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Did Uganda enter Somalia without an exit strategy?

By Omar Kalinge-Nnyago

When Ethiopia routed the Union of Islamic Courts from Mogadishu in December 2006, a lot of footwork followed. President Museveni swiftly flew to Addis Ababa. The then US Undersecretary for Africa Ms. J. Frazer was in Nairobi a few days into the new year to meet the 'victorious' Transitional Federal Government, TFG, and other members of the Somali contact group. The Union of Islamic Courts was an alliance of Islamic Somali groups that had managed to bring stability to Somalia for over six months before the United States of America, using Ethiopia as proxy, decided that peace in Somalia was desirable, yes, but not if it was brought about by Islamic elements.

Museveni pledged 1000 soldiers and later another 1000 to a Somali peace mission. By the time he did so, he had not yet brought the matter before parliament. He later did. The NRM dominated parliament rubber stamped his decision. But not before intense debate, resulting in a minority report from the Defence Committee by opposition legislators. The deployment had to be done quickly, because each day that passed before a peace force was deployed, Ethiopia got into more trouble in Somalia and at home too.

Zenawi had promised his citizens that he would to pull out of Somalia within days or weeks. The TFG could not hold out in Mogadishu without Ethiopian presence. A prolonged Ethiopian presence would only embolden the UIC fighters and Somali nationalists who harbored deep suspicion of the Ethiopian intervention.

Museveni's eagerness to contribute troops was understandable. He was keen to be seen as a big player, in the run up to the East African political federation, then on a fast track. And also as a peace maker for the first time, after years of being labeled a notorious “peace breaker” in the region. His involvement in Rwanda, Congo and Southern Sudan had not helped his image. Moreover, in the cut throat business of jostling for favors from the United States of America, Museveni could not miss this opportunity to appear useful to America.

Before the Ugandan troops moved in, America's aerial attacks on Somalia's Southern towns of Hayo and near the Kenyan border targeting 'wanted terrorists' complicated matters tremendously. The UN expressed concern over the attacks that had killed 70 innocent civilians, nearly the same number of innocent civilians that were killed in Kampala this July, including a newly wed couple in a move that put the then newly elected UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon's leadership to an early test. Only one terrorist was said to have been killed. IGADD and AU now needed more consultations before deploying troops that they would have required before the American strikes.

Fear of an all out war was now real, especially as American special ground forces were expected to enter Somalia, as it would be logical after introductory air strikes. This did not happen. Instead, Uganda's hasty offer came in handy, and the US offered to pick the bills of the 'peace keeping' force, which was the lesser risk. The US has intervened before in Somalia with disastrous consequences, leading to a hasty and embarrassing exit in 1994.

After the Kampala bomb attacks of July 11, 2010, a new urgency has emerged, that plays out well with some vested interests. Uganda is now being encouraged to not only increase troops in Somalia, but to revise its mission to a combat role. If other African countries don't contribute soldiers, leaving Burundi and Uganda alone in the Somali desert, a surge in Uganda troops and a revision of the mandate will certainly be interpreted by Somali nationalists, not only the now favourite Al-Shabaab, Muslim countries and other global anti-imperialist forces, as an outright invasion of Somalia by America using Uganda as proxy. This would tremendously complicate matters for Uganda's internal and external security in an election year. It would also further endanger the lives of Americans living in the region especially in Uganda. Rather than act on selfish and emotional considerations, what Uganda's leadership needs is a well considered multi-partisan exit strategy from Somalia.

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