How Somalia in EAC can make Uganda a ‘crisis superpower’

Mr Charles Onyango-Obbo

What you need to know:

I was in power, I would turn the Engineering Brigade into a pan-African Crisis Engineering and Recovery Corps.

Last week the leaders of the East African Community meeting in Arusha, Tanzania, admitted Somalia as the eighth member of the bloc.

Too many people still see Somalia as a failed state, a war-ravaged country. It is little surprise that most people are saying “Somalia will bring nothing but trouble and terrorism to the EAC”.  In Uganda’s case, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) has been in the country as part of the African Union peacekeeping force for nearly 17 years. The modest turnaround in Somalia’s fortunes today would perhaps not have happened if the UPDF hadn’t launched the suicidal mission into Mogadishu to take the city and begin the fight against Al Shabaab – too many of us see Somalia as a basket case that has bled us. Perhaps instead of asking what Somalia can bring, we should ask what we can take there.

When I was last in Mogadishu, I went to a bombed-out hotel which the UPDF were using as one of their defence posts. The informal name of the hotel was “Idi Amin hotel”. Field Marshal Idi Amin was a good friend of Somali strongman and General Mohammed Siad Barre, who ruled the country for 20 years until he was deposed in the Somali Rebellion in 1991.

The story goes that Amin stayed at the hotel whenever he visited Mogadishu, and his favourite room overlooked the swimming pool two floors up. Amin would jump into his trunks, elevate himself on the balcony, and jump into the pool, creating a massive splash that scattered the water far and wide. I have never found anyone to confirm if the story is true, but it formed just one of the many warm yarns about Uganda and Ugandans in Somalia.

Uganda wasn’t as strange to Somalis as I had expected to find. There is something Ugandan about the Somalis – or there is something Somali about Ugandans. We are both banana people. Today Uganda is Africa’s leading producer of bananas. That is partly because of the collapse of Somalia. The Somalis too are banana people. Until its civil war, it was one of the largest exporters of bananas in Africa.

The Somalis still eat a lot of bananas, but the country has since turned into a net importer of the fruit. And therein lies the first opportunity; no country is better placed to partner with Somalia in a banana bounceback like Uganda. We have the expertise and the banana varieties that can give Somalia its banana mojo back. Girded by the UPDF, the EAC is the path that gets enterprising Ugandans there. And beyond UPDF, there are Ugandans already doing big business in Somalia. It is just that they are invisible in our media. A Ugandan-Somali friend has been rebuilding schools and has a big road-building contract in Somalia. However, because of the way other East African countries dealt with Somalia, he couldn’t run the operation out of Uganda. He has an office that manages some logistics for the projects in Kenya, but otherwise, he runs it mostly out of Dubai. For people like him, a Somalia that is integrated into East Africa will make his business easier.  At the wider political level, Somalia is a call for Uganda to engineer itself as a regional environmental/climate change power. Somalia is a bridge into the Horn of Africa that is ravaged by either extreme drought or extreme floods.

The UPDF has an Engineering Brigade, but its focus is too local. If I was in power, I would turn the Engineering Brigade into a pan-African Crisis Engineering and Recovery Corps.

Its job would be to go into places where there are droughts, famines, floods, and wildfires in Africa as first responders – and get out within six months. I would create at its core specialist lethal battalions that go in with a lot of firepower to secure the ground.

The bulk of the corps would be civilian specialists -in health, agriculture, counselling, and teachers etc- most of them part-time. I would recruit one million young people, all of them university and high school graduates, train them to exhaustion, and even get them to be parachuters who can be dropped into desperate places.

I would buy at least 12 of those hardy Russian military transporters and high-end tools. We are headed to a time when environmental crises will be the order of the day. Given the vacuum, and the “international community” increasing reluctance to put their people in Africa’s crisis, it could quickly have more contract offers than it can fill - and be very profitable. Right now, no African state or military provides this service. It won’t be for long, though. Nimble players like Rwanda could soon swoop in.

With Somalia in the EAC, it would put Uganda at the centre of offering this solution for a burning Earth. Someone is going to make money from the misery. We might as well be the first

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.