By Matthew Stein
Up close with AMISOM’s “Somali expert”
This upcoming January, Maj. Barigye Ba-Hoku, the Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) spokesman, will have completed three years in Somalia. “I’m now in my own right an expert on Somalia,” he recently said during an impromptu visit to The Independent. “I’ve lived there, I’ve seen it, spoken it, so I don’t want anyone to challenge me,” he said. “The last three years have been very enriching being physically there and living the experience rather than dealing with it from an air-conditioned office in Paris or London.”
The visit, prompted by an article in The Independent on Uganda’s media coverage of the Somali conflict, (Issue 136: “The country is at war. Did you know?”), revealed Barigye’s numerous bold positions including a declaration that Uganda’s media coverage of Somalia has been “hopelessly bad.” Here are more excerpts from the outspoken AMISOM spokesman.
The enemy and its many ugly stories
When Maj. Barigye first came to Somalia in 2008, conflict had long been raging. However, today, he says, the face and the tactics of the enemy are different. Before AMISOM had to counter gunfire; now the biggest threat comes from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and suicide bombs. “In the villages they give children keys,” related Barigye. “They tell them go and fight and this key will be for your bedroom in heaven.” The suicide attacks, he added, also shows the involvement of foreign jihadists in Somalia who are now in control of the fight.
This past September, according to Barigye, al-Shabab launched an offensive by going from village to village and informing local elders to provide their children to fight against AMISOM and the Transitional Federal Government in the name of Islam. Children were trained in rural areas to use small arms before being thrown into an urban environment against AMISOM soldiers with large weapons and tanks. The result, said Barigye, was, “real madness.” Some children got lost fighting in the city as the craziness that accompanies religious fundamentalism was quickly supplanted by the craziness of being in a war with real exploding tank shells.
When the children returned home wounded and defeated, some elders began to challenge al-Shabab. “The elders said we gave you our children and you have not captured power like you said,” related Barigye. Al-Shabab then dealt with criticism in the manner they usually do: they killed the outspoken elders.
The press under al-Shabab
The media, according to Barigye, is held hostage in most parts of Somalia. “No one in that country can put up a story the extremists don’t want because if you do you will die,” he said.. “People know what the problem is but they can’t say it out loud.” The consequences of such censorship, he explained, are numerous. For example, there is no neutral party to investigate cases of abuse or even confirm whether a soldier’s reported death is true or just an al-Shabab propaganda stunt to deter other countries from sending their own soldiers to the region. Uganda media, which relies on reports from local journalists to provide their own coverage, is consequently left misinformed. “The media here wants to manage affairs from afar,” said Barigye. “You want to write stories and inform but you yourselves are not informed.”
The misinformation, he alleged, leads to apathy from the public. People begin to think that all there is in Somalia is death. “People go to that country and get out,” said Barigye. “There are sectors that are functioning.” To improve coverage, Barigye argued that it is critical to put more boots on the ground so journalists can operate in a safe and secure environment. Already more and more media outlets such as the BBC and Sky News have expressed interest in sending reporters to the region to be imbedded with the UPDF. NTV and The Monitor have also sent local reporters. Although their reports can only be covered from one side, “full stop,” according to Barigye, they can at least provide Uganda with a more thorough explanation of what the UPDF is achieving in Somalia.
UPDF beyond the violence
There have been many questions raised in Uganda over the true motives and viability of the AMISOM deployment. The reports Ugandans receive are often laced with incidents of violence and casualties, and according to Barigye Uganda is left unaware of their many accomplishments and logistical challenges the mission faces. “Did you know that we have children living with us on our bases?” Barigye asked somewhat indignantly, before adding that AMISOM is also facilitating humanitarian operations, which include the repatriation of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and the distribution of over 100,000 litres of water per day to the civilian population.
Barigye extolled AMISOM’s involvement in the training of Somali police and army, which he said has been done largely in conjunction with the European Union and the governments of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda. “At the end of the day matters need to be dealt with by Somalis themselves,” he reasoned. “We need to help them get out of the gap. All their problems stem from a lack of authority.”
Barigye also expressed frustration at the lack of focus the Somali conflict has generated in globally. “The conflict needs to be given the same attention as other conflicts like that of Darfur,” he said. “The international community has not fulfilled its responsibility to stabilize that country.”
The AMISOM spokesman highlighted how at the onset of their mission AMISOM was told it would be supported by the United States. However, in August last year, the UN Security Council decided to take control of the mission’s logistic support, which now excludes weapons and ammunition. Weapons, said Barigye, now largely come from AMISOM troop contributing countries (Uganda, Burrundi) and, “other partners.” Still, said Barigye, to deploy a battalion of soldiers requires at least $5 million in resources, and African countries often lack the ability to raise that money. “Our vehicles are hit by sand and salt…The current rate for our soldiers is $50 a month.”
Regardless of the challenges, Barigye is unapologetic for AMISOM”s presence: “Uganda has had a long relationship with other countries and Somalia happens to be one of them,” he said. “One thing people don’t know is that Somalia helped so much in the liberation of Southern African countries…Why wouldn’t we pay them back?”
Barigye said the deployment in Somalia was not just a decision for Uganda but for the entire African Union. “The difference,” he explained, “is that we fulfilled our obligation…The option of not stabilizing Somalia does not exist and should be avoided. If it becomes a hub for terror networks Uganda will not be safe and neither will any other country.”
The Independent’s report
In issue 136 The Independent examined the ethical questions that were raised when a photograph of a dead UPDF lying in an unidentified part of Mogadishu was recently sent to numerous Ugandan media houses. Various editors expressed hesitation over publishing the photograph and Barigye confirmed the difficulty publications face with balancing the need to inform the public with their responsibility to national security and respect for the victim’s family.
“That soldier was at an observation post and these idiots concentrated all their guns on him,” Barigye recounted, confirming that the photograph was in fact real. “But this rarely happens. How many times have you seen this in the last four years?”
The terrorists, said Barigye, will use whatever means is at their disposal to instill fear in the hope that other countries will restrain themselves from deploying their own soldiers or that the international community will tire from the barbarity taking place in the country. “It can lead to constructive disengagement where people say let them sort out this mess on their own,” said Barigye.
Barigye admitted that pictures, especially of dead soldiers, can speak volumes and consequently, as a matter of policy, the UPDF and many other armies do not expose such pictures before informing the next of kin. Media houses, he said, have an obligation to ask themselves how such a photo will impact the soldier’s family and the motives of the individual who initially released the photograph. “Once you have an answer for the impact and motives of the picture then you can make a decision,” he said. However, he was quick to add whether any picture of a dead soldier will make the objective of bringing peace to the region any closer. “We didn’t go there as an accident,” he said. “We are not there for the Olympics or for a concert or for a cup of tea…But the world has ignored and abandoned Somalia. If Somalia was capable of sorting out their problems they would have done it. We don’t think they can. They need the support of the international community.“