Last Sunday, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) marked nine years since the first battle group aboard a large Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane landed in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city.
The deployment was seen and described by some critics as a mission “dead on arrival”, but nine years later, it is still alive and glowing.
Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, who was in this first group, says on their first night they endured mortar attacks from al-Shabaab and relied on the protection of Ethiopian and Somali troops.
Many thought the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) force, a small and poorly equipped force, would suffer the same humiliation the Americans suffered in 1993 during the Black Hawk Down incident – when American helicopter was shot and the occupants killed.
For more than 20 years, Somalia had degenerated into chaos and had become a dysfunctional state. Since 1993, every government that came into power was dogged by threats of external influence by militant organisations (al-Shabaab, Hizbul Islam, al-Qaeda) that wanted to use Somalia’s vast territories as a training ground for terrorists.
Col Ankunda says when Ethiopian troops withdrew in January 2009; Amisom increasingly became a target of the insurgents. It was not only the thin presence of troops on ground that was a challenge, but also the Amisom mandate restricted Ugandans to only fire back when they were attack.
In February the same year, the insurgents carried out a double suicide bombing that left 11 Burundians dead and 15 injured. Another in September killed 17, including Deputy Force Commander, Brig Gen Juvenal Niyoyunguruza.
Col Ankunda says in May 2009, the extremists had launched an offensive to retake Mogadishu, pushing government forces back into Amisom-protected areas.
“We thought they were going to push us into the ocean,” The former Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Aronda Nyakairima (RIP) said in 2012 at a press conference in Mbuya, the military headquarters.
In 2010, President Museveni threatened to withdraw the UPDF because of the restrictive mandate in a meeting in Munyonyo.
By mid-2007, UPDF, which was the only deployed Amisom contingent, was controlling only 15 per cent of Mogadishu. But they have now pushed the al-Shabaab to the farthest point of about 200kms.
The al-Shabaab withdrawal from Mogadishu followed a number of decisive battles as the rebels attempted to take control of the entire city.
But the once deserted Mogadishu streets are now buzzing with business. Shops open till late, beautiful beaches that were once no-go zones are busy, Mogadishu has street lights, refugees are going back home and new high-rise buildings are changing the horizons of Mogadishu.
Brig Sam Kavuma, the former UPDF contingent commander, says UPDF has achieved 85 per cent in Sector One covering Banadir (Mogadishu), Middle and Lower Shabelle regions.
All major towns, like in this sector, are now controlled by Amisom troops. Barawe and Marka ports are secured; Qoryoole, Afgoye and Beldamin were captured from al-Shabaab. They used to be the main sources of revenue for the insurgents.
The UPDF, according to Brig Kavuma, has also secured the key communication nodes, added more 90km of the main supply routes from shalamboti to Barawe and from Mogadishu-Afgoye-Balidoogle-Leego-Buur-hakaba and to Baido in Sector Three under Ethiopian contingent.
In September 2014, UPDF laid siege on Baraawe, which was al-Shabaab’s headquarters. They cut off all links to and out of the port, leaving the al-Shabaab insurgents only one escape route through the Indian Ocean.
Although Amisom has depleted al-Shabaab military capability, disrupted their training and pushed them to abandon a conventional frontline; they still operate and are now using asymmetrical warfare which is not easy counter. They have melted and mixed with civilians and remain active.
In September last year, they attacked a UPDF base in Jannale and killed 19 soldiers. Six went missing and several were injured. With such attacks, the al-Shabaab wants to send a message that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
But Brig Kavuma says they are now using a blend of tactics like cordon and search operations, checkpoints, effective intelligence system and civil military cooperation to counter the irregular war tactics like suicide bombing.
The expansion of the controlled territory – but not backed by increased number of troops and the absence of force multipliers like helicopters – exposes UPDF troops to danger.
In fact, if UPDF had helicopters, the attack on Jannale would not have been disastrous as it was. Sources say UPDF would have deployed the helicopters against the insurgents who invaded and occupied the base for hours.
UPDF used ground troops to reinforce but al-Shabaab had destroyed a bridge and the advancing UPDF tank drowned in River Shabelle. It took three days to retrieve it and its occupants.
One soldier suffocated and died and another got a broken backbone. He has been receiving treatment at Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi.
Amisom may be achieving militarily by pushing al-Shabaab to lose ground, but how long will it remain operating in Somalia?
Maj Gen Benon Biraaro, a former presidential candidate in the just concluded election, says efforts must be focused on building the capacity of the Somali national army.
“We can’t remain in Somalia forever. There must be an exit strategy,” he says.
So far at least 5,000 government soldiers have been trained, a number that is far below the needed 30,000. This force is not enough to even be deployed and secure the liberated areas.
It is not only military and security challenges hindering the efforts to stabilise Somalia. This year, the Somalis will be going for elections with sharp political divisions.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud says they cannot hold one-vote ballot because of security challenges. They will instead use the power-sharing formula agreed by rival clans where elders will elect the president. But the opposition thinks this is all a move to keep the current government in power.
With this divided political centre, the responsibility to keep Somalia, especially Mogadishu secure lies squarely on Amisom.