One day as a group of Uganda People’s Defence Forces in Somalia drove south of Mogadishu, the armoured vehicle in which the former contingent commander, Brig Dick Olum, was travelling collided with a vehicle which looked like a commuter taxi.
Keen to help the people in the other vehicle, the UPDF troops rushed out of their armoured carrier. Seized with a strange feeling, however, Brig Olum ordered his soldiers back into their vehicle, only for the other vehicle to explode shortly afterwards.
Brig Olum says of another occasion: “A man came and greeted me and he said he wanted to die with me. He blew himself up just in front of my car. I was lucky to survive.”
These are just two of the several stories the jolly brigadier, who handed over the command of the Ugandan force in Somalia to Brig Sam Kavuma on November 18, shared during his exit interview at the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) force headquarters in Mogadishu.
Facing a “dead” enemy
Brig Olum, who for years battled Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, among other enemies, spoke proudly of his exploits in the troubled Horn of Africa country, saying it was enough that his commander-in-chief had personally called to thank him upon a job well done.
When he took over the command of the UPDF contingent in Somalia on September 23, 2013, his predecessor, Brig Michael Ondoga, was already in custody over allegations of abuse of logistics and possible selling of arms.
As he left Mogadishu, there were new challenges and allegations, particularly the charge by the human rights body Human Rights Watch that some Amisom soldiers sexually abused women in Somalia. But this is another issue one for the new commander to handle.
Brig Olum dealt with the administrative challenges he faced and then dived into the job proper, where he encountered an unfamiliar enemy. In terms of resolve, he said, the al-Shabaab are not comparable to any enemy he had ever faced. And, he admitted, this made him scared “sometimes”.
“Most of them are people who are already dead,” he said, “They believe that once they die in battle they will go to a place where they will each get 70 virgins and other luxuries. You cannot believe the level to which they have been indoctrinated.”
Once al-Shabaab fighters stand up to fight, Brig Olum says, “They fight up to the last man,” unbothered by whether the enemy has superior weapons or is numerically superior. “They are a very strange enemy.”
Brig Olum’s boss, Maj Gen Geoffrey Muhesi, however, speaks of the al-Shabaab more with pity than with fear.
“I find them a very weak enemy,” Gen Muhesi says, “They are weak-minded (and) I don’t celebrate any victory against them because they don’t see the future (that is why they don’t mind dying in battle).”
A strong enemy, Gen Muhesi says, “preserves himself to fight another day but for them they engage as if they are in a rush to die.”
Gen Muhesi is the deputy Amisom force commander in charge of operations. His boss, Lt Gen Silas Ntigurirwa of the Burundi army, is the first non-Ugandan overall commander of the now 21,461-strong Amisom force. The other troop contributing countries are Burundi, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.
When other countries dilly-dallied to send troops to Somalia following an African Union resolution, President Museveni ignored protests and apprehensions at home, especially from the political opposition, and dived into the troubled country in March 2007.
The al-Shabaab responded by bombing two spots in Kampala as people watched the 2010 World Cup soccer final on July 11, killing more than 70. Uganda currently has the biggest single troop contingent in the country – 6,220 army officers and men, followed by Burundi with 5,338.
Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, the UPDF and Ministry of Defence spokesperson, was part of the first contingent to land in Somalia in 2007. The country had not had a unified government since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991 and clan-based fighting had rendered it ungovernable. Warlords had carved out territories for themselves from which they extracted ransoms, while pirates run riot on the Indian Ocean.
Earlier international efforts, led by the United Nations and the United States, had failed to stabilise and reunite the country, with the first near-successful attempt to re-unify Somalia coming in 2006 when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) fighters shot their way to power.
Neighbouring Ethiopia, however, did not approve of the ICU’s rise to power, attacking the country and driving the new government out of Mogadishu. This led to an insurgency by the al-Shabaab, the military wing of the ICU, which would later be hijacked by people regarded as extremists. These fighters are said to have teamed up with the al-Qaeda terrorists.
So Lt Col Ankunda and his colleagues arrived in Somalia to encounter a mode of fighting in which fighters would sometimes offer themselves as weapons. Having done two forays into the country, he was this time back in Mogadishu to guide the press around.
Driving in a military armoured vehicle with heavy guard – Mogadishu is still prone to attacks by al-Shabaab despite the UPDF overrunning it in 2011 – Lt Col Ankunda showed us some of the key places in his memory.
Pointing at a decrepit building in which he said they spent their first nights in Mogadishu in 2007, he said they were forced to desert it by continuous shelling by the enemy. At another spot, he said they lost a Lt Colonel to a sniper. “The biggest threat then was sniper fire ah, my friend,” he sighed.
He said snipers would take up positions in tall buildings, prompting them to respond by bombing the buildings. And, for that reason, much of Mogadishu is still covered in rubble, with many of the old buildings disused.
Maj Gen David Muhoozi, commander of the land forces, said as Brig Olum handed over to Brig Kavuma that the UPDF had gained valuable experience fighting in built-up urban areas in Mogadishu, as opposed to fighting in jungles to which they were previously accustomed.
At the entrance to the compound where we were housed, for example, there is a disused building which Lt Col Ankunda said was a UPDF command post at some point. One day, he said, attackers driving a vehicle labelled as belonging to the United Nations drove into the building and exploded bombs, killing themselves together with seven UPDF soldiers.
The compounds in the expansive African Union United Nations base camp in Mogadishu, which is about three square kilometres, are therefore largely fenced off with sandbags in anticipation of possible attacks.
Within the base camp are a number of offices, including the Amisom military command and the AU Mission. The UN too has a camp in there, running a hospital and other services.
Lt Col Wycliffe Keita is proud to head the first ever Ugandan UN guard unit, saying by the UN choosing to have its staff and installations in Somalia protected by the UPDF, they acknowledge “the good job we have done here”.
Far from secure
But the “good job” Lt Col Keita talks about is highly relative. It can only make sense in relation to where Somalia has come from. Otherwise the country is still highly insecure and al-Shabaab fighters still control some parts.
While in Mogadishu, we would not venture out of the protected camp unaccompanied, and all the time we had to wear body armour and drive in armoured military vehicles.
Outside the camp, however, residents seemed to get on with life normally, busy rebuilding their lives. Sections of Mogadishu are experiencing heavy construction work, the market people are working and others are busy fishing in the ocean.
On the other hand, the Amisom forces are busy with their job too, working in the six different segments, called sectors. Uganda is in charge of sector one, which includes Mogadishu. Kenya handles sector two, covering lower and middle Juba regions, while Ethiopia handles sector three whose capital is Baidoa.
Djibouti, which has less than 800 soldiers in Somalia, operates in the small Hiraan region, dubbed sector four, while Burundi runs sector five that includes the town of Johaw. Sierra Leone runs sector six headquartered at Kismayu.
In Uganda’s sector, significant military victories have been recorded, and Brig Olum left on a high, having driven the al-Shabaab out of the important Shabelle town of Baraawe in October. In the town of Baraawe, Brig Olum said, the al-Shabaab lost a vital spot from which they both coordinated their fight and raised revenue.
The UPDF say the al-Shabaab used to collect $500 (Shs1.3 million) from every cultivation tractor every three months and required each of the 37 clans in the region to pay $20,000 (Shs55 million) every three months. The al-Shabaab taxed almost every economic activity, the UPDF say.
In addition, Brig Olum said, the capture of the Indian Ocean coast town of Baraawe, which is 250km south of Mogadishu, enabled the UPDF to establish a long stretch of communication while at the same time denying the al-Shabaab the same.
But the challenge of holding the ground is still immense and the UPDF will expect to encounter a number of ambushes on a trip from Mogadishu to Baraawe. That is why our hosts ruled out transporting us to Baraawe by road during our time there.
Brig Olum said the al-Shabaab “have now melted into the population” and he expects them to keep up the fight. And as Brig Kavuma took over the contingent command, he spoke as though he was alive to the new challenge.
“Terrorists are known not to necessarily hold ground we need to deny them time and space (in which to organise attacks),” Brig Kavuma said. He talked of the need to clean up the area the UPDF already have before venturing into other areas.
Involving the Somalis
Talking of “cleaning up” the country, Brig Kavuma acknowledges that “Somalia belongs to the Somalians” and that in whatever they do, they “work to enable that Somalians gain the necessary capacity to manage their country.”
In line with this, Gen Muhesi came up with an initiative, the Joint Operations Coordination Centre (JOCC), which brings together Amisom army and police on the one hand, and the Somalia National Army (SNA), police and intelligence services on the other.
For an hour every evening, JOCC members, under the leadership of Gen Muhesi, share notes and lay strategies on how to deal with the security situation. On November 19, Gen Muhesi was happy to take us along.
The meeting learnt that six men, some of them wearing SNA uniforms, who had mounted an illegal roadblock at which they collected money and other valuables, had been arrested that day. The operation had also seized five guns, ammunition and two magazines, and a vehicle, a Toyota Camry. Ransom money and five mobile phones used by the suspects had also been recovered.
The meeting was further told of “two or three targets” and that plans to move on them would be finalised the following day.
Gen Muhesi was returning from a two weeks break and he had received information that a former warlord, Ahmed Dai, was “going back to his old ways”. He suspected that Dai was behind the road blocks then being mounted in parts of Mogadishu.
So he served warning: “Ahmed Dai should be warned that we have already shed a few litres of blood we can afford to shed one more litre to deal with him.”
Dai was once in charge of Mogadishu Airport, among other things, collecting sizeable ransoms. The new order in Mogadishu has squeezed his sources of income, but he still seems to wield some influence. Whenever the Amisom forces move against him, Gen Muhesi said, “It is not unusual for some politicians and other people to raise objections.”
Col Abdalla Abdalla, the deputy director of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), promised during the meeting that they would protect whoever worked with them, probably out of recognition that the incentive to work with former warlords, or at least to be afraid of them, is still existent.
About the al-Shabaab, Col Abdalla said they “gathered from all over the world thinking that Somalia is a safe haven.” He says the people of Somalia are now “hardening” against them.
The al-Shabaab captured in battle, Gen Muhesi said, are handed over to the Somalia government. But there seem to be challenges of how to deal with them.
Gen Muhesi said there were some captured al-Shabaab fighters who wanted to be absorbed into the SNA, but that the government was apprehensive, fearful that they would turn guns on the commanders.
In some cases, Gen Muhesi said, some former al-Shabaab fighters have been rehabilitated, especially where the elders order and recommend so. In the case of “hard-core” individuals, he says, “the government will try them and execute them in public.”
But, going by Gen Muhesi’s estimates, there are very many al-Shabaab fighters still out there among the population. Time will tell whether they will eventually abandon the fight and get on with life.
When Baraawe was captured, the people switched on their television sets and turned to those things which the al-Shabaab’s strict version of Islam had prohibited, Brig Olum said.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor