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War and peace in Somalia: Seven lessons Burundi and Uganda can teach Kenya’s soldiers

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Kenya Defence Forces manning a roadblock in southern Somalia.

When you ask Burundi and Ugandan officers serving in Amisom, the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, when all of the country will be under control of the Transitional Federal Government, you will immediately sense that there is an elephant in the room.

That elephant is the question of when the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), which entered the Somali fray last October, will take the key port city of Kismayu.

Ethiopia, which followed Kenya into Somalia a month later in November, quickly moved to capture Baidoa within weeks, doing so on February 22 this year. They are pulling out, and Ugandan troops are already arriving to replace them.

Kenya has taken a cautious approach, with officials in Nairobi saying the KDF is aiming to build a political consensus among the various clans and militias around Kismayu, so that when it eventually takes the city, it does not get bogged down with running it as if it were an occupier force, but can instead hand it over to Somali groups like the Ras Kamboni fighters. Kenya has trained and armed about 4,500 of the latter.

This approach is different from the one the Ugandans and Burundians — and the Ethiopians — have taken. They go in with the TFG forces, and hand over areas they have taken to the government as part of the process of creating a unified political authority.

The real complication arising from the fact that Kenya is not yet in control of Kismayu, is that come June, when Somalia should have a new constituent assembly to pass the draft constitution, followed by the election of a new parliament, Kismayu could still be in Al Shabaab hands.

There is some talk now that after Afgooye —  where Al Shabaab massed its military assets, and where several of its key commanders are now based —  falls to the TFG and Amisom forces in the next few weeks, Burundi and Ugandan troops could be dispatched to Kismayu to join the KDF effort to take the city.

The Ugandan troops were the first to arrive in Mogadishu in March 2007, followed by the Burundians in December of the same year.

The Ugandans got an early baptism of fire. On the third day after their arrival, a giant cargo plane was landing at Mogadishu International Airport with supplies for the contingent. The Al Shabaab brought it down. The carcass still lies on the edge of the runway.

For five years, they have battled Al Shabaab, and learnt some useful, albeit painful, lessons — lessons that, one imagines, they have shared with their Kenyan counterparts, and that will be useful in shaping expectations about the outcome. Some of these lessons are:

1. Al Shabaab is not just a Somali, but a multinational force

When AMISOM commanders tell you the nationals from other countries they have captured fighting with Al Shabaab, it is quite an impressive list: Kenyans, Tanzanians, Ugandans, Americans, Britons, Nigerians (Boko Haram was trained by the Shabaab in Mogadishu), Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Sudanese, Egyptians, Iranians — the list is endless.

While the Somalis themselves are quite pragmatic and willing to cut a deal, the foreigners are diehard religious radicals who view death as martyrdom. The lesson here is that you probably can’t talk around Al Shabaab. You have to confront them, and it is only after their defeat or when they are weakened, that the indigenous Somali in it will find the room to negotiate.

2. The Shabaab are much tougher, better than you think

You will not find a single Burundian or Ugandan officer in Amisom who belittles Al Shabaab’s military prowess. The Shabaab, they say, might as well have invented urban guerrilla warfare because they are extremely good at it. The tide turned against them in Mogadishu in 2010 only after the Burundians and Ugandan troops also mastered the art. The stories they tell are quite dramatic. Many intense battles were fought in Mogadishu where, after six days of fighting, Amisom and TFG forces had only gained 200 metres from the Shabaab.

The casualties were also extremely high because Somalis in general, and the Shabaab in particular, are very good marksmen who make for terrifying snipers. In other words, Kenya will have to accept a high level of casualties for it to take Kismayu — or else someone else will come and run away with the crown.

3. You need men with guts, not only fancy equipment and planes to win in the cities

The Al Shabaab mostly fights in urban areas, and is quite poor in the open spaces. However, because the AU and UN mandates for Amisom prohibit shooting into places like markets, schools, and churches where there may be civilians, helicopters, and big guns will not help.

Amisom eventually got themselves tiny armoured cars that they were able to manouvre into the alleys and rubble, and get close enough to dislodge the militants.

The Burundians and Ugandans developed an innovative pincer movement that allowed them to eject Al Shabaab from the critical Bakara Market — Somalia’s, and possibly Africa’s largest. For over a week, they fought for and took numerous access points to the market, thus cutting off reinforcements from reaching the militants inside the market, where they were concentrated in their thousands. From there, they were shooting at Amisom forces, knowing well the fire would not be returned.

Eventually, the peacekeepers cut off all sides of the market, and left just one exit. Realising they would soon starve, and risked being massacred, the Shabaab took to the exit.

This is where Amisom’s lack of attack helicopters and planes hurt them because, they say, there was little they could do to harass the Shabaab convoys as they headed out to Afgooye. “If we had planes,” one officer told me, “we would have destroyed them and this war would be different now.”

They had succeeded in taking Bakara because they had the men for it.

As things stand, Kenya is believed to have under 2,500 men near Kismayu. The AU and UN resolutions authorise it to have 4,500.

However, the KDF has not been able to get more boots into Kismayu.

Compare this with Uganda’s deployment. After the same February UN vote, Uganda has completed the addition of 1,700 troops to its Amisom contingent.

You need many boots on the ground in Somalia.

4. There are four wars in one in Somalia

Beside the shooting, there are many other wars in Somalia — most of them for the minds of and hearts of Somalis. To win the shooting war, one needs to do well in the fight for hearts. In its early years, Amisom was as much a humanitarian agency as an army, because there were just no NGOs operating in Somalia. That won it useful friends.

There was no functioning hospital, so Amisom opened a civilian one in its base. It operated three days a week, and treated about 600 Somalis every week. Then the Turks also moved in and built a modern hospital, and set up the most effective humanitarian operation in Mogadishu. The Qataris too jumped in, as did the Iranians and Sudanese.

Somalia may be a tough place that has been battered by war, but it has many suitors. You cannot assume that you are the one they will love most.

Amisom’s street cred, and the fact that the wider population has been supportive, allowed it to chase Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu. Still, Amisom has only won Somali minds. The Turks have taken their hearts.

In Somalia, it helps to carry a big stick. However, always be sure to use the carrot too.

5. In war, soldiers die — sometimes many of them

Though all armies are in the business of killing, it is interesting to what extent military leaders will go to reduce the death of their own men.

Uganda and Burundi have been at war a long time, so they are more accepting of high casualty rates in the field than Kenya.

Amisom has never officially released the casualties they have suffered, but one officer told me that at the height of the clashes with Al Shabaab, they were averaging one death and three serious injuries a day. Estimates place the casualties suffered by Burundi and Uganda troops at anything between 500 and 1,000 over the past five years.

Last October, Al Shabaab claimed to have killed over 70 Amisom troops in a clash in Mogadishu. They displayed their bodies for good measure.

Their claims were denied, but information suggests that the Shabaab were right. During a particularly bloody clash with Burundian Amisom troops, the Burundians called for transport to evacuate the wounded.

Either Al Shabaab intercepted the radio message, or they had a TFG collaborator among the government troops who were with the Burundians, who tipped them off.

In any event, Al Shabaab managed to tailgate the Amisom medical truck.

In the confusion, several injured Burundian soldiers were placed in the Shabaab trucks, because they looked exactly like Amisom’s.

It was an duck shoot. Most of the Burundians were killed as they lay wounded and helpless in the back of the trucks. Stuff happens in war.

And men die. Sometimes, very many of them.

6. Somalis have not given up hope, and their will to live is remarkable

Up on the road that leads from the Amisom headquarters, is the Hanano Mothers and Children’s Hospital. It is well kept, one of the most orderly places I went to in Mogadishu.

Perhaps no single place in troubled Somalia has saved as many mother’s and children’s live as Hanano. Opened in 1997, it has never closed — even when bombs fell in its yard. Apart from treatment, they vaccinate the children of Mogadishu diligently. Hanano’s refusal to give up is admirable.

Another 10 or so kilometres away, in a crowded and mildly menacing neighbourhood, are a couple of camps for internally displaced persons.

In the Dallada IDP camp, women and children get up early to queue in the hot sun for food. It is quite a depressing sight.

In the centre of the camp is a block built out of tin. It has three classes. When we were at the camp, classes were going on. In one they were learning the alphabet, noisily:

Teacher shouts loudly: “A.”

Pupils even louder: “A.”

And so on, and so on…

Hanano and the classes in Dallada camp tell us that Somalis still believe in a better tomorrow, want to be alive to see it, and want their children to have the education to be competitive in it.

Solidarity with their cause is not a waste of time.

7. The ironies in Mogadishu are endless, and there is always an opportunity for a good laugh

Perhaps the thing that Al Shabaab and its parent company Al Qaeda hate most on this earth is the “infidel empire,” the USA.

Al Shabaab collects taxes, and its leaders have several business interests in Somalia. The problem though is that the exchange rate of the Somali shilling against the US dollar is crazy —35,000 shillings for one dollar. Not only are most prices in Mogadishu quoted in dollars, but it was also the favourite currency of Al Shabaab.

(Read: Nostalgia for Mogadishu )

One of the strategic locations the Shabaab lost to the Uganda contingent in 2010, is the once-marvellous and nearly-world famous Uruba Hotel. All the area around this once rich neighbour looks like a moonscape. Most of the damage happened in 2006 when the Ethiopians came by.

It has a terrific view of the Indian Ocean, the old slave house, and the Mogadishu seaport.

Today, it still carries itself with bullet-scarred dignity. It is the headquarters of Uganda’s Battle Group 9. As it happens, Uruba has a long connection with Uganda.

Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre used to be a very good friend of Uganda’s tyrant Idi Amin Dada. Amin liked to visit Mogadishu where, word has it, Barre took care of the wide range of his strange appetites, and supplied him with Somali women.

Stomach full, loins sated, and slightly high, Amin would reportedly jump from the window of his hotel room and land with an earthshaking bellyflop in the giant pool below. It was nicknamed the “Dada pool.”

War never kills stories. It preserves them. There will a lot of storytelling when Somalia returns to peace.


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