Six years ago, when the group of the first Ugandan soldiers arrived at Mogadishu International Airport, they were welcomed by unrelenting mortar and sniper fire. The future was uncertain for Battle Group One under the commander of Col. Peter Elwelu, now, Brigadier and Third Division commander.
In a strange land, on unfamiliar terrain and facing a harsh reception from the insurgents, the mission looked impossible. Nearly two decades earlier, forces loyal to the former warlord, Gen. Farah Aideed, had downed a helicopter carrying American soldiers, in a battlefield hit that came to be named Black Hawk Down. The helicopter was an American Black Hawk and a movie has since been produced about it.
The Americans were forced to withdraw after pictures of dead American troops being dragged on the streets in Bakara Market went viral. It was hard to imagine that a poor country like Uganda would deploy its troops in Mogadishu, where the world superpower was humiliated and withdrew its 35,000 troops. After America’s withdrawal in 1993, Somalia degenerated into chaos and had become a dysfunctional state.
Since then, every government that came to power was dogged by threats of external influence by militant organisations (al Shabaab, Hizbul Islam, al-Qaeda) that wanted to use Somalia’s unpoliced territories as a training ground for terrorists.
No longer most dangerous place
In fact, Somalia was declared the most dangerous place in the world to live in by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon in January after assuming office. Mr Ban was indeed right because attacks against Ugandan and Burundian forces intensified following the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces in January 2009 and Amisom which had given priority to the security of key installations in the capital, namely at the airport, seaport, presidential palace and later the strategic Kilometre 4 (KM4) junction, increasingly became a target of extremist attacks.
A double suicide bombing in February of the same year left 11 dead and 15 injured. Another in September killed 17, including Deputy Force Commander, Burundi’s Brig. General Juvenal Niyoyunguruza. In May 2009, the extremists had launched an offensive to retake Mogadishu, pushing Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government forces back into Amisom-protected areas.
The commanding officer of the Ugandan contingent then, Brig. Michael Ondoga, who commanded Ugandan forces in 2010 before he returned last year, remembers: “there were days they were fighting to push us into the sea,”
Al Shabaab was controlling more than 70 per cent of Mogadishu and Amisom was in charge of only State House, Aden Adde International Airport, seaport and the strategic KM4 junction, which connects the above three key government installations.
Unlike many other terrorist groups, al Shabaab combined both symmetrical and asymmetrical warfare tactics. It controlled territory and fought behind a conventional frontline. But at times, it would also use roadside bombs, car bombs and suicide bombers. Most terrorist groups use asymmetrical tactics in order to take the opponent by surprise.
The UPDF, whose training and war doctrine is generally based on fighting in open lands, had to work hard to adapt to the new challenge of urban combat. Suicide bomb or sniper fire attacks against Ugandans were frequent. On top of the threats from al Shabaab, the mission was also constrained by a restrictive interpretation of the rules of engagement which meant Amisom could only fire when fired upon or in defence of the transitional government established by Somalia’s decade-long peace process.
Change of mandate
Due to this restrictive mandate, Amisom forces could hardly advance towards al Shabaab positions. It was until after the mandate was changed to allow the Ugandans and Burundians carry out pre-emptive strikes that tense and fierce battles were fought and al Shabaab started losing ground to Amisom.
The amendment of the mandate came with extra deployment of 2,000 troops that enabled Amisom start a systematic advance across the city. The UPDF spokesperson, and the former Amisom publicist, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, says they opened up seven frontlines at Immigration, Shakara, Telebunka, Sigale and Parliament. This action, he says, helped in effectively securing the key Makka Al Mukarama Road which is a main supply route and also links the Presidential Palace to KM4 junction and Mogadishu airport.
Further east, he says Urubah Hotel in Shangani District, Bondere, Fish barre and Juba Hotel in Abdul Aziz District were also secured. Burundian forces controlled the Amisom bases in Hodan, Dharkenley, and Wadajir districts.
In late August 2010, as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan got underway, the al Shabaab launched what they called the “terminal offensive”, declaring they would drive Amisom out of Somalia and wipe out the TFG presence.
But Amisom beat back these attacks though suffered heavy casualties. Many Burundians were killed in Hoshi.
Pte. Jack Ojok was in Bondere at the time under Lt. Col. Mbusi Lukwago, who commanded one of the UPDF battalions in el-Hindi, talks about the night al Shabaab attacked them and they had to withdraw.
“I think they had rightly estimated our strength and after pushing them hard during the day, they withdrew but came back at night. They were outnumbering us. We fought for hours but they overpowered us,” he said.
After this battle, the al Shabaab carried the dead Ugandans, dragged the bodies on the streets and published the pictures.
The army says the number of Ugandan soldiers killed in Somalia is about 100, but sources say it could be more than 300. Pte. Ojok says whenever they would capture ground from al Shabaab, they would find dead fighters chained on metallic iron bars inside the building, a sign that they were up against a force which was deploying individuals who had been conscripted.
What broke al Shabaab’s back was losing Bakara market in June 2011, which was their main source of revenue to buy ammunition and guns. But before then, clan divisions and splits between the group’s nationalist and internationalist elements over command, the policy of denying access to humanitarian organisations in central Somalia had weakened them.
One group opposed the proposal to allow humanitarian aid get to the famine-stricken population while the other was all for it. This created a sharp divide and the groups started fighting each other.
Clan divisions and loss of strategic positions in Mogadishu forced the group to withdraw from the battle-scarred city and that marked the end of the first phase of the Amisom mission which was to secure the capital city.
The second phase began in June 2012 with “Operation Free Shabelle” commanded by Brig. Paul Lokech, which saw Amisom forces spreading out of Mogadishu and capturing Afgooye.
The second phase was very easy for Ugandans because the battles were now being fought in an open land, allowing the Amisom troops to deploy superior firepower launched from its mechanised elements. Brig. Lokech, the former Ugandan contingent commander and now Ugandan military attaché to Russia, says UPDF would even advance tens of kilometres when the operation was launched.
“We have fought in DR Congo, Northern Uganda and in Rwenzori against ADF. Therefore, this terrain is good for us,” he says. With this favourable terrain tilting in favour of UPDF, the al Shabaab have abandoned the frontline and have resumed ambushes, sniper attacks, roadside bombs and assassinations. “They have melted and dispersed into the civilian population. They are now using asymmetrical warfare. They are using improved explosive devises and ambushes,” Lt. Gen. Andrew Guti, the Amisom force commander, says.
Before the second phase started, Somalia was divided into four sectors with Uganda operating in Sector One, which includes Middle Shabelle and Banadir region.
The Kenyans who joined the mission only recently are operating in Sector Two but their pace has been slow after capturing the strategic town of Kisimayo in South Somalia. Sector Three is jointly under Uganda and Burundi while Sector Four is under Djibouti.
However, Gen. Guti said the slow pace of the operation is deliberate. “We do not want to rush and make mistakes because that’s what al Shabaab wants. But what I can say is that the tempo is still the same in sectors one, two, three and four,” he said.
The Ugandan contingent is in the final phases of fully capturing sector one. Only three towns are remaining.
Uganda Battle Group 11 under Col. Joseph Balikkudembe are 94km south of Mogadishu advancing to link up with the Kenyans who are still stationed in Kismayo while Battle Group Nine commanded by Col. Stefano Mugerwa is 120km north of the Somali capital.
Battle Group 10 under Col. Muhanguzi is in Buurhakba, 190kms north-west of Mogadishu, moving towards Baidoa, with an intention to reach the Ethiopian border. Brig. Michael Ondoga, the group commander of the Ugandan contingent, says if they had helicopters, they would finish work within a week. He also admits that the armoured vehicles which were procured at the beginning of the mission are worn out and that they need new machines.
“Our main challenge is that the equipment we are using now is getting old. Before June, last year, we were operating within Mogadishu but we have now spread out and the roads outside Mogadishu are in a bad state. That’s why our equipment are breaking down,” he says.
With al Shabaab running away from Mogadishu, Somalis are rebuilding their city. Hope and normality have returned to Mogadishu. Its once deserted streets are bustling with activity, homes, markets and schools are being rebuilt. Residents can now venture to its beautiful beaches, once no-go zones, and take a dip into the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Shops open till late on well-lit streets and theatres are open again after 20 years.
In the south, farmers can freely transport their agricultural produce to Mogadishu without any interruption.
Unlike in the past, at least 20 ships from Europe, Asia dock every week and goods are delivered to different parts of Mogadishu. International companies like Coca cola have reopened in Mogadishu in 20 years.
The security officer, Adden Ade international airport, Maj. Amos Mukiibi, says the number of passengers has increased from 1,000 to between 15,000 and 33,000 every month.
They have also started operating domestic flights between Mogadishu, Baidoa, Kisimayo, Maraka and Balidogole
The new Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud is confident Somalia is “getting back to its knees”. He, however, says that despite defeating al Shabaab in Mogadishu, security remains his national priority. “We have priority areas and these are security, public finance management and judicial system,” he said. Now that Somalia is stabilising, the question though is for how long is the UPDF and Amisom going to hung in there?