Doubts over Uganda's role in Somalia

An injured woman at hospital in Kampala
Image caption Many Ugandans are questioning their government's role in Somalia

Although not everyone is entirely convinced, it is widely assumed that there is a link between Sunday's deadly explosions in Kampala and Uganda's military presence in Somalia.

It is therefore not surprising that some Ugandans are questioning the wisdom of becoming embroiled in Somalia's complicated conflict.

The Ugandan government's position is clear.

"The act of bombing Uganda is a confirmation of the need to take control and pacify Somalia. This is an effort that everybody in the world has to realise," said Uganda's army spokesman Felix Kulayigye - who is adamant that despite the deaths in Kampala, Uganda's 3,200 troops should stay in Somalia.

He is not the only one. In a BBC interview, Uganda's Inspector General of Police, Maj-Gen Kale Kayihura said that the Ugandan troops presence should not be limited to this number.

"They only attack in self defence," Maj-Gen Kayihura said.

"They are using force within the limited mandate they have. Otherwise if it was not so limited. Oh God the whole of Mogadishu would be under the transitional government."

With that bravado from Uganda's leadership there would seem to be no chance of the troops withdrawing any time soon.

But the pressure will grow for other nations to send troops in and make it a truly African force or even a UN-mandated force rather than leaving Uganda and Burundi to what is a very daunting task.

A vital role

The Ugandan soldiers may be viewed as the enemy by the Somali Islamist militant group, al-Shabab, but the international community sees them as playing a vital role in Somalia by propping up the beleaguered transitional government.

Maj-Gen Kayihura stressed the importance of keeping al-Shabab out of Mogadishu's presidential palace.

"If you tolerate a group like al-Shabab to take over power in our neighbourhood, they will start there and will want to spread. It would be worse if they were in charge of state power. That's why Africa is united against it," he said adding that al-Shabab was linked to al-Qaeda.

"We are not there as Ugandans we are there as African troops because of the threat to African peace and security," he said referring to the fact that Ugandan troops are part of an African Union mission known as Amisom.

It has more than 2,000 Burundian soldiers. Promises of soldiers from Nigeria, Ghana and other countries have so far been empty as most feel the mission is simply too dangerous.

The black, yellow and red striped flags lining the route to Uganda's parliament are all flying at half mast following Sunday's bomb blasts.

As 76 funerals are held across Uganda and relatives pray for the injured, the future of the Ugandan peacekeeping contingent is being debated in parliament.

'We're in control'

Three years ago all but a handful of MPs backed President Yoweri Museveni's decision to send the troops in.

The president's party dominates the seats in parliament and so when he calls for something to be approved (including the scrapping of presidential term limits without which he would now be a former president) there tends to be little resistance from the legislators. They know on which side their bread is buttered.

"All the time there has been this reply from the government side that 'we are in control and nothing can happen to Uganda'," said the opposition MP Hussein Kyanjo who was always against the deployment.

"Now it has happened. It is very sad and I am sure we are not going to be prepared to let the blood of Ugandans be spilt over an issue that we have not been convinced about," said Mr Kyanjo who believes other issues are at play beyond regional security when it comes to Uganda's troop deployment in Somalia.

"We are now getting into the electioneering period and the Americans have long supported people for their interests - not because of their principle of rightness. That is why they should be willing to continue supporting President Museveni much in the same way as they have been supporting Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia.

"The people in Ethiopia are crying because of the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi but the Americans are still willing to go with him an extra mile.

"If President Museveni calculated it that way he wouldn't be wrong. But the country should not suffer because of the mind of the president," said the MP who would like to see Uganda's troops back home.

A Ugandan rebel group

The Ugandan police suspect that with assistance from al-Shabab, the attacks were carried out by the Ugandan rebel group the Allied Democratic Forces, ADF.

This Muslim group, which had no clear agenda, was active in the late 1990s and carried out numerous grenade attacks in public places.

Uganda has long said the ADF was linked to al-Qaeda and was also backed by the Sudanese government in retaliation for Uganda's support for the former southern Sudanese rebels, SPLA.

Given the nature and scale of Sunday's blasts there is suspicion that the ADF could have received sophisticated training from al-Qaeda.

On the streets of Kampala views are mixed about Uganda's involvement in Somalia although, amongst the people I spoke to, the calls for Ugandan troops to come home were in the minority.

"Beef up security here and send more troops to Somalia," a businessman said.

"I would advise our president to remove his troops and to come and keep security right here in Uganda," a young woman said.

One lawyer told me it would be far too dangerous for me to broadcast what he really thought about the issue.

"Uganda's involvement in Somalia is not about protecting the region. This is all about getting hands on Obama's money. Let's just put it like that," he said off microphone before walking away.

After numerous deployments in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, the Ugandan leadership has frequently been accused of engaging in military adventurism - Ugandan soldiers are rarely contained within the country's borders let alone the barracks.

At a recent regional meeting it was agreed that Amisom would increase the number of peacekeepers in Somalia to 8,100.

Many of the additional troops will most likely be Ugandan. At the African Union summit to be held in Uganda later this month, Somalia and the Amisom force will dominate the agenda. Troop numbers and the mandate will be discussed.

"Peacekeeping" seems an inappropriate name for the mission to Somalia.

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