Big guns Uganda to stay put in Somalia

UPDF soldiers search for suspected IED on a supply route at Ceeljaale, Marka District, Lower Shabelle region. Inset is Brig Anthony Lukwago Mbuusi.  PHOTO/JULIUS BARIGABA

What you need to know:

  • Uganda intends to maintain its presence in Somalia by participating in the proposed multinational stabilisation force, as requested by the United Nations Security Council.

At 12.32pm, Brig Anthony Lukwago Mbuusi received a call. In the next few minutes, early lunch was shunted aside and his operation room was suddenly all action: maps, graphics, PowerPoints, electronic boards and computer work.  

“Get these coordinates,” he ordered his military grid reference system specialist Capt David Onyango, at the headquarters of Uganda contingent of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis) at Base Camp, Mogadishu. 

Brig Lukwago, who is the contingent commander of Uganda troops under Atmis, immediately called commanders in the forward-operating bases to expect “visitors” as he went to work on an interactive military board. 

The call he had received was an alert from the Somali National Army that it had intercepted an al-Shabaab message to its mujahedeen (militants) that the terrorist group planned to launch attacks “today or tomorrow” between Janaale and Quoruyole towns, in Lower Shabelle.

Minutes earlier, in an interview with embedded journalists, Brig Lukwago had alluded to open spaces in this area after the Uganda contingent saw more than 1,400 soldiers leave the mission in two drawdowns in June and December 2023.

“What happens to these places? The population will either become vulnerable to al-Shabaab attacks or subscribe to al- Shabaab. You can see the fix they are in,” he said.

“They are telling us to draw down, but we shall still have a force on the ground. We are not about to create an Afghanistan here,” he added.

UPDF to stick around
Ugandan troops cover Mogadishu where they secure the Atmis diplomatic mission, force headquarters, contingent offices, United Nations agencies, visiting VIPs as well as securing the strategic commercial infrastructure, Mogadishu seaport.

Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), which forms Sector 1 of Atmis, also deploys over vast territory that covers more than 240km of the long Somali shoreline, its main highways, coastal and nearby hinterland towns with many flashpoints. 

These areas teem with several al-Shabaab hotspots, in towns such as Quoruyole, Goloweyn, Embresso, Buulo Mareer, Ceeljaale, Buufow, Kilometre 67, Marka, Kilometre 50, Bariire, and Baraawe.

Buulo Mareer, where UPDF lost 54 soldiers last May, is still fresh in the minds. Each alert that commanders receive is processed with haste and precision to locate enemy position and formation in order to mount defences and blunt the threat. Use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs)—as was the case at Buulo Mareer—and mortar fire, remain a serious threat and the major methods of attack by the al-Shabaab militants, commanders said. 

But forward operating bases have created several layers of defence a distance before the base, to slow the approaching VBIEDs, as support of aerial firepower and infantry forces join in to deal with the attackers.

With another drawdown due in June, Atmis will see 4,000 troops depart, of which Ugandans will be 1,000, making the stakes higher to protect civilians under Sector 1. 

The AU force currently has just more than 13,000 troops left in Somalia, down from 22,000 strong at the peak of deployment. After another group departs in June the mission will be down to 9,000 military personnel. 

But stakeholders, who include the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), United Nations, African Union and international partners like European Union, the US and Turkey, have proposed a new force to take over from Atmis once the AU mission’s mandate expires on December 31, 2024. 

Nathan Mugisha, Uganda’s Deputy Head of Mission in Somalia, said UPDF will continue to deploy in the Horn of Africa, as part of the proposed post-Atmis force. 

“Uganda will be here in whatever form,” he told journalists at his offices in Mogadishu, on April 17, adding, “The new AU-led mission is being planned on the United Nations Security Council 2719. They [UNSC] have asked us to stay and we’ve said yes.” 

Thrashing out the details
The strength, scope, name and composition of the new force is not yet clear as the AU and Somalia conduct a full threat and needs assessment that will be tabled before the UNSC in May. 

But diplomatic envoys that are familiar with the matter say the proposed mission will be a multinational stabilisation force. 

“This new name should come with the appropriate mandate in composition and strength which should be commensurate with the tasks on the ground [because] as you reduce numbers, those who remain behind will be vulnerable,” Ambassador Mugisha said. 

Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia and Djibouti form the current mission, which in 2022 evolved from the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) that was created on January 19, 2006, and had the first boots of Ugandan troops on the ground in March 2007. 

The spokespersons of Kenya and Burundi contingents could not confirm if their armies will continue to deploy in Somalia after the expiry of the current mandate, saying it is too early to discuss their countries contributing troops to the stabilisation force. 

However, they indicated that the post-Atmis security framework is not up to the troop contributing countries to decide but it is a process that is owned and led by the FGS. 

“Our immediate priority is to implement the Somalia Transition Plan and the degradation of al-Shabaab. Post Atmis arrangements are in the hands of FGS,” said the Kenya contingent spokesperson.

Al-Shabaab on the prowl
As the numbers of peacekeepers reduce, al-Shabaab has ruthlessly taken advantage by attacking Atmis bases and regaining lost territory in parts of Somalia such as Galmudug and Hirshabelle. On March 21, for instance, a young boy disguised as a female, who had explosives strapped to his body, attempted to enter a base manned by Uganda troops in Lower Shabelle. Elsewhere, on April 11, two Somalis armed with pistols also attacked another military unit. 

“We are sparsely deployed and thus leave pockets of space where the enemy tries to exploit the gaps to come to the city and launch attacks using mortars,” Brig Lukwago explained. 

The European Union, a key Somalia partner in the rebuilding of the country’s security sector, has consistently warned that while drawdowns are taking place, the FGS has not achieved adequate force generation to replace the lost capacity of Atmis numbers.  

Somalia’s military strength is 15,000 and an additional 2,000 reserve force. Of this number, 10,200 are Ugandan-trained, according to Ambassador Mugisha. 

Ugandan commanders agree that the mission of rebuilding Somalia’s military has not matched the task at hand. 
“They haven’t really built an adequate force that can conduct operations, defend borders and secure the population from al- Shabaab,” said Brig Lukwago. 

Within the diplomatic and security sectors, there are indications that the stabilisation force that will replace Atmis will focus on key centres like Mogadishu, but experts punch holes in this strategy as defending from the rear, instead of attacking enemy bases.

Uganda commanders also told Sunday Monitor that even in the unlikely event that UPDF is excluded from the new force, it will still maintain presence in Somalia to secure its materiel and equipment—land, naval and aerial—worth billions of dollars, until the last piece is safely out. 

“We will not accept to be stampeded out of Somalia until every piece is at sea and safely out if this place,” said a senior officer, who requested anonymity, as he is not cleared to speak for the contingent.

“We don’t want to be drowned in the ocean with our equipment like the Americans were,” he added.