Too early for foreign troops to leave Somalia - UPDF commander

Brig Gen Peter Gaetano Omola during an interview at the Sector One Headquarters in Mogadishu, Somalia, recently. PHOTO/FRANKLIN DRAKU

What you need to know:

  • The UPDF soldiers serving under the Africa Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) have had a difficult year marked by the infamous May 26 attack by the Al-Shabaab militants at Bulamarer, 130km southwest of the Somali capital Mogadishu. Since 2007 when Uganda first deployed its troops in Somalia, large swaths of land have been secured from Al-Shabaab. However, the funders have over the years been putting pressure on the African Union to draw down on foreign forces from Somalia and allow government security forces to take over.  Monitor’s Franklin Draku caught up with the Ugandan contingent commander under ATMIS, Brig Gen Peter Gaetano Omola, at the Sector One headquarters in Mogadishu.Below is the excerpt of the interview.

Give us an overview of the security situation in Somalia

Somalia is generally safe, if you compare with when we first deployed here in 2007. The situation has improved in many folds as the locals are able to go about with their own businesses normally, a lot of developments in terms of infrastructure and businesses have taken place. For example if you compare the airport, the seaport and the city then, it is very safe compared to what we found here.
As a result, most of the Somalis in the diaspora have come back to contribute to the development of their country and indeed the problems that existed at the time such as the political crisis and human plight have been addressed.

 What has ATMIS done about mindset change and development?

The Federal Government of Somalia is largely leading in this. But as ATMIS, we do a lot of civil military cooperation and this is how far we can go. The Somalia leadership is handling such through dialogues and continued improvement of social services to the public. 

What challenges are you facing in Somalia

There are no major challenges, except the current floods making most of the roads impassable, civilian settlements flooded and expected 

outbreaks of waterborne related diseases. We are experiencing a lot of rainfall in the entire Somalia.  This is affecting our troops in forward operating bases because most of them are flooded, affecting the supplies to our troops. We are coordinating with some of the NGOs in our areas of operations to see how the local population can be supported. 
The other challenge is the saline environment that causes rapid tear and wear to our equipment, which needs constant repairs. This is at the locations along the coastline, which increase our cost of operations.

 The other is the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and this is what Al-Shabaab uses as their weapon of choice. There are many types of the IEDs, the personnel borne, which is strapped on the bodies of the suicide bombers, and the vehicle borne and the roadside ones. These are still a big challenge to combat. Other challenges such as delays in mission cash allowances, compensation of our injured personnel and the dead are being handled procedurally.

How far have you gone with the mission of degrading Al-Shabaab?

Initially when we deployed, we were only confined in Mogadishu but towards the end of 2011, we started expanding our area of responsibility out of Mogadishu. As I speak now, our furthest deployment is Baraawe, 240kms from here. Al-Shabaab are still active and continue conducting attacks on some of our forward operating bases, but overtime I think we are doing good because apart from using terror cells, they cannot face us in closer quarter fighting. They use the suicide bombers, vehicle borne IEDs and roadside bombs. However, we have overtime developed measures to counter their use of these IEDs.

What achievements have you registered over time?

We have degraded Al-Shabaab’s threat to a greater extent and then and now we are controlling a bigger chunk of area under sector one. When we came, the government then was sitting in Nairobi, but now there is a government in Somalia, democratically elected by the people, the President is here, there is a parliament and there is a lot of business going on. For example at the airport, there is an increased flight volume. The current statistics show that over 8,034 international flights are registered every year in Mogadishu, of which 4,291 are arrivals. There are also 18,166 domestic flights and 1,866 mission flights annually. There are three major seaports; Mogadishu, Kismayo and Barawe and by 2000, they used to receive between 1,100 and 2,700 twenty feet equivalent container units. Now the current statistics indicate that seaports receive more than 3 million tonnes per year. 

All these translate to increased revenue. Before the intervention of Amisom, now ATMIS, you used to hear of piracy, which insecurity was affecting the entire region, and this would spill over to our country. Now our coming here is very vital because we fight it off away from home. Securing here is equally securing home.

How prepared is the Somalia government for transition?

We are already in the transition. AMISOM transitioned to ATMIS in April 2022 and the roadmap is that ATMIS is supposed to exit Somalia by December 2024. We are supposed to do this in four phases. In each phase, we are supposed to do a drawdown of forces. And as we reduce troops, we are supposed to hand over some of the areas to the Somalia government. We handled phase one very successfully. In sector one, we handed over FOBs that were taken over by the Somali national army and in the other sectors they also handed over the same. Now in sector one, we drew down 400 troops and in phase one, a total of 2,000 troops were drawn down.

Now, we looked at the situation in sector one and despite drawing down and Somali security forces taking over, we then saw the need to retain the forces that we had drawn and indeed we have retained the 400 personnel. A strategic decision was taken and 400 personnel have been retained because we saw it very necessary to still retain the forces here. As we continue with our concept of operation, the Somali government also has its own transitional plan that has to run alongside the ATMIS drawdown and the plan entails that as we are drawing down, they should be doing certain things in phases, for example, force generation, training of and arming of their forces, which is already ongoing. Definitely, the security of this country should at one time be in the hands of the Somalis but you shouldn’t rush it because it can deteriorate within a twinkle of an eye. So we had advised that the concept of drawdown does not really suit what is on the ground. 

Ugandan soldiers under ATMIS search for explosive devices next to their base in Ceeljaale, Somalia on September 19, 2019. PHOTO/AFP

The period given is not feasible, so when it came to drawdown in phase two, the Somali government itself had difficulty and it wrote to the African Union, requesting for a halt in drawdown for three months. We are now in that halt period which is ending in December. But again the three months are nothing and after the expiry of the three months, we need more time. I think we can begin examining how best we can exit because for sure there is still a lot that needs to be done, so in my own opinion, I don’t think it is the right time.

What would you advise then, if you think this is not the right time?

ATMIS has a timeline to exit by December 2024. However, this timeline is not static or cast in stone. The mission’s strategic leadership shall always guide on when to finally exit Somalia. As of now, preparations are geared towards handing over the security responsibilities to the Somalia security forces through supporting their troop generation drive, joint training and operations, among others.

How can a Ugandan benefit from the peace prevailing in Somalia.
Uganda is equally going to be secure with no terror threat (regional peace) no spillovers of insecurity to Uganda. So many Ugandans are already employed here with NGOs and private companies. The other benefit is trade between the two countries.  Uganda Airlines is already operating here at a competitive rate and flies four times a week. They bring and take both merchandise and passengers but that may not be enough. As the military, we have done our part, but the business should also do their part. There are so many business opportunities that our people need to come and exploit.

What is the status of the investigations in the heinous killing of Ugandan forces in Bulamarer Forward Operation Base in May?

Investigations were completed, recommendations were suggested and most of them have been implemented. The General Court Martial was here for the last two weeks and concluded their cases last week and sentences were passed out.

Why has it taken them so long to account for the number of soldiers who died? It is not a duty of the investigation team to account for the number of the soldiers who died. Those who died are known and were taken home for burial. Those who are injured are receiving treatment at various levels (hospitals) and others are back to work.

What mechanism have they taken in place so that we don’t have such occurrences?

So many tactical adjustments have been made, which I cannot talk about here because I don’t want to endanger the security of my people. But at a strategic level, we took measures, which will not allow the Al-Shabaab terrorists to attack us again.

What is the fate of the captured soldiers?

Where and who are they? I have also heard there was a video of captured soldiers that was run but I have not seen that video myself. However, we don’t have any other information and if we do get one, we shall definitely update you.

There are so many families crying over delayed compensation for their victims. What is UPDF doing to compensate the families of the dead and injured?

This is being addressed. As we speak, a joint assessment team comprising the UPDF and African Union is meeting in Uganda to ensure that the backlog of compensation of our fallen and injured is cleared. The process is a little bureaucratic but thorough to ensure that all the dead and injured are compensated.

How safe are the waters on the Somalia coast from the pirates who have been a problem to the international ships?

Somalia has the second longest coastline on the Indian Ocean, after Madagascar. The waters are now safe and free of piracy. We have a marine component that does patrols within the range of Mogadishu, while other international missions such as the European Union naval force combat piracy in the deep waters. We also train the Somalia navy force and most times we operate together as a means of developing their capacity.

What is the capacity of the Somalia National Army?

The Somalia National Army is a strong force and they have continued to build capacity in terms of training and armament. We shall continue to support them to further improve their capacity to neutralise the Al-Shabaab and any other threats that might arise in future.

ATMIS is composed of many forces; how have they managed to keep them united without clashing?

Yes, ATMIS is composed of forces from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Eritrea and Djibouti. These are allocated sectors and we all support each other. We also have the uniform police units from Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. They equally play a very vital role in the mission area. It is a military tactic to collaborate and support each friendly force and this is achieved through unified command and sharing of resources and intelligence.

How do you prepare soldiers for the mission?

Troops are trained for mission at the peace support training school which is at Singo, Kapeeka. In some instances, we also give some in-mission training to our troops, an example is the additional training in C-IED.