After their April 2 attack on a Ugandan army peacekeepers base in Burmalelle, Lower Shabelle region of Somalia, Islamist Al-Shabaab militants telephoned Monah Muhammad Zubair and warned her against collaborating with soldiers deployed in the area.
Monah is one of several Somali nationals who work as informers for the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia (AMISOM) in Marka district, an area with a high concentration of the Al-Shabaab. Monah was not moved by the telephone call. Instead, she asked them to pay her if they wanted her to give up the AMISOM job.
“They sent me $30 on mobile money and I asked them to increase the amount to at least $50 which they did. Days later, they sent me a text message telling me to prepare for my funeral since I had refused to give up my cooperation with an infidel force,” Monah told The Observer.
Monah spoke to The Observer from Buufow, where the UPDF sector one under the 19th battalion is headquartered. It is 81km southwest of Mogadishu, and about 9km from the detach at Burmalelle where the Al-Shabaab killed 10 Ugandan soldiers and wounded several others on April 2.
Besides the direct messages to AMISOM collaborators, the Al-Shabaab send similar warnings through their Andulus radio that broadcasts from Kunyabarow; the militant group’s biggest base in Lower Shabelle.
At Kunyabarow, according to Abdallah Bashir, the chief elder in Marka district, the Al-Shabaab have their biggest hospital, high court and main jail in which they keep captured AMISOM soldiers.
“Al-Shabaab uses a lot of false propaganda against AMISOM through their own radio and TV stations; telling the locals not to cooperate with us because AMISOM is a force of the kafir [infidels]. But we are trying to counter that through our civilian-military cooperation by showing the population that we also have Muslims amongst us,” Lt Col Robert Nahamya told journalists on May 1.
To cripple their propaganda machinery, US forces last month bombed Al-Shabaab’s transmission site at Dara Salaam. The militants switched to mobile broadcasts from a van.
Maj Ceasar Otim Olweny, the spokesman of the Ugandan contingent in Somalia, said the militants have other radio stations as well as TV stations some of which broadcast from central Mogadishu.
The last UPDF outpost is about 240km from Mogadishu. Given the heavy rains that have been pounding Somalia over the past couple of weeks, most access roads have been cut off, making movement by road difficult for both sides.
The UN mission in Somalia airlifted journalists to Ceeljalle UPDF forward operating base. From here, the journalists boarded infantry fighting vehicles locally known as Mamba to Shalamboot which is 8km from the headquarters of the Al-Shabaab.
This offered an opportunity for the soldiers to speak about their poor facilitation given the harsh conditions under which they operate. The infantry commander at Shalamboot, Lt Col Fred Mwesigwa, was not as direct as his counterpart Lt Col Nahamya at Buufow.
“Why are our payments delayed? We came here without anything until AMISOM came in. Why should a UN person get paid on time and there is nothing for the Ugandan soldiers? I hope you help us carry this message to the bosses,” Nahamya said.
Nahamya said the UPDF have the worst facilities.
“When you compare our FOBs [forward operating bases] they are the worst. We must have good FOBs, not improvised ones. Good shelter, helipads and enough supplies for drugs with which we treat the locals,” Nahamya said.
In the Al-Shabaab infested areas, the AMISOM forces depend on local intelligence given through interpreters. The Al-Shabaab have mastered the art of mixing with the civilians which has made it difficult for the AMISOM forces to identify them.
“We have recently started using the sea to take our supplies to Barrawe [the furthest base which is 240km from Mogadishu] but in the medium and long term, we hope to start using air; the EU is financing the construction of a runway at Barrawe,” Brig Paul L’Okech, the Uganda contingent commander in Somalia, said on May 3.
“We are not here as UPDF; if we were UPDF, it would be a different story [but] AMISOM has its own way of operation. It is more defensive yet UPDF is offensive - we would have attacked, shelled their bases and flashed them out,” Mwesigwa said.
Even in situations where AMISOM has authorised the UPDF to attack, they never hold ground.
“In June last year, we went to Jenalle and flashed them out but we couldn’t hold ground because the known AMISOM base is Shalamboot, we had to come back, and the Al-Shabaab later returned to Jenalle,” Mwesigwa said.
Last year, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2372 to have a gradual draw-down of peace-keeping troops by 2021 so that the Horn of Africa nation takes charge of its own security. But the troop-contributing countries say Somalia is not ready.
“After 10 years of presence, the UN wants us to hand power to the Somali National Army but the transition is condition-based; that as we move, there must be a stable and secure country,” said Col Richard Omwega, the AMISOM force spokesman.
Omwega belongs to the Kenya Defence Forces. According to the withdraw plan, another 1,000 troops will be withdrawn in October this year which comes with a closure of a FOB for each of the troop-contributing countries. Besides Uganda and Kenya, AMISOM has troops from Burundi, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
The big debate among the AMISOM commanders is whether the UN wish is achievable within three years.
“The transition must be shaped in such a way that the SNA [Somali National Army] is well trained and prepared. They are well trained but not well prepared to take over the challenge,” said L’Okech.
Currently, there are 75 SNA cadet officers training in Uganda. These will join an earlier force of 4,000 SNA officers who were trained by Uganda. Turkey is training another force of about 1,000, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) trained about 500 troops plus some more being trained separately by the US and European Union.
“Getting fighters is easy but how do you maintain them? Somalia for quite a long time didn’t have an army, we are trying to build one but we need to put a lot of effort in training, re-organisation and preparation,” L’Okech said.
AMISOM is also selling to the Somali government the idea of an LDU-like force to secure villages.