The plan to deploy Uganda’s army in Somalia began to take shape in 2005 after President Museveni quietly sent Gen Kale Kayihura; Brig Dick Olum (current 3rd Division commanding officer); and Brig Peter Elwelu (2nd Division commander) to Baidoa to study the security and political situation. These officers then held lesser ranks but have since scaled greater heights in the UPDF.
All reports coming out of Somalia at the time spoke of a hellish, desolate place ravaged by famine, disease and very bloody clan warfare. Most of what was left of the government had fled into exile in Nairobi, Kenya. In the prevailing chaos, Somalia was becoming a haven for al Qaeda-linked terrorists, pirates, drug traffickers and assorted criminals.
Something had to be done to restore order as pirates, launching off the Mogadishu coastline had also made the seaway down from the Gulf of Aden very hostile waters for international shipping.
Fourteen years earlier, Uganda’s commander-in-chief had visited Mogadishu. The civil war had just started then. He met warlord Mohammed Farrah Aideed.
Details of what was discussed in that meeting have never been made public. What is known, though, is that some sort of thinking was developed which probably informed President Museveni’s decision to bring the Somalia situation to the attention of his generals.
“Yes, he called us and briefed us on what to do. We spent two weeks there,” Brig Elwelu told Sunday Monitor.
Brig Elwelu enjoys the distinction of having been the commanding officer of the first mission troop, Battle Group One (UGABAG1), which landed under a hail of fire in Mogadishu on March 6, 2007.
Olum, Kayihura and Elwelu sat down to talk with senior security and political officials in what was known then as the Somalia Transitional Federal Government based in Baidoa, in the far west of the country.
As earlier noted, the transitional government had been kicked out of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, by an Islamic extremist band going by the fancy name, Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The current terrorist group, al-Shabaab, is an offshoot of the ICU.
Gen Kayihura had been sent to study the politics inundating the volatile situation. Brig Olum researched the kind of training UPDF would need if any decision was made to deploy, while Brig Elwelu had to take a long look at the operational possibilities given the unfamiliar terrain.
On returning to Uganda, the three officers wrote a report in which they recommended that this mission was doable.
These three officers had been sent to Somalia months after the troubled country’s ‘parliament’, sitting in exile in Nairobi in 2004, formed a transitional government headed by president Abdullahi Yusuf (deceased).
The government was to be supported by a regional peacekeeping force under the aegis of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad). Igad is a regional body comprising eight countries. This Igad initiative would later be assumed by the continental African Union.
It was on the basis of the Olum-Kayihura-Elwelu report that President Museveni resolved to deploy UPDF on this mission that has come to be one of the most successful and admirable African-European-American initiatives at conflict resolution.
Things did not get off on a smooth start. There was strong internal opposition in spite of the report’s position that the mission was doable. A number of politicians in and outside Uganda’s Parliament raised several questions about the costs, security ramifications for Uganda and other consequences given that the army had burnt its collective fingers in the DR Congo debacle of the late 1990s.
In security circles, sources say there was fairly loud opposition to sending Uganda’s women and men to Somalia.
On many occasions, President Museveni has referred to these disagreements which almost scuttled the plans as “those who were against the deployment of UPDF”.
Eventually, those in favour won the argument. Rigorous planning at the three levels of war craft: strategic, operational and tactical would soon follow.
President Museveni chaired many strategic level meetings. The Army High Command was drawn in to plan for the deployment as lobbying for political support among the sceptics continued.
Sources familiar with what happened in those early days say that the President, speaking as commander-in-chief, first fully briefed the High Command about the impending deployment in June 2006 at then State House Nakasero.
In attendance in that June meeting were brigade, battalion and division commanders; service chiefs; then Defence ministry permanent secretary (the late Brig Noble Mayombo); former minister of Defence Crispus Kiyonga; former Security minister Amama Mbabazi; the then Land Forces commander, now Chief of Defence Forces Gen Katumba Wamala; Brig Jacob Musajjawaza; and the former Chief of Defence Forces (the late Gen Aronda Nyakairima).
Four months after the State House meeting, the first batch of approximately 1,700 troops assembled in November of 2006 at Singo Military Training School for four months mission training.
“We had to prepare our soldiers for the worst case scenario. They had to prepare for war fighting, not peacekeeping. Much as they had been fighting LRA and ADF [rebels] in the jungles, this was different. The soldiers had now to be trained how to fight in built-up areas. This was new. We had never fought in built-up areas,” Brig Elwelu says.
Training would cover how to breach, enter and manoeuvre inside buildings; how to defend themselves in close quarters combat and the taking of positions, setting up and concealment of observation posts atop buildings.
The soldiers also trained in the use of sandbags when building defensive fighting positions instead of the trenches they were used to digging for jungle warfare.
Specialist from the French, British and American armies joined the camp at different intervals of the training, sharpening the skills of the UPDF men at Singo in convoy protection, patrolling and urban rescue operations.
Intensive and exhausting work
It was all very intensive and exhausting work. But the army had to be properly prepared for this unknown theatre its troops were going to find themselves in, thousands of kilometres away from home – so far away from quick reinforcement in case they got trapped.
Officers and men painstakingly also studied why previous missions, carried out by other militaries in the Islamic extremist hotbed of Somalia, had failed. The [twisted] logic of the Somali conflict had to be understood by all – even if in general terms at the very least.
“We realised it was about how they (the other militaries) were relating with Somalis. They didn’t have good relationship with the people. We decided that for us to survive and win we needed to study and understand Somali culture,” says Brig Elwelu.
It will be sadly recalled that at least 38,000 American troops withdrew from Somalia in 1993 after two of their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were brought down by fighters loyal to Mohammed Farrah Aideed using rocket propelled grenades. Three of the crew men were killed and others captured.
Up to 18 special forces soldiers, some of whose bloodied bodies were dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu by almost deranged youths, were killed in a ferocious day and night-long rescue mission which also left 75 injured.
It was all too much for America. The US had initially sent in its troops to support a humanitarian mission to this famine and civil war-ravaged country but an involuntary ‘mission shift’ saw it gradually drawn into fierce exchanges with Aideed’s fighters in a failed effort at regime change. It was forced to pull out by both the tragedy of those deaths and the very intensity of opposition it faced from locals.
To psychologically prepare the men of UGABAG1 for what lay ahead, Uganda’s first contingent were shown the very graphic 2001 Black Hawk Down film. The movie depicts the ill-fated ‘Operation Gothic Serpent’ during which the Americans had planned to capture Aideed, but instead soon spiralled into what is today known as the ‘Battle of Mogadishu’ after the two helicopters were shot down.
It was in this battle that those 18 US soldiers fell, prompting the end of any American involvement with Somalia.
Black Hawk Down is an intense war movie depicting some very life-like and gory scenes of close-quarter combat with a blood thirsty and relentless enemy.
“After watching, some of them refused to go. They refused. They thought going to Somalia at that time was committing suicide,” Pte Tom Okidi, who shipped out with the first battle group, remembers.
Days before UGABAG1 left, the troops moved from Singo and assembled in Jinja. The plan was to send ahead some fighting equipment before any soldiers were landed in Mogadishu.
Collecting and amassing weaponry started in September 2006. New armoured infantry fighting vehicles were mobilised. The African Union hired Rift Valley Railways to transport the equipment from Kampala to Mombasa port from where they would be shipped to Mogadishu International Port, the official seaport of Somalia.
This was some logistical operation, moving such ordinance and firepower including 21 T-55 tanks, artillery pieces of varying field range for fire support, more than 18 containers stuffed with bullets, tents and assorted bombs, food and 47 troop carriers.
There were also 14mm and 13mm calibre air defence guns which could not be airlifted yet the soldiers would need to use the equipment as soon as they landed in a very hostile theatre that was central Mogadishu.
At least 80 soldiers, (weapons experts) were also on board, according to military sources. On February 27, 2007, the journey proper started at RVR head offices in Kampala through Malaba, Nairobi to Mombasa.
From Mombasa to Mogadishu the equipment would be moved by ship. Global Provider, a maritime transportation company, was hired by the American State Department as the transporter. It will be noted that while Uganda was providing the manpower, the financial resources for this expedition was, and still is, largely borne by the US and European powers.
Brig Godfrey Golooba, current commandant of UPDF’s Junior Command and Staff College, Magamaga in Jinja, was senior officer among the 80-man component escorting UGABAG1’s hardware.
At Malaba border post the first sign of the difficulties which lay ahead showed itself. The convoy was held up for three days as cagey Kenyan authorities struggled with themselves over whether or not to allow entry of Ugandans forces travelling with all this heavy weaponry into their territory.
“I flew to Nairobi for meetings with the former Kenyan chief of defence forces, Gen Jeremiah Kianga, to clear the movement of the equipment,” Brig Golooba says.
Brig Golooba says Gen Kianga and Kenya’s former chief of logistics, Col Langinya, were very helpful during the clearing process. But it still took three days for the boys to get across the border.
From Malaba, they made another stopover in Nairobi before continuing on to Mombasa. When they reached Mombasa, they set up camp at the port on a Sunday. Offloading and loading of the equipment on the ship took three days.
But while still at the seaport, they were shocked when hordes of Somali-looking individuals accosted them and threatened: “They were telling us that ‘those tanks will be destroyed’ and that they would do the same thing they did to the Americans [to us],” Brig Golooba says.
Kenya has a large population of Somalis, both nationals and refugees.
Sources say the Kenyan military was also quietly astonished that Uganda possessed weapons of the sort being shipped out.
“In fact, they got scared seeing that big cache of arms going to Somalia, especially tanks. They were wondering that if such military hardware was going to Somalia, how much was remaining at home! They were scared. They also started procuring arms,” one source recalls.
In hindsight, ‘Mission Somalia’ would, therefore, unwittingly trigger a secret but frantic arms race between the two neighbouring countries which probably persists to this day.
Brig Golooba had asked Gen Kianga to lend the mission escort ships from the Kenyan Navy to guard the consignment up to Mogadishu. Pirates were prowling the Indian Ocean so Brig Golooba was not taking any chances. Only weeks before UPDF departed, pirates had hijacked many ships on the high seas.
Gen Kianga accepted but only on condition that the Kenyan escort ships turned around at the border marking Somali international waters.
“I communicated to the commander Land Forces [now CDF] who communicated to the then CDF, the late Gen Aronda Nyakairima, and in two days we were told we needed clearance from the UN because of the arms embargo on Somalia,” Brig Golooba says.
That took another nail-biting week for the small force camped in Mombasa. There was a need to contact the UN in New York and then AU in Addis Ababa to get the bureaucratic authorisation out of the way.
Within that one week, the late Aronda found himself zipping all over the East African skies, flying between Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Kampala thrice for ‘consultations’, and to secure authorisation for moving the equipment.
The clearance finally came and they were given two Kenyan escort ships. Normally, the distance from Mombasa to Mogadishu takes two days, but they had to sail carefully and slowly because of insecurity on the ocean and the mainland.
When asked why not use the arms they had on board to defend themselves against the pirates or any other enemy, knowledgeable army sources point out that this was a merchant ship carrying its military payload as cargo in storage, not a military ship ready to engage.
Secondly, the crane that was used to load these arms could only lift 40 tonnes up to the level of the belly of the ship, not the deck from which they could possibly have been fired. Each T-55 tank weighs 40 tonnes.
Therefore, they would need a stronger crane which was not plausible in the circumstances. They, however, mounted 14-mm guns but which also could only be used during the day because the sea environment is pitch-black after sun-down and they did not have night vision capabilities.
“And the time we started sailing, there was no moon. Mounting guns on top was as good as useless at night,” the expedition leader says.
Another threat was the Eritrean navy whose government was allegedly supporting some armed groups in Somalia. “A single bomb in the belly of the ship was enough to sink it,” Brig Golooba remembers.
With such risks on the water, the UN and African Union temporarily suspended the arms embargo and eventually gave express clearance to the Kenyan navy vessels to escort the transport ship all the way up to Mogadishu.
The sea journey started on March 15 and took four days to land in Mogadishu.
It was two weeks late. The earlier plan was for the troops left behind to find the transport ship already docked in Mogadishu but because of bureaucracy involved in the clearing of the movement of the hardware by the Kenyan and other authorities, this delay set the mission back.
In military deployments, especially those involving Americans, logistics like food, water and shelter are first put in place and moved to the areas of operation ahead of the deploying force. But for the 1,700 UPDF officers and men of UGABAG1 this wasn’t the case because of the delays.
As such, each soldier was given just five litres of water and some dry ration at Entebbe International Airport before they boarded the aircraft and left Uganda. They were to feed on these very limited provisions until the ship docked.
Not surprisingly, their drinking water quickly ran out before the ship arrived, setting the stage for nightmarish conditions as soldiers battled raging thirst in this very hot country. Some of the stuff they drank is nothing less than shocking.
For the first two weeks, they also never had a single hot meal. The consequences of the dietary horrors faced by Uganda’s first element on Somali soil in the first two weeks will be told in subsequent reports of this series.
Upon boarding the transport aeroplane with his troops and even as the aircraft soared high above East Africa, the foremost thought on Brig Elwelu’s mind was to ensure that he survives the first 30 days.
“I was wondering how the first day would be like. My plan was to survive the first 30 days. Imagine you are landing in the middle of nowhere. You don’t know where to get water from. You have no friend. You don’t know the language and everybody, including the ordinary soldier is looking at you for survival. That was the challenge,” he says.
Every general going into battle will have similar thoughts but for the UPDF vanguard senior officer this was a thought not to be taken lightly.