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UPDF Somalia losses at 150, but officials maintain only 75 have died

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Although UPDF in Somalia is earning praise for taming the al-Shabab militants, The Observer has learnt that all is not well with the fighters on the ground, with reports of concealed death numbers, corruption, and a deployment-for-cash scam.

The army leadership yesterday strongly denied the latest reports of impropriety, with the spokesman Col.Felix Kulayigye, questioning the motives of anyone with information contrary to what has been officially revealed. However, that this information is reaching State House in form of intelligence dossiers, as The Observer has been told, suggests that the truth lies somewhere in between.

Uganda has well over 5,000 troops in the United Nations-backed African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), meant to recreate the failed state alongside soldiers from Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia  and Djibouti. Uganda was the first country to deploy Amisom troops in 2007 in the country’s capital Mogadishu, where they controlled just a few blocks with the rest of the city in the hands of the al-shabab militants.

In a recent interview published by this newspaper, the Ugandan contingent commander, Brig Paul Lokech, rightly pointed out that our troops were succeeding where more prominent forces like the Americans failed. These successes, however, seem to belie a mission whose execution has problems that need to be addressed.

Information available to The Observer suggests that sections of the army leadership have not been honest with Ugandans, regarding the cost of the Somalia mission to Uganda – in terms of lives lost. A State House source says available intelligence shows a sad picture of men and women in uniform putting their lives on the line, while some individuals in Kampala smile all the way to the bank.

The prevailing scenario brings back memories of ‘ghost soldiers’, a cancer that threatened to eat up the national army a decade ago. We have been told that some officials are now suspected of profiteering from the Somalia mission because of being in position to influence who gets deployed.

150 dead
According to the source, as recently as a month ago, the president and commander-in-chief was told that the official number of Ugandan soldiers killed in Somalia was around 75 soldiers. However, military intelligence has since told President Museveni the actual death toll is about 150. It is not clear how Museveni reacted to these intelligence reports, but our source said the commanders have argued that, in understating the price we have paid, they acted in good faith.

They are understood to have claimed that “the truth” would not only embolden the terrorists, it could also blunt the Ugandan public’s support for Amisom. UPDF spokesman Kulayigye yesterday insisted that no one had reason or even capacity to conceal figures, especially from President Museveni. He said the Ugandan contingent in Somalia had not lost a soldier in nearly six months.

“I don’t think anyone loves the UPDF more than the commander-in-chief,” said Kulayigye, adding that the president followed the Somalia mission closely, knew the truth and was accountable to Ugandans.

More than the loss of life, however, what really threatens to jeopardise the good work of Uganda’s men and women in Somalia is money – or precisely anger over how it is distributed. In March, The Observer reported that although our soldiers had been fighting tooth and nail in Somalia, and although the African Union had been duly paying money meant for salaries, the soldiers had not been paid for five months (see: UPDF soldiers in Somalia not paid for months.)

That report quoted an angry UPDF soldier saying: “The public should know the truth; the contract states that AU remits the money to UPDF, which in turn pays us. We are fully aware that AU has been fulfilling its obligations faithfully. The problem is within UPDF.”
Another officer said: “UPDF breached all the terms of the contract that we signed with the UN. First, it was the salary, then the visiting rights and our work leaves. This is betrayal of the highest order.”

The soldiers were also angry that the army deducted $200 from their monthly salaries for administrative costs; something they said was not in their contract. In the meantime, their families back home in Uganda were suffering, with some children locked out of school over non-payment of fees.

However, we have since established that the level of discontent is higher than it seemed in March. Intelligence sources say that at least 80 soldiers in Somalia had petitioned their commanders, threatening not to return home until their financial grievances had been addressed. Col Kulayigye yesterday reiterated his earlier position, that there was no bigger problem than only two months’ arrears, which had since been paid. Turning philosophical, Kulayigye said if one went in search of negatives, one would always find them.

Deploying bribery
According to a State House source, President Museveni was recently informed that the cancer that is corruption has not spared the sensitive organ that is Amisom.  The President was reportedly informed of how some soldiers paid bribes to be deployed in the lucrative – although deadly – Somalia mission.

A UPDF soldier deployed in Somalia expects a little over $700 to be sent to his/her Ugandan bank account, while $200 is taken by the army and $100 given directly to the soldier in the field per month. To make matters worse, the bribe-paying soldiers are deployed at the expense of others who have usually completed the requisite thorough training to prepare them for the warzone.

This information had earlier been published by Red Pepper, a Kampala tabloid, and Col Kulayigye swiftly dismissed it as untrue.  However, our sources say, it won’t go away, as it continues to be brought to the president’s attention.

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