Why Somalia wishes UPDF wouldn’t leave

Ugandan soldiers man a field gun used to bombard al-shabaab positions in CeelJaale, Marka District in Somalia on November 12, 2023. PHOTO/FRANKLIN DRAKU

What you need to know:

  • Locals say the national army is simply not prepared for the task given their limited resources in the face of a determined enemy.

On March 5, 2007, Ugandan soldiers deployed under the African Union’s Battle Group One received a baptism of heavy gunfire as their plane touched down at Somalia’s war-ravaged Aden Adde International Airport. It is now 15 years since that testing day and the troops are preparing to return home, possibly for good, but many in Somalia fear the country could collapse again.

In 2007, the Somali national government was operating from exile in Nairobi, Kenya after falling to inter-clan fighting in 1991. The country was a lawless concrete jungle, torn between warlords who controlled swathes of territory across Somalia.

Over time, the Ugandan contingent were joined by troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia and others in peace enforcement operations under the auspices of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). 

Almost two decades later, the forces now deployed under a new mandate issued in April 2022 and renamed African Union Transition Mission (Atmis), are supposed to leave the security of this troubled country in the hands of its fledgling Somalia National Army (SNA). Locals say the SNA is simply not prepared for the task given their limited resources in the face of a determined enemy.

At least 2,000 soldiers have already left though Uganda has kept a small force at some forward operating bases (FOBs). Ugandan contingent commander, Brig Peter Gaetano Omola told Monitor in a recent interview that a complete pull-out now is not advisable for now.

“…Now, we looked at the situation in sector one and despite drawing down and Somali security forces taking over, these were areas in our rear, here in Mogadishu, and areas close to Mogadishu but not those isolated FOBs. We saw the need to retain the forces… A strategic decision was taken because we saw it very necessary to still retain the forces here,” he said.

All foreign forces are expected to leave the country by the end of next year, stoking fears that the al-shabaab terrorists could intensify attacks. On Saturday last week, the terrorists carried out one such attack against Ugandan troops, but they were repulsed.

Maj Peter Mugisa, the Uganda contingent spokesman, said “what happened was what we refer to it as a probe attack and this is common. They usually come either in the morning or evening hours near our FOBs 400metres away and begin firing into the base”.

It is such attacks that have some Somali tribal chiefs and locals very worried.

Ugandan troops patrol CeelJaale, Marka District in Somalia on November 12, 2023. PHOTO/FRANKLIN DRAKU

Sheikh Yusuf Osman Ali, head of the Ceeljaale chiefdom, said allowing the UPDF to withdraw is dangerous for the relative peace they are enjoying.

“AMISOM here has done a very good job here. Before the Amisom came here, we were standing on one leg, constantly running away. We are now standing on two legs, peacefully. We are here to cooperate with them and we are not happy with withdrawal of Atmis forces,” he said.

Sheikh Osman Ali said their opposition to the al-shabaab has made them a prime target.
“We chose to fight al-shabaab because they kill everything. They need your children to carry things for them and ask the children to kill their fathers and mothers. They keep on disturbing us all the time that’s why we agreed to fight them. We don’t want Atmis  (the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia),  Uganda to withdraw from here,” he said.

Hajji Bufeet Isa, the deputy chief and member of civil-military cooperation, was very direct on November 12 when UPDF officials met the community in CeelJaale. 

Mr Isa asked Uganda’s army spokesperson, Brig Felix Kulayigye, to deliver his message confirming the chief’s views.
“I want to send a message to President Museveni: The people of Somalia have said we don’t need Atmis to withdraw… The Somali government is requesting President Museveni not to accept the withdrawal of the troops,”he said, adding that, “We need Atmis here for another five years because we don’t have a government and al-shabaab fighters are still so many so we need the UPDF here”.

Osman Ibrahim Aribou, the SNA commander in Marka, acknowledged that Somalia’s security forces are ill equipped to contain the terrorists who present a serious threat to the civilian population.

“Tell Museveni that if he wants to withdraw UPDF, he should also prepare to offer us asylum and refugee settlement because we shall not stay to die here. Our people shall follow the UPDF back to Uganda,” he said.

In response, Brig Felix Kulayigye was quick to say the UPDF is in Somalia only to help them sort out their issues.
“Our role is to support you to solve the problem and when it is done, we shall go back home so I thank you very much for cooperating with us…However, as you know the English say the one who pays the piper decides the tune. Not until the Africa Union has the capacity to finance its operations, those who finance will continue dictating the timeframe irrespective of the situation on the ground,” he said. 

UPDF spokesperson Felix Kulayigye. PHOTO/FILE/DRANKLIN DRAKU 

Brig Omola also observed that while the Somali army is stronger today, it is still too early for foreign forces to exit because the gains made in the last 15 years could swiftly be lost.

“Their military is fairly stronger than what used to be there, but there is still a lot that needs to be done, so in my own opinion, I don’t think it is the right time,” he said.

Prevailing situation
A walk through areas where the UPDF maintains FOBs reveals happy locals who feel secure being close to the bases. Retail businesses have sprung up, with many locals saying they owe this to the presence of the Ugandan troops.

Ms Aisha Sebbi, a businesswoman, said her family lost all their wealth to the al-shabaab in 2012 when their villages was ransacked by the terrorists. 

“When the Ugandan army deployed here, we all left our villages and came and settled nearby here because we knew we would be protected. When I came here, I found love and eventually opened a business which you can now see is doing well. When Ugandan soldiers leave this place, we shall all go together because that is where my family now belongs,” Ms Sebbi said.

This reality is confirmed by several officers including Col Christopher Berochan, commanding officer of Battle Group 38 which replaced Battle Broup 35 in Barawe town after the deadly May 26 attack on the UPDF FOB in Buulo Marer. He tells the story of how as he planned a counterattack the locals thought the UPDF was withdrawing from the area and wanted to flee. 

“They were ready to move to wherever our forces would be deployed because they feel safe when they are with the UPDF and we are ready to protect them,” he said.

The same account is given by Col Charles Asiimwe, the Battle Group 37 commander whose units are stationed in Qoryole and Janaale just outside Marka.

“We work with the chiefs and elders and local informers who give us information. We act on these pieces of information to hit at the terrorists and we give them no chance to attack,” he said.

Ambassador Souef Mohamed El-Amine, who heads Atmis, however said while the exit of the foreign forces will create a vacuum, neighbouring countries have all agreed to keep watch over Somalia beyond the December 2024 exit deadline.
He said prior to the announcement of the exit dates, wide consultations were done and all parties agreed to the timeline, with the Somali government expressing a readiness to take over its own security.

“I think the commitment is there and we are working closely with the different actors. Somalia will not be left alone. Neighbouring countries will continue to support the Somali people in different ways,” he said.

So, once again Somalia finds itself at a critical crossroads with the threat of renewed civil strife lingering on the horizon as the stabilising presence of Atmis fades away. Uganda’s troops are leaving a theatre where they are still wanted and not even the mutual affection, cultivated over the years, seems to be enough to make them stay.