New facts emerge on Somalia attack

UPDF soldiers at the Bulo Marer base after driving out the al-Shabaab militants. PHOTO/COURTESY/UPDF

What you need to know:

  • Key issues cited are inadequate equipment and a reduction in  external support and AU troop numbers .

On May 26, al-Shabaab raided a UPDF base at Buulo Mareer, a flat marshland located 110km south of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, which previously served as the insurgents’ bastion.

At the crack of dawn, a force of about 800 fighters—four times the size of the Ugandan army in the camp—launched a multi-pronged salvo. They used suicide bombers, eight Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs), grenade launchers and shoulder-held Rocket propelled Grenades (RPGs).

As panic spread across the UPDF camp, with a fighting arsenal including T-55 tanks, 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns and 107mm Katyusha rocket launchers amongst others, the African Union Transition Mission (ATMIS) force managed to take out three Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices.

Staring down the barrel and bleeding from gunshot wounds as the insurgents gained an upper hand, the base commander Lt Col Edward Nyororo—whose storied military career was formed in the crucible of trench war-fare—pulled the trigger to avoid the humiliation of being captured alive by the enemy force. This testimony is relayed by a fleeing soldier who escaped the burning cauldron, leaving behind the skeletal remains of a camp that squatted across Lower Shabelle’s food basket.

“The commanding officer was shot and fearing being captured he shot himself. People thought I was dead, I am fine except the intensity of the war … soldiers withdrew from the camp and we were ambushed twice. We attempted to escape with other soldiers. There were two ambushes and some soldiers were killed when I was watching. I remained in town in the detach[ment]. I left the town at midnight to change cover with another soldier,” the soldier revealed in an audio.

On the same day, 53 other soldiers were killed and a few others taken alive—the highest number since the UPDF placed boots on the ground in the troubled Horn of Africa enclave in March 2007.

By taking his life, Lt Col Nyororo displayed the last act of bravery as part of the credo forged in the treacherous fields as a young soldier during the peace-keeping mission in Liberia in 1994 and 1995, and against the Lords’ Resistance Army in northern Uganda.

What happened?

So how did one of the most efficient East and Central African armies in conventional and asymmetrical warfare be outgunned by a rag-tag al-Shabaab force? Speaking to a number of sources, it has been revealed that gross tactical deployment and intelligence lapses led to a high-death toll.

Three days before the attack, there were intelligence leaks indicating that al-Shabaab fighters were trying to carry out an attack. It is usually difficult to measure the plausibility of such leaks as the weak Somali intelligence network is crippled by internecine clan fights and is infiltrated by double-agents.

Al-Shabaab moved in the night to avoid detection as the Ugandan fighters relied on the Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), which covers a radius of 200km. The equipment has a limited vision to see through clouds and foliage and lacks thermal recognition. The American and Turkish forces have Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which are more versatile drones for combat.

Disjointed recruitment

Another source revealed that a disjointed recruitment policy resulted in the deployment of cooks and drivers from different divisions of the army. Previously, the Uganda Battle Group (UGABAG) was usually picked from one division to ensure that it fights as one cohesive unit.

In a statement shared on Twitter a day after the May 26 attack, President 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,” Uganda’s Commander-in-Chief further 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 (forward operating base).”

The President 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.

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, recently returned from Somalia. It is not clear yet when this probe will be completed.

USA, Turkey blamed

In the aftermath of the attack, Museveni accused the Americans and Turks of not paying heed to the UPDF’s battle trumpet to come to their rescue. “We don’t have big support forces like their air-force and long-range artillery and so on. We have light equipment, which was doing well but the Americans have UAVs, which should help. But I don’t know what they are doing. [UAVs] came for a little while and went back.”

Museveni revealed further, “I was speaking to commanders in Somalia there, I was telling them that if Americans and Turkey don’t want to assist our ground forces to fight al-Shabaab, we shall do it ourselves. We shall find a way of intervening more decisively. I don’t know what they are doing in Somalia [with their UAVs] if they cannot coordinate.”

Another source who spoke on condition of anonymity revealed the Americans are largely interested in hunting down those on its terror lists such as the masterminds of the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam 1998 embassy bombings—Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.

Beyond these tactical lapses, Somalia is currently in the grip of a changing security landscape driven by geo-strategic and economic interests. As a result of these changes, funding towards ATMIS forces has been largely reduced. A highly placed source says divergent interests driven by the United States, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Qatar have lifted the focus off al-Shabaab insurgents.

Currently, the Turks control the southern tip of the airport base and have been offered training to the Gorgor Special Forces—a commando unit consisting of a force between 4,500-5,000 fighters who are armed with weapons from Turkey, including armoured tanks.

In 2017, Turkey opened its largest overseas military training camp on a 400-hectare seafront site in Mogadishu, worth $50 million, which is part of a broader policy of establishing a military stronghold in the Gulf of Aden.

The Americans have been training the Danab Special force brigade for the last decade while the gulf states continue to pursue the diplomatic front. This uncoordinated troop training may lead to operational interoperability challenges.

Shift in power

African Union officials are accusing the West and Gulf states of hijacking this delicate transition.

Saturday Monitor has seen a letter regarding a meeting recently held in Doha, Qatar, on June 5 to discuss the security, political and humanitarian issues affecting Somalia. Amongst the countries that attended include Qatar, Somalia, United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom. However, the African Union was left out, which raises eye-brows.

“The partners affirmed their support for the Federal Government of Somalia to achieve security and stability in the current situation and discuss ways to enhance confidence-building, capacity building and emphasise coordination of counter-terrorism and international security assistance,” reads the joint communique in part.

The partners discussed the importance of ensuring stability and good governance in areas liberated from al-Shabaab. They also committed to improve coordination of assistance and agreed to support the Somali National Consultative Council process to promote political reconciliation.

A source claimed that these meetings are meant to undermine the African Union and reduce the ATMIS to “a hunter’s dog.”

This gradual shift of power began during a conference in Addis in early 2020 when western powers made a decision to scale down the African Union Mission (AMISOM). The western powers proffered a new approach under ATMIS.

Geo-strategic interests

Gradually, the force reduced from 22,000 to 12000 between 2018 and 2023 and is likely to reduce to 8000. Equipment per unit is being reduced, which means that FOBs will be vulnerable targets of the enemy force.

“These shared security objectives are typical of western solutions to African problems whose ultimate content is concealed to themselves. This is what appears to be a conspiracy meant to keep Somalia at an equilibrium of no war, no peace to be able to justify their presence,” argued Simon Mulongo, the former African Union deputy envoy to Mogadishu.

The western powers are encouraging African states to offer bi-lateral security support. Currently the neighbouring states of Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa and Uganda are training close to 2,000 fighters annually. In the view of western powers, this may help in placating Somali nationals who view the foreign armies as occupational forces.

For instance, Gen Odawa Yusuf, the Chief of Defence Forces, trained at Bihanga training school in Ibanda district.

The control of strategic interests and assets in the Horn of Africa and its shoreline is of geo-strategic importance as 30 percent of the European Union oil goes through the gulf of Eden and Red Sea.

As part of their expansive strategic policy in the Horn of Africa, global powers have warships in Djibouti, including the French, the Americans, Russians and China.

Djibouti also hosts the United States combined joint task-force, which comprises multiple U.S. armed services branches, alongside foreign armed service personnel from various allied and partner nations. Headquartered at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, the command works against malign actors to strengthen collective security forces and respond to crises to advance US national interests and promote regional security, stability and prosperity.

Oil reserves

At the economic front, in 2020, Norwegian seismic survey company, TGS, estimated that the Somali basin as a whole likely holds offshore reserves of about 30 billion barrels, with additional onshore reserves, although land estimates are considerably less consistent. Assessments generally include Somaliland and would place Somalia reserves at about the same level as Kazakhstan, which would give the area the 18th or 19th largest reserve globally, as assessed in 2016.

The Somalia basin and Somaliland have offshore and onshore reserves estimated at 30 billion barrels placing them at par with Kazakhstan, which has the 18th largest reserves globally.

There are fears that these oil reserves could trigger another geo-political conflict involving Somalia, the semi-autonomous Somaliland and Kenya, Prof Michael Walls—who teaches Development Politics and Economy at University College London—postulates.

Somalia also has huge deposits of uranium, gold reserves and exports large stocks of livestock to the Gulf nations.