What you need to know:
- President Museveni says UPDF lost 54 soldiers when al-Shabaab overran a base on May 26.
The bodies of dozens of Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers killed by al-Shabaab a week ago in Somalia will be flown home this week, the military has said, without specifying the day.
The militants attacked and overran a UPDF Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Buulo Mareer, alternately spelled as Bulo Marer, on May 26.
Following days of silence and lingering questions about the battlefield situation, President Museveni on Saturday said Uganda lost up to 54 soldiers, the worst in the record of its Somalia mission.
UPDF first deployed in Mogadishu in March 2007 under a United Nations-authorised African Union Peace-Keeping Mission in Somalia (Amisom), now the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia or ATMIS, to which Uganda remains the largest troop contributor.
“Our soldiers demonstrated remarkable resilience and reorganised themselves, resulting in the recapture of the base,” State House in a statement quoted Gen Museveni as having told a retreat of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party Caucus at the National Leadership Institute Kyankwanzi (Nali).
He added: “We discovered the lifeless bodies of 54 fallen soldiers, including a commander [Lt Col Edward Nyororo].”
The Commander-in-Chief said two other commanders he named as Oluka and Obbo, both at the rank of Major, had been taken into custody, pending their trial at the General Court Martial for allegedly ordering soldiers to withdraw instead of repulsing the attackers.
It remained unclear what the officers, one of whom the President previously named as Maj Okia, before re-identifying the suspects as Oluka and Obbo, would be charged with.
In a statement shared on Twitter on May 27, a day after the attack, Gen Museveni noted that “some of the soldiers did not perform as expected and panicked, which disorganised them and the al-Shabaab took advantage of that to overrun the base and destroy some of the [UPDF equipment]”.
“The panic,” he wrote, “it seems, was totally unnecessary because, in fact, both the anti-tank ditch and our soldiers had destroyed the three vehicles of explosives outside the FOB.”
It remained unclear then why the troops, armed with two t-55 tanks, a pair of 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns and 107mm Katyusha rocket launchers, were ordered to withdraw, leading some to escape to another UPDF base nine kilometres away.
Under Section 29 of the UPDF Act, a person subject to military law, who displays cowardice in action, including running away or inciting others to run away from the enemy, if convicted of the offence of cowardice in action, suffers death or life imprisonment.
We were unable to establish when the trial of Maj Obbo and Maj Oluka will start and President Museveni in his comments made no reference to soldiers al-Shabaab wounded or took as prisoners of war.
In an interview yesterday, UPDF and Defence Spokesman, Brig Felix Kulayigye, said the bodies of the slain soldiers will be flown back into the country this week.
“The process of informing the next of kin [of the deceased soldiers] is going on,” he said by telephone yesterday.
Notifying the next-of-kin first before public disclosure of particulars of soldiers killed in combat is a standard military doctrine the world over, although in this case, the family of Lt Col Nyororo, the highest ranked officer who died in the Somalia attack, said neither the Defence ministry nor UPDF had notified them a week later.
Under the force agreement with AU, the next-of-kin of a soldier killed in action is compensated up to $50,000 (Shs185m), meaning the continental bloc and the European Union, which picks such bills, is likely to pay close to Shs10b for the fifty-four soldiers Uganda lost late last month.
Highly-placed security sources told this newspaper that al-Shabaab after capturing Buulo Mareer ringed it off with explosives, delaying UPDF’s re-entry into the base during a counter-offensive.
The raid prompted the United States Africa Command (Africom), which provides technical and intelligence support to ATMIS, pounded neighbourhoods of the Forward Operating Base in strikes it said targeted and destroyed some of the Al-Shabaab’s war loot, including weapons.
The UPDF Land Forces Commander, Lt Gen Kayanja Muhanga, who is leading a Board of Inquiry established by Chief of Defence Forces Gen Wilson Mbadi, flew to Somalia a day after the raid for a fact-finding mission during which he has sought to lift the morale of soldiers on the ground.
In Kampala, President Museveni had said the Buulo Mareer was being manned by a company, a military formation of 200-250 soldiers, at the time of the attack.
They fled when overwhelmed by al-Shabaab, he noted. The militants in what Kampala dismissed as a propaganda had claimed that it killed 137 UPDF soldiers and captured others.
“The mistake was made by two commanders, Maj. Oluka and Maj. Obbo, who ordered the soldiers to retreat. They have been apprehended and will face charges in the Court Martial,” Gen Museveni told Members of Parliament at the retreat in Nali which ends today.
The militants had also attempted another attack on a UPDF base in Baraawe, Somalia, but the Ugandan soldiers repulsed them, military sources said.
This newspaper paper has learnt that soldiers injured during the May 26 raid were receiving treatment in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, Kenya, and in Somalia.
The al-Shabaab used Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) and suicide bombers to breach the defences at Buulo Mareer base at dawn, prompting Ugandan and Somali security chiefs to ban night movement of vehicles on Afgoye-Barawe highway in Lower Shabelle.
President Museveni has linked the success of the al-Shabaab attack to corruption within UPDF where he is the commander-in-chief.
In his address last week to the NRM Caucus retreat at Nali, Gen Museveni told lawmakers that “the army is moving well, but I think you should emphasise the issue of corruption once you happen to be deployed”.
“Make sure corruption which has been a problem in the civilian sector does not come to the army. We have had some cases of corruption,” he said, adding, “Corruption is very dangerous. If you steal fuel from the army, you steal supplies, you steal money, and you are an enemy of the army. Corruption is not the future.”