The July bombing in Kampala for which the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility has divided opinion among Ugandans over whether military involvement in Somalia is in their country’s best interests.
More than 2,500 Ugandan troops have been in Somalia since 2007 as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission to support the troubled country’s government.
Al-Shabab, a militant group which aims to overthrow Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, TFG – and which together with other Islamist groups controls much of the south of the country – had vowed to retaliate against Uganda for its involvement.
Since Ugandan troops were deployed in Somalia in 2007, 33 have been killed in clashes with al-Shabab militants.
The Islamist group claimed responsibility for the July 17 bombings of a rugby club and a restaurant in Kampala which killed more than 70 people who had gathered to watch the World Cup.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni is a keen supporter of involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM. Others, opposition parties in particular, are less convinced that the peacekeeping mission is in Uganda’s own best interests, and note that few other African countries have contributed troops to the force.
Fred Ojambo, Kampala correspondent for the Bloomberg newswire service, says public opinion in Uganda backs the withdrawal of the troops from Somalia.
“The argument is that the deployment of troops resulted in the death of Uganda peacekeepers,” he said. “Secondly, those opposed to the deployment say it resulted in the country being targeted by al-Shabab.”
Uganda’s contribution is set to increase following an African Union meeting in July decided to send an additional 2,000 peacekeepers to Somalia.
Museveni welcomed the move, and Ugandan army spokesman Felix Kuliaigye said the deployment of more troops to Somalia would deny al-Shabab “the chance to grow”.
Uganda’s major opposition groups question the wisdom of further engagement.
Most other African countries have failed to send troops to boost the 6,200-strong AMISOM force, which consists only of troops from Uganda and Burundi. Djibouti and Guinea have recently pledged to send forces.
Kizza Besigye, chairman of Uganda’s largest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, said it was imperative for the government to withdraw its troops.
He noted that Uganda’s initial mission had been to assist Ethiopia, a country regarded with hostility by Somali groups opposed to the government. Alignment with a state perceived as a partisan invading force rather than a neutral player had compromised Uganda’s image.
“This makes the Ugandan troops incapable of playing the role of a neutral facilitator of peacemaking,” he said. “They should therefore be progressively replaced by troops from more acceptable sources – preferably from Islamic countries. The ultimate solution is a political solution, not a military solution.”
Norbert Mao, who heads the opposition Democratic Party, said he was against having Ugandan forces in Somalia unless other countries sent troops as well.
“Either the African nations pull their full weight, or our Ugandans pull out,” he said. “We cannot send troops without condition. It is a mission that can’t be achieved.”
Mao argues that the peacekeeping mission should be altered to include proactive military operations.
“There should be a mandate similar to Afghanistan for troops to hunt al-Shabab,” he said.
He argues that Uganda should give the African Union an ultimatum – either the mandate is expanded in the manner he suggests, or Kampala pulls out its forces.
Hamza Sewankambo, chief of staff of the opposition Uganda People’s Congress, UPC, argued that the issue was not the presence of Ugandan troops in Somalia, but the way the strategy was being executed.
“As the UPC, we don’t have any problem with Uganda engaging troops in Somalia,” he said. But, he said, “a time-line should be set for the entire peace process. For how long will the troops be engaged in Somalia?”
Bruce Kyerere, president of the Uganda Law Society, agreed that other African nations should play a role in ensuring stability in the region, but argued that the Ugandan opposition parties were not offering realistic alternatives to the current form of engagement in Somalia.
“I think they are just unduly politicising the issue without offering better and realistic alternatives,” he said. “We should all really be speaking with one voice, as one country, on this matter.”
Human rights advocate Samuel Olara said that there were divisions in the country between those who were “unequivocally supportive” of plans to send more troops and those who backed the policy but were cautious about the extent of Uganda’s own involvement.
A third view, Olara said, was that Museveni’s policy of supporting intervention in Somali was “simply opportunistic”, “an asset for selling himself to the West for continued support” for his own position.