As Ugandan police announce a number of arrests over the bombings on July 11 in its capital Kampala, it would be wise to consider these events in light of Uganda’s involvement in the ravaged state of Somalia.
The attacks, which killed at least 74, appear to be the work of al-Shabab, an Islamic militant movement in control of much of southern Somalia. Since 2007 al-Shabab has relentlessly fought the 6,100-odd Ugandan and Burundian peacekeeping troops which make up the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). While Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is insisting that he won’t withdraw his commitment from the mission (going so far as to suggest a major troop increase) in light of the bombings, it is difficult to conceive of a positive future for AMISOM.
Observers of the country have long accepted that AMISOM is less a peacekeeping mission than a security entourage for the Somali transitional federal government, which retains control over an area of the southern capital Mogadishu so small that it can literally be measured in street blocks. Despite US support and the presence of AMISOM, the government is effectively incapacitated by the surrounding insecurity and internal squabbling has delayed plans for government-led military offensives against al-Shabab. In contrast, al-Shabab has managed to forge alliances with local clan leaders to effectively control much of the southern part of the country.
The Ugandan and Burundian troops that make up AMISOM are in a disastrous fix. Both countries have experienced high casualties, and AMISOM has been accused of violent excesses on the streets of Mogadishu. The reality of the situation is that badly resourced soldiers are operating in a region foreign to them, and are effectively caught up in a vast crossfire with little cover or reprieve.
The recent bombings in Kampala were a calculated move to provoke Uganda and Burundi into leaving Somalia. This is an election year for Uganda, and its residents are acutely aware of the human cost of their involvement. Al-Shabab have made frequent threats in the past against both Uganda and Burundi, and no doubt residents of the Burundian capital Bujumbura will be extra cautious in coming weeks.
Somalia is not an easy place to understand. The “failed state” status we popularly bestow upon it does little to inform us about its past and current trajectories. In particular the effects of interventions by the outside world are too often understated. This might be about to change as elements of Al-Shabab become more visibly aligned with violent anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism. It is important then that we acknowledge the complexities of Somalia’s situation and not dismiss the country as simply a new battleground for the War on Terror.
For starters, al-Shabab is by no means monolithic. The most extreme elements of its organisation, which openly affiliate with al-Qaeda and are undoubtedly behind the attacks, came to prominence in direct reaction to clandestine intervention by the US in 2006 against the previously powerful Islamic Courts Union. An invasion by US-backed Ethiopian troops pushed the Courts to the southern-most tip of Somalia. While the more radical parts of the Courts reformed into al-Shabab’s current leadership, other factions have joined the ranks of the transitional government. This includes its current moderate President, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who sits holed up in a Mogadishu dust-trap surrounded by his Ugandan and Burundian protection force.
Today, the broad umbrella of al-Shabab also contains more religiously moderate factions who have joined or affiliated themselves with the group for purely opportunistic reasons. Pragmatic and fragile alliances are a common story in southern Somalia, as is intense distaste for external occupation.
Analyst Bronwyn Bruton recently made ripples in a US think-tank report that suggested the best long-term strategy for the US in dealing with Somalia is to effectively resign its concern for the political survival of the transitional government. She suggests that interference is what has brought about the current brand of Islamic extremism, and that “doing less is better than doing harm”.
Underlying the report is an oft-stated idea that Somalia is not a natural breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism.
Bruton’s argument has some merit, but it is a hard sell. The humanitarian situation in southern Somalia is deplorable, and it is difficult to foresee any improvements should the international community leave the country to its own untangling. If nothing else, finding a way to effectively deliver humanitarian support when it is needed to Somali citizens should be at the forefront of outside concern.
While southern Somalia teeters on knife-edge, we should also note that its story isn’t the only one unfolding in this part of the world. Somaliland is a breakaway state in the country’s northwest that, since 1991, has forged itself into an effectively administrated democratic state. In the past month elections precipitated a change of government which was praised by British PM David Cameron as “peaceful and credible”. Somaliland has long struggled for international recognition, and given the looming anniversary of 20years of “failed-state” status in Somalia, perhaps it is time to start considering why we in the West are not willing to give it.
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