only country I can call home.”

Mo left Somalia in 1981 at the tender age of four. Now a British citizen working with the United Nations in New York, he lived in Kenya till he was ten. He then shifted to London where he lived for most of his adult life. He has been a close friend since we met in 1999 as students at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Idil was born in exile in Kenya and went to college in the United States of America. Her father was the head of the Somali state broadcasting company until he ran to exile in the mid-1980s and has lived there since.

It is difficult to capture the emotional tone of that moment; especially for Mo and Idil.

“Everywhere I have lived, Andrew, I have been treated as an unwelcome foreigner,” he told me.

Even in Malindi, Kenya, where he grew up, in a nation with a large indigenous Somali population, Mo says they treated him as a foreigner. His country of citizenship Britain has done the same as does the United States where he now works. And Ugandan immigration officials have also done their share of discrimination against him even when he comes in with a British passport. “This is the only country in the world where no one can look at me as a foreigner,” he told me, referring to Somalia.

In an important way, travelling to Mogadishu with Mo toned down my initial scepticism about UPDF’s involvement in a state-building project in Somalia.

New Mogadishu

The Mogadishu we visited is no longer the warzone we used to read about and watch in the media – thanks to the work of the Ugandan and Burundian armies in stabilising the situation.

With UPDF having chased Al Shabab from its bases in Mogadishu, the city is coming back to life.

Today, the number of cars on the streets has gone up, leading to occasional traffic jams in the city. New buildings are being erected. At night, more parts of Mogadishu are lit with street lights than Kampala. Shops and restaurants open till past midnight. Up to six ships dock daily at Somali seaport offloading cargo. About nine aircrafts land daily at the Mogadishu airport of which seven are commercial. Business is picking up.

Mo and Idil were thrilled to see these developments as we drove around the city, albeit inside Armoured Personnel Carriers (mambas) as UN and UPDF rules insisted we do.

Turkish Airlines now flies to Mogadishu from Istanbul, Turkey twice a week. Then there is African Express, Jetlink, East African Airways, Dallo, Juba Airways, African Express and Juba Airways, which fly from Mogadishu to Dubai. Telecom companies: Nation Link, Telecom, Hormuud, Somaphone, provide communication services. And you can have the best internet access in Mogadishu.

Many countries are coming in with plans to establish or re-establish their embassies. The Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, visited in August 2011 and his country opened an embassy in May. Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda are setting up embassies. The French, Canadians, Belgium are all looking around for places to put their embassies. I met the Deputy Head of Mission at the British Office in Somalia, Fionna Gibb, in the office of the AMISOM Commander, Lt. Gen. Andrew Gutti and she told me Her Majesty’s government is looking for land to build their embassy.

The UN Special Representative to Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, knows quite well how far the Uganda forces have come.

“Initially African countries were reluctant because this is not a classical peace keeping mission. There was no peace to keep (under Chapter 7). This is peace enforcement. AMISOM had to fight inch by inch to secure the integrity of the Somali government. In fact the moment AU forces landed, they were attacked and this made it a war from the very beginning. It was a war against an entrenched urban enemy that the AU was not prepared for.”

Mahiga says although operationally this is entirely an AU mission, the UN political office is deeply involved.

Gutti told me that the problem with Somalia now is the widespread private ownership of guns by ordinary civilians. Some warlords who have now become private citizens own APCs, trucks mounted with anti aircraft guns, and light machine guns like Kalashnikovs.

Sometimes when driving through the streets of Mogadishu, you can see a businessman sitting in front of his shop with his AK-47 by his side. This, of course, carries the risk of having individuals settle disputes with the gun in a country where the national police, army and courts are in infancy.

But Gutti also told me AMISOM has worked with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to establish field courts martial. Previously, TFG soldiers would capture an area and kill, loot and cause mayhem among civilians. Now, AMISOM tells them that their first duty is to win over the population.

“If any of the (TFG) soldiers does kill or loot,” Gutti said, “they are tried by the court martial and some of them are shot in front of the population to ensure that the lesson sinks home.” In the week before we visited, there was a public execution of soldiers who had massacred whole villages of civilians.

When we met the Uganda contingent commander in Somalia, Brig. Paul Lokech, I asked him about allegations of civilian deaths (what Americans euphemistically call “collateral damage”) during the battles for Mogadishu. “We are an extremely professional and experienced force that knows well how to conduct counter-insurgency operations. Somalis appreciate our efforts and feel we should have come earlier. Eight months ago, bombs were landing everywhere in the city. Planes could not land at the runaway except through fire. But now, after pushing Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu, we moved to Phase Two of taking new areas. So we have now taken Afgoye and Balaad.”

Lokech admits that counter-insurgency does not have a formula like conventional war. It takes time to win because it is complex. “Even though we have chased Al Shabaab from Mogadishu,” he told us with good reflection, “our emergent structures are still young. There are still pockets of Al Shabaab in some of the suburbs of the city. So we cannot say that it is 100% safe. Lokech says UPDF is also fighting to win over hearts.

“In every detachment, we give the population free medical care,” Lokech said with an air of confidence, “And we handle 600 cases on average per day. So we have military operations on the one hand and support operations on the other. This is the reason the people of Somalia love UPDF.”

Today UPDF has 6,000 troops. Eight months ago when they took Mogadishu, they were only 4,700. Lokech told us that it was not easy fighting Al Shabaab in town. They had entrenched deeply in built up areas with tunnels, using high rise buildings. It was akin to the battle for Stalingrad. UPDF had to fight street-by-street, block-by-block, house-by-house and room-by-room. Fighting in built-up areas would significantly diminish the advantages of mechanisation and armour that UPDF had. But they won.

First shock

The Commander of the Special Forces Group, Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, had been telling me about UPDF’s exploits in Mogadishu and asking me to visit. But like many Ugandans, I was still stuck with the image of the army I reported on extensively in the late 1990s and early 2000s – of a corrupt, incoherent force with ever squabbling commanders.

The UPDF soldiers who had received us at the airport in Mogadishu; Capt. Ronald Kakurungu and Lt. Hakeem Akandonda, were in new uniforms, carried smart phones, and their speech as polished as their new boots. They acted so professional they made me feel proud to be a Ugandan. Thinking back, I noted that their appearance is very different from the UPDF soldier I used to write about in my investigative exposes in Daily Monitor.

Unlike the disastrous mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda’s involvement in Somalia is a shining example of what Africa can do for fellow Africans. The UPDF is in Somalia under the mandate of the African Union financed by the United Nations’ own budget. The personnel are largely African – both those working for the UN and AU workers.

The UPDF that is fighting in Somalia is a different animal from the one that was sent to DRC in 1998. Poorly motivated, poorly armed, poorly paid, poorly led (by semi-literate generals), creaking under the weight of corruption, weighed down by ghost soldiers and internal infighting among its generals, the UPDF of late 1990s and early 2000s was ineffective as a  fighting machine.

There were divisions and squabbling in Kampala between then UPDF Chief of Staff, Brig. James Kazini, and his Chief of Military Intelligence, Lt. Col. Noble Mayombo; Kazini versus the Army Commander, Maj. Gen. Jeje Odongo; and again between Kazini and the Director of Records, Maj. Sabiti Mutengesa. Finally, Kazini was conflicting with Col. Edison Muzoora in Bunia and later clashed with Brig. Kale Kayihura when that later was sent to replace Muzoora. There was not a chance that UPDF could prevail over a determined enemy.

The UPDF force in Mogadishu is a different animal. On every single weakness in the DR Congo above, UPDF in Somalia and its base back home in Uganda is the exact opposite: highly motivated, well-armed, well paid, better led by intelligent and well-trained commanders, no ghost soldiers in its ranks, it is also well equipped and better  supplied.

We are not aware of any infighting between top commanders or internal sabotage and endless wrangles within the force. And this is where I would defer from Charles Onyango-Obbo because I think that at the heart of this marked change has been President Yoweri Museveni himself.

The first person to bring this to my attention was incidentally Kizza Besigye’s wife, Winnie Byanyima. Perhaps the most astute and analytical mind among the opposition, Winnie is always keen to appreciate her opponent’s (most especially Museveni’s) strength and use it to build her response strategy. On October 26, 2005, the day Besigye returned from exile, I had dinner with Winnie and Besigye at Africana Hotel. Winnie had been in exile herself for over two years. However, she proceeded to explain that Museveni of 2005 was not the same Museveni they had faced-off with in 2000/01.

“Museveni went into the 2001 campaign with a host of disadvantages”, she said, as I chewed at the chicken, “the NRM politically and the UPDF militarily were both internally divided. But over the last years, he has re-organised the army and put it in the hands of able commanders. He has forced his opponents inside NRM to shut up or quit. Even the intelligence services are no longer porous or filled by those who are quick to betray him.”

At that point, we in the media had not been looking at the meaning of the changes that had been taking place. What could have caused these changes especially in the UPDF?

Museveni’s lesson

I have a feeling that UPDF’s defeat at the hands of the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) in the three battles for Kisangani in DRC in 1999 and 2000 sent Museveni back to the drawing board. He probably realised that he needed to change the army but did not want the Rwandese to taste that victory by firing Kazini immediately. Instead, he promoted him to army commander and bade his time. In October 2003, Kazini and 123 officers were removed and a widespread inquiry into ghost soldiers instituted. They were later charged, tried and some jailed. New commanders were appointed led by Gen. Aronda Nyakairima. Since then, the army has been on a steady improvement as we see today.

In fact, today the UPDF is largely under the control of youthful commanders especially at battalion and brigade levels. Today, officers such as Brig. Moses Rwakitarate (Chief of Staff of the Airforce), Col. Muhozi Keinerugaba (Special Forces Group), Col. Sabiti Muzeyi (Presidential Guard Brigade), are largely young people. Even at the top, officers like Brig. Paul Lokech (commander of the Uganda contingent in Somalia) even Gen. Aronda Nyakairima are young by standards of leaders in cabinet and the civil and diplomatic services (see ‘Museveni’s aging cabinet,’ The Independent Aug.3 – 9).

I was one of the biggest losers in this change as I had made a career doing investigative stories of military corruption and incompetence at Daily Monitor. Over the years, the flood of complaints, classified documents, minutes of top army meetings, etc turned into a trickle. Where army corruption scandals dominated the headlines, today UPDF is rarely in the news and when it features, it is mostly for good reasons. Museveni may not have eliminated corruption from the army completely but he has significantly diminished institutionalised dysfunctions in it. Stories of ghost soldiers, expired good rations, junk military equipment no longer grace the covers of newspapers – at least not as regularly as they used to. In Congo, UPDF exported its internal incoherence. In Somalia, it was exported its virtues.

When I met my brother Kayanja, he was itching to showcase the work UPDF is doing in Somalia. He is the commander of UPDF’s Battle Group Eight, the force that fought street-to-street, house-to-house and room-to-room battles against Al Shabaab in their biggest offensive ever.

“From Wanaha Road to Industrial Road is just one kilometre,” Kayanja told me at his headquarters in an abandoned stadium in Mogadishu, “Yet it took us eight days of close quarter fighting to cover that distance. Al Shabaab defended every inch of the territory they occupied. We had to fight for every street, every block and every house – even fight from one room in a house to another. The offensive began on  July 28, 2011 and ended  August 6. Then from Industrial Road where the stadium is to Ex Control Balad where the Coca Cola factory, pasta factory and Arafat Hospital are is a distance of six kilometres. It took us two months and was captured on October 10, 2011.”

One reason the battles were slow and bloody was that UPDF’s advantage of heavy weaponry could not be well used in built up areas. This forced them to fight using light machine guns and mortars, which would bring them at par with Al Shabaab. But it also led to civilian casualties since the insurgents were using them as human shields.

“The aim was to capture all the strategic areas especially the built up areas where Al Shabaab had an advantage,” Kayanja told us, “Given our equipment, our strategic advantage lies in fighting in open areas. First, with our armour, we can easily run over Al Shabaab. Second, there are few civilian casualties when you fight in open areas. So we had to push Al Shabaab out of built up areas into open ground where we are superior.”

Then UPDF launched a third offensive to capture Mogadishu University that is five kilometres from Ex Control Balad. That took another three months until it eventually fell on Jan.20. Kayanja told me that Al Shabab was conducting daily offensives against UPDF positions and they knew well how to counter attack. “They are tough fighters,” he said, “because they are motivated by an ideology. This is one element in war that fighters of Transitional Federal Government (TFG) need to develop.”

Gutti agreed. He said the AMISOM’s mission is to get fighters from clan militias and mix them to form one combat unit. This is to avoid any battalion from being drawn from one sub-clan – the problem that has bedeviled Somalia. Then they are inducted into political education to teach them nationalism and the politics of unity.

“AMISOM is helping build a national Somali army,” Gutti said, “Once that becomes strong, then AMISOM would begin pulling out and let Somalia run their own affairs.”

As we boarded our plane back to Nairobi, Mo and Idil were not just happy to be home but had grown to admire and love UPDF. Later, Mo sent me a message from New York saying he wants to visit the mothers of UPDF soldiers who died during the battles to “liberate” Somalia.

He said he wanted to express his gratitude to Ugandan mothers who sacrificed their children so that Somalia can be free and peaceful. He wonders, however, whether the elites in Mogadishu, currently involved in power struggles and corruption, appreciate the lives of those who died so that they can fight for that power.

There are very many Somalis like Mo and Ibil in the Diaspora. They have money and skills to rebuild their motherland. The challenge is whether the local politicians and warlords can allow them to come and use their skills and experience to build a better Somalia.

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