Over the last four years, I have had numerous debates with my friend Mohamed Ahmed Yahya aka Mo, a Briton of Somali descent about UPDF involvement in his motherland. My view is that state consolidation is primarily an endogenous process. External agents can help; but that assistance can only be successful if its role is secondary, aimed at improving the capacity of already existing strong and committed local actors.
The other serious internal actor to emerge ovThe other serious internal actor to emerge over the last 16 years and secure effective control over Mogadishu, establish order and security of person and property were the Islamic Courts Union. Within a short time of taking over Mogadishu and many parts of the country, they had used Islam to create some level of unity and common purpose in a country long divided along clan and sub-clan lines. They had also established the rule of law (hence the term Islamic Courts) in a country that had only known the law of the jungle. However, they were immediately bombed out of Mogadishu by the Americans supported by Ethiopian forces on the ground.
Therefore, the failure to recreate an effective state in Somalia has not been just due to internal infighting among the different clan militias but most critically external interference in its internal politics. My unorthodox view is that it is better to minimally facilitate the strongest group militarily to take control. Even if crude in its operational methods, a group like Al Shabaab can actually be sanitised through cajoling, bribes (of foreign aid and diplomatic recognition) and threats (of invasion or criminal prosecution). Yet today the international community is pushing for a functional democracy and civilised government in Somalia from the word “go”; an unrealistic objective.
Mo, on the other hand, has been a strong supporter of UPDF since it went in telling me that the different clan and Al Shabaab militias have wreaked so much havoc to be allowed to consolidate. On July 26, we boarded a plane for Mogadishu. Although Mo was born there about 35 years ago, he left the country when he was four years and had never returned. On the plane we met other Somalis; one of them was carrying a Danish passport and has been working in Somalia for an NGO, travelling through many parts of the country. This was his first time to Mogadishu. The other was a guy in his late 50s from Canada travelling with his son – again going back to Somalia for the first time in 30 years. I sat next to a Somali who now lives in Kenya but travels frequently to Mogadishu.
Mo and I kicked off our long standing debate on the role of UPDF in his country – is it liberation or occupation? Inadvertently we let lose the dogs of debate on the plane. The Somali from Kenya supported fervently by Mo was clear and unequivocal: UPDF and more precisely President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is the best thing to have happened to Somalia in 20 years. The Somali carrying a Danish passport took almost the opposite view: UPDF’s counter insurgency operations have come at a very high cost in civilian life, what Americans euphemistically call “collateral “damage”. The one with a Canadian passport kept shifting between the two positions unsure which one to really stand for.
My role was to be an agent provocateur: all the time challenging the claim that UPDF are liberators although for nationalistic reasons I would really like to see our military seen by others as liberators. Besides my brother, Col. Kayanja Muhanga, is the commanding officer of UPDF’s Battle Group Eight that routed Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu. He is also the deputy contingent commander of the UPDF in Somalia. Like any human being, I am sure that even subconsciously I can only desire him to be involved in something noble. But I was keen to listen to the views of those most affected by the war – the Somalis – in Somalia.
Any theory has to be tested on the ground especially among those who live the real experience which the theory is meant to explain. If the views and feelings of the concerned parties are incongruent with the theory, then an adjustment is necessary. The tendency by most academics is to create another theory to explain the incongruence – so Karl Marx came with “false consciousness” and his followers in the imperialism school came with “neo-colonialism”. Who is to tell that UPDF are liberators or colonisers: the people of Somalia or a foreigner armed with an abstract theory? The problem of course is that the people of Somalia – as seen from the debate on the plane above – are not univocal. There are as many opinions and feelings as the people who live there. However, if a big majority, say 80 percent, feel that Ugandans are their liberators, who am I to say otherwise?
At Kayanja’s command headquarters, we met a young lady who had been blocked by Al Shabaab from running her shop – because she is a woman and therefore not supposed to do business. Now back to her business under the protection of UPDF, she was passionate, almost hysterical, in her denunciation of Al Shabaab and defence of our troops. I also met a young boy of about 15 whose mother was killed in his presence by Al Shabaab. Kayanja rescued him from the terrorists and now lives with him. For him, the UPDF are not just his saviours but also his family.
When we visited Lower Shebelle region, I held what Americans call “Town Hall” meetings with ordinary Somalis many of them former leaders and fighters of Al Shabaab now turned into soldiers of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and intelligence officers for the UPDF. It is difficult to know whether they could tell me their inner feelings given that I am Ugandan and I spoke to them in the presence of UPDF soldiers. However, there are many whose body language and passion in expressing themselves made me believe they genuinely support our troops’ role in pacifying their country. This was especially so with the younger former Al Shabaab fighters.
One of them is nicknamed “Arab”. He does not know when he was born, never went to school and joined Al Shabaab for lack of anything else to do. Al Shabaab gave meaning to his life; its ideology of fighting for Islam tends to unite many Somalis from different clans and sub clans who would otherwise never work together. And this unifying ideology is what is missing in the TFG – this sense of a common purpose. Some of the Somalis I met were critical of the politicians seeing them as seeking to build their powerbases around the same divisions that have wreaked havoc and dismembered their country.
The one thing I noticed is that UPDF soldiers work with former Al Shabaab fighters as brothers. They eat the same food around the same table – there was no discrimination whatsoever, not even the slightest sign that they are treated with any suspicion. I found this puzzling. Is UPDF being naive? I asked my brother? No, he told me, we can feel many things intuitively. Kayanja told me that when he was training his battle-group with American “counterterrorism experts” in Singo, they told them very many valuable things but equally very many erroneous ones. “Americans think Al Shabaab, because they are labelled terrorists, are enemies whom you should never bring near both organisationally and physically. In UPDF we do not agree with such notions and it explains why we are successful with only 6,000 troops where Americans failed with over 50,000.”
I saw hope in the Special Force of TFG. Its combatants are young, passionate and proud. They have a strong ideological conviction of ridding their country of extremism and helping build a functional state and prosperous economy. The few minutes (perhaps 30) I spent talking to them as they broke their fast and prepared to go on a search and destroy mission that evening was perhaps one of the most encouraging moments of my stay in Mogadishu. I just fell in love with these youthful soldiers and wanted to go with them on their missions and spend an entire day with them. For “security” and other reasons of program I could not. Their rapport with UPDF officers and men was great; and their admiration of our troops amazing.
I was also quick to notice that it does not cost much to transcend the dichotomy of enemy and ally. I spent a couple of days with some of the captured, rescued or surrendered Al Shabaab fighters now working with UPDF. In those few days, a bond of friendship and mutual obligation with many had emerged. I wondered whether it is a shared race (identity can be a powerful emotion)? Or was it my naivety taking advantage of me? In Lower Shebelle region, I asked the governor Abdul Kadhir Sidi to hire the former Al Shabab chief of revenue collection, Hussein Mohamed, as his tax man advising that this man’s skills are critical for the TFG. Kayanja later called me to say that Mohamed had been hired as I had asked, and he had even helped them arrest an Al Shabaab fighter passing through the customs offices by alerting UPDF.
It became clear to me that solving African problems actually needs African solutions, even though there is also a lot to learn from outsiders. In fact one of the ways through which people like Museveni and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda have contained conflicts has been to avoid treating their adversaries as permanent enemies. For Museveni historically, the strategy has been to defeat the enemy militarily and yet not subject them to the humiliation of defeat. Just when Museveni feels the enemy is defeated, he enters into “peace talks” (even though in effect they are actually surrender talks) with them. Consequently, he has tended to integrate enemy combatants into the UPDF, the political leaders into his government as ministers and some get financial compensation to go home.
In Rwanda, a similar logic has been applied. Whether Kagame learnt is from Museveni or it was a pragmatic response to the conditions on the ground is not important. After 1994, the RPF moved quickly to integrate officers and men of the Armed Forces of Rwanda (FAR), the army they had routed, into the RPA now RDF. In July 1994 when it captured power, the RPA was only 18,000 troops strong. By March 1995, they had integrated over 25,000 ex-FAR, making it the majority in the new army. When Rwanda entered into Congo in 1996, over 65 percent of the army was Ex-FAR. In fact it was largely the Ex-FAR units that were sent to rout the interahamwe and return civilians being hostage in refugee camps. When international human rights groups claim that RPF committed genocide against Hutu refugees in Congo, they are actually saying that Hutu officers and men committed genocide against their kith and kin – utter nonsense!
It is not clear whether Uganda’s attempt at state building in Somalia will work. It is really too early to tell. Besides, immediately there is peace in Somalia, the attention of its people will shift from the threats of Al Shabab to even little mistakes by our troops. Once Al Shabaab is finished, even small transgressions now tolerable are likely to become explosive. Assuming a UPDF mamba on one of its forays knocked and killed a Somali child or an errant UPDF soldier raped a Somali woman. Such small incidents can be tolerated now but will become fault lines tomorrow. How will UPDF cope with growing Somali nationalism demanding end of liberation that will now have turned into occupation? We do not know.
For now, I can only conclude by re-echoing the lesson I got from my brother, Col. Kayanja: UPDF has succeeded with only 6,000 troops in Somalia where America failed with 50,000 – not because it has superior fighting skills but because it has a superior ideology and a superior counter terrorism doctrine.