7/11: Ugandans pay for botched ‘counter-insurgency’

A commentary based on this article was published on the website of The Guardian (London) on September 25, 2010.

For over a month corporate sponsors had swamped TV screens and city billboards with sumptuous advertising that celebrated ‘the first World Cup played on African soil’ more vibrantly than much of the football. ‘Africa United!’ was the upbeat slogan of telecom giant, MTN. But the cracks rather than the unity were ruthlessly exposed when, on July 11, three bombs ripped into crowds watching the final match in popular Kampala nightspots.

Only the most hardened cynics doubt that Al-Shabaab insurgents from Somalia had a hand in the atrocity, which killed 76 and wounded scores more, in a presumed reprisal for the presence of Ugandan peacekeeping troops in Somalia.

Most Kampalans seemed numbed by the calamity, not knowing what to think. Leading opposition politicians called for a withdrawal of Ugandan troops, on the grounds that there is no point sending peacekeepers to a place where there is no peace to keep. But others in the political class reacted angrily.

Charles Onyango Obbo, a columnist for the independent Daily Monitor, wrote in an emotional piece three days after the attack: “Now at least there are understandable reasons for being in Somalia—to avenge the killing of nearly 80 Ugandans, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, was equally belligerent:

We are going to go on the offensive and go for all who did this. We were just in Mogadishu to guard the airport and the presidential palace. Now they have mobilised us to look for them . . . I can assure you they have invited a lot of problems for themselves.

Ten days later, addressing an African Union summit in Kampala, Musveni’s tone remained belligerent, as he urged fellow heads of state to “sweep the terrorists out of Africa. . . Let them go back to Asia and the Middle East where they come from. I reject this new form of colonialism through terrorism . . . Let us shoot them out of Africa.”

The anger may be real, but this is the rhetoric of forced pacification, not of peacekeeping, and it invites further militarisation and conflict, not peaceful development.

Embroiling Uganda in the War on Terror

Although it claims historic credit, as the erstwhile National Resistance Army, for liberating Uganda from earlier forms of misrule, the country’s military establishment is ambitious, closely tied to the ruling National Resistance Movement, and not consistently virtuous. There is substantial evidence that, beginning in the mid-1990s, the re-named Ugandan People’s Defence Forces engaged in systematic plunder during forays into neighbouring Zaire/DRC, as well as in numerous abuses against Ugandan citizens while countering the Lord’s Resistance Army and other domestic insurgents.

Earlier this year, in an ominous sign of what may happen to future oil revenues, Uganda was reported to be buying six Su-30 MKII fighter jets from Russia. Intelligible, albeit unsettling motives for beefing up the UPDF’s Air Wing include deterring or preparing for possible conflict with the DRC over oil resources in the Rift Valley, showing fellow East Africa Community member, Kenya, that it is not to be bullied in Lake Victoria border disputes, and displaying a glint of sabre to the government of Sudan, lest it renege on pledges to allow Southern Sudan to secede if that is the people’s choice in a 2011 referendum. (Uganda’s sympathies lie with the South, and it does not want a renewed torrent of refugees if, as is distinctly possible, civil war resumes in Sudan next year.)

In sum, Kampala evidently feels the need to be taken seriously as a regional military force. This may portend future risks; yet such aspirations have to be seen as a ‘normal’ part of building a nation state and safeguarding its national interests.

Uganda’s involvement in Somalia is less easily intelligible and less normal. The little kingdom of Burundi was the only other country to commit troops to the African Union operation which, in 2007, began to shoulder responsibility for keeping the peace in what the West sees as the very paradigm of a ‘failed state.’

In principle, it is easy to agree that African problems require African solutions and, if absolutely necessary, African army boots on the ground. Or, at least, to agree that this is a better way of handling conflicts in Africa than having the USA or former colonial powers send in their marines or paras. This is the line consistently put by the UPDF’s articulate and plausible spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Felix Kulayigye . The PR picture is thus one of Uganda playing a responsible and impartial role on the wider African stage, exemplifying Africa’s ability to run its own affairs without foreign interference.

Yet, on the other side of this canvas, lies the West’s, and pre-eminently the USA’s, War on Terror, in which Somalia is seen as a significant front. America wants the place pacified so that it does not breed anti-Western terror. But, given America’s own disastrous humanitarian intervention in Somalia in 1993, and the troubled progress of allied operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would prefer its policies to be implemented, wherever possible, by proxies: local governments, national armies and private defence contractors (that is, mercenaries.)

The reasons for Uganda’s leading role in efforts to pacify Somalia are, therefore, complex. Uganda’s presence adds to its international stature and that of its veteran leader. It helps keep Uganda’s military on their toes through conflict-zone experience, and thus to sustain their (self-proclaimed) reputation as one of the most proficient armies in Africa. It has also served to maintain political capital with a West that is growing uncomfortable with the increasingly lengthy Museveni regime. The USA has provided Uganda with military technical assistance (including help with rooting out remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army), and substantial development aid has continued to flow from America, the World Bank, the EU, the UK and various other EU members, despite Museveni’s manifest failure to get a grip on corruption within the ranks of his political elect, and despite global PR disasters like the dismal ‘anti-gay’ Bahati Bill.

All of this would have amounted to deft manoeuvring by Museveni, save for one unfortunate detail: the fact that the peacekeeping role in Somalia was virtually impossible to accomplish.

Counter-productive counter-insurgency

Prior to Uganda’s 7/11, many ‘security analysts’ had argued that Al-Shabaab did not have the capacity to launch or incite terror attacks beyond Somalia’s borders, while others warned that, if not routed, the group might offer a haven to peripatetic fanatics from across the world. Yet this very process has probably been stimulated—and has evidently not been prevented—by international efforts to foster unified government in a deeply divided country.

In a devastating critique of US policy published in December 2009, Council on Foreign Relations researcher, Bronwyn Bruton, made a powerful case for “constructive disengagement.” Her assessment was that:

The United States’ efforts since 9/11 to prevent Somalia from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda have alienated large parts of the Somali population, polarized the country’s diverse Islamist reform movement . . . and propelled indigenous Salafi jihadist groups to power. One of these groups, a radical youth militia known as al Shabab, now controls most of Somalia’s southern half and has established links with al Qaeda. The brutal occupation of Somalia by its historical rival Ethiopia from late 2006 to early 2009, which Washington openly supported, only fuelled the insurgency and infuriated Somalis across the globe.

The trouble, Bruton wrote, “stems from Washington’s mistaken belief that state building is the best response to terrorism.” A Transitional Federal Government (TFG), established under UN auspices in 2002, won negligible popular support, became “large and very paralyzed” (with 550 deputies, some of whom do not even live in the country), and proved “simply incapable of governing,” with its writ extending only to a few blocks in Mogadishu and, more weakly, to northern regions which have become a base for criminal piracy in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and oil supply routes.

Ethiopia’s 2006 intervention, aimed at rescuing the TFG and crushing the most militant opposition to it, had the opposite effect. “Experienced terrorists arrived from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan—even Malaysia—and brought with them suicide bombings and sophisticated tactics such as remote-controlled detonations.” Thus, “The terrorist threat posed by Somalia has grown in proportion to the intrusiveness of international policies towards the country.”

Bruton urged America and the UN to abandon top-down “state building” and instead to “promote development without regard to governance.” Money, she argued, should be directed to grassroots community development projects, in the hope that economic incentives and pragmatism would foster local political compromise between clans and factions:

Local reconciliation efforts driven by the practical need to manage various clans’ access to water and grazing land have been very successful, most spectacularly in the conflict-ridden town of Gaalkacyo. The need to renegotiate and enforce arrangements over water and land has provided regular opportunities for dialogue and compromise. The Hawiye and Darod clans of Gaalkacyo have also leveraged these negotiations into broader cooperation, for example, creating a joint security force and primary schools attended by both clans. Before the Ethiopian invasion in 2006, such deals had significantly reduced instability across Somalia.

If this seems somewhat starry-eyed—for Bruton is not clear on how the TFG might wither away, or what would fill the vacuum—it does bear remarking that the break-away northern region, Somaliland, has since 1993 achieved stability under its own steam. Although it is not yet formally recognised by any sovereign state, it also achieved, this July, a peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box, which is one of the key, Western-donor criteria for ‘good governance’ in Africa. Less outside intervention appears to have left more room for local initiative and common sense to create workable political institutions.

But even if one disagrees with Bruton’s prescriptions, it is hard to disagree with her conclusion that “bolstering the AMISOM [AU peacekeeping] contingent is a fool’s errand.” This, however, is precisely what Uganda’s President Museveni demanded of the African Union in the wake of 7/11.

Forked and indecisive tongues

Museveni, a lifelong warrior, does not have ‘retreat’ encoded in his genes. His bellicose response to the Kampala atrocity was predictable. During the African Union summit that immediately followed the bombings, he led calls not only for bolstering AMISOM forces in Somalia but also for adjusting their mandate. He wanted the AU troops not merely to defend TFG infrastructure and personnel but actively to pursue and attack Al-Shabaab.

That was a big ask and the AU demurred. Or, rather, fudged. It agreed to bolster AMISOM with an additional 2,000 troops, bringing the total to 8,000: well below what would likely be needed to crush Al-Shabaab and forcibly pacify the country. (The extra troops have been pledged by Guinea, Djibouti and two other countries that have, for the time being, declined to be named—a sure sign of how difficult a decision this has been.) And the rules of engagement were tweaked to the extent that AMISOM troops may fire first if they have good reason to believe themselves at risk: a highly ambiguous formula that will leave nearly all actions in a grey zone.

The East African, a quality Kenyan newspaper, reported these developments under the headline “US shoots down plans for Al Shabaab.” It claimed that “In classic cloak-and-dagger fashion, the United States, while overtly promising more resources and support to AMISOM, was behind the scenes prodding the UN [whose Security Council endorses the AMISOM mission] to say no to Uganda’s request.”

This is probably true, but hardly surprising. Obama’s administration is struggling with the international mess left by Bush and wary of escalating the conflict in Somalia, where an all-out assault on Al-Shabaab might draw in Yemen and Eritrea. East Africans, many of whom had outlandish hopes of Obama, should not be disappointed by his having a less hawkish approach than his predecessor. Already up to his neck in the Afghanistan war, which could yet bury his presidency, he will not want to fuel another, even if he is not willing to go so far as the “constructive disengagement” that Bruton urges. Greyness, tepidity and fudge are almost inevitable; one consequence being that at least some Ugandans will feel let down, and believe that America is not taking the Kampala bombings seriously because the lives lost were overwhelmingly only Ugandan.

Museveni can be expected to exploit such feelings to the full.

Bringing it all back home

The image of a man still on the warpath after all these years, bristling with anger on behalf of his people and hinting at unilateral revenge, is not a bad one to take into a re-election campaign that is already beginning to gather pace, ahead of the February 2011 poll.

Investigations into the Kampala bombings appear to be showing that the perpetrators were not Somali nationals but East Africans. (Kampala’s weekly news magazine, The Independent, was quick to suggest links with Ugandan rebels in the Allied Democratic Forces.) If Al-Shabaab was involved, but not wholly responsible, this would be disturbing evidence of how infectious terror can be. But it is also justification for raising security procedures and citizen surveillance within Uganda. And that is not good news in the run-up to the election.

Already, the list of journalists and opposition politicians facing charges related to state security includes The Independent’s editor, Andrew Mwenda, writer and activist, Kalundi Serumaga, and a former UN Under Secretary General and now President of the Uganda People’s Congress party, Dr. Olara Otunnu.

This does not bode well for a free and fair electoral process; but Museveni may be counting on only muted criticism from Western allies who, he is able to imply, have let Uganda down in its hour of need.

Nick Young
Kampala, August 11 2008

PS. The reference in paragraph two to “the most hardened cynics” includes a link to the website of Ugandan commentator, Timothy Kalyegira, who has suggested that elements in the Ugandan army might be behind th e 7/11 atrocity. According to an AFP report, the government of Uganda is now considering charging Kalyegira with sedition for publishing these views.