Somalia is sweet and sour business for Burundi, Uganda

Monday March 14 2011

African Union peacekeepers from Burundi walk along the streets of Mogadishu. Photo/FILE

African Union peacekeepers from Burundi walk along the streets of Mogadishu. Photo/FILE 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

Over 53 African Union (AMISOM) peace keepers reportedly died in fighting in Mogadishu since a major offensive against Islamist militants began three weeks ago.

The deaths brought the number of AMISOM casualties since the mission started in 2007 to “over 250”.

AMISOM is not talkative about its casualties, because it fears a backlash in the troop contributing countries, especially Burundi.

According to a UN official, the AMISOM casualties are the highest ever for a UN-supported peacekeeping force.

However, the casualties could well be the “right” price for Burundi and Uganda, that provide nearly all the troops, to pay because the two countries are in Somalia for a bigger prize than just bringing peace to the country – and they are winning the prize.

One insight about the complex, and shrewd, political game Burundi and Uganda are playing in Somalia comes from the latest round of US diplomatic cables that were leaked to the whistleblower site Wikileaks.

They offer revealing snippets into how Burundi, which had barely recovered from war when it accepted to contribute troops to AMISOM, saw the mission as a grand state building project that would improve its international standing.

On the other hand, Uganda, which was the only country that had sent troops to Somalia in 2007, thought Burundi could only play a minor support role, but that that would be enough to bolster the credibility of the mission, and encourage other African countries to contribute.

According to a July 15, 2007 cable from the US embassy in the Burundi capital Bujumbura, AU Major General Benon Biraaro (from Uganda) led a team of eight that visited Burundi between June 10 and 13.

The team, according to the cable, included representatives from the US, British, and French armed forces, inspected two Burundian army battalions on June 12 to determine their capabilities before their proposed deployment as part of AMISOM.

When Maj. Gen. Biraaro’s team arrived in Bujumbura, the understanding was that Burundi wished to deploy a battalion (about 800-1,000 soldiers).

In a private conversation with  US Ambassador to Burundi Patricia Moller, Biraaro explained Burundi’s role in Somalia would be to provide force protection to airports, seaports, and various military installations in Mogadishu and the surrounding area.

The cable then has Biraaro, “opining that the Burundian military does not yet possess sufficient expertise or equipment to perform more complex missions in Somalia.”

Biraaro is a soft-spoken measured officer, and that is probably as far as he can go in putting any one down.

The size of the Burundian force was important, because of the speed with which it could be deployed.

A battalion could be deployed by  end July 2007, if training began on June 8 among other things, because the simple operation that Biraaro envisaged for Burundi did “not require an extensive buildup of equipment”.

A larger contingent would take more time to assemble, and thus arrive in Somalia later.

So, as Burundi’s troops guarded buildings and the airport (“static security”, the cable calls it), it would free Uganda’s troops to do the big boys’ stuff - “engage in the more complex” missions of fighting Somali militants.

Biraaro is shown to be alive to the bigger picture on the stakes in Somalia.

He is quoted saying that a battalion-sized Burundi force would also serve as “a strong signal of support for the Ugandan military units” already serving in Somalia as part of AMISOM.

He also was aware that Burundi wanted a bigger role, and was not keen on going to Mogadishu to play second fiddle to Uganda.

Seeking to discourage Burundi from being too ambitious, Biraaro “stressed that an unsuccessful deployment could be very damaging for Burundi”; that is to say, don’t bite off more than you can chew, because you will end up embarrassing yourselves.

It came as no surprise, then, that on June 14, the day after Biraaro’s mission, Burundi’s Minister of Defence, Lieutenant General Germain Niyoyonkana, left American embassy officials in no doubt that Burundi wanted a large slice of the Somalia cake.

He “insisted that Burundi could not send a force smaller than a battalion to Somalia. He maintained that his forces must have the capability to defend themselves if attacked, rather than rely solely on support from other peacekeeping forces.”

The embassy understood that there was national pride and other strategic calculations in Bujumbura.

It notes in the cable that: “The Minister of Defense remains adamant that Burundi will not consider sending a force smaller than a battalion.  While his stated concern is to ensure maximum security for his troops, we believe another reason is Burundi’s desire to be perceived as on equal footing with other Troop Contributing Countries.”

Officials in Bujumbura, and UN officials close to the AMISOM mission in Nairobi, tell this writer that in some respects Burundi and Uganda need Somalia as much as Somalia needs them.

Both Uganda and Burundi are post-conflict countries, and therefore have “idle soldier capacity” now that they have no domestic wars to fight.

Because African soldiers tend to be restless, smart governments find a way of keeping them busy. Deployment in peacekeeping is one way to do that, and also reward them.

So besides peacekeeping, the Somalia mission is also a demobilisation exercise for the two countries.

This might also explain why while several African countries have promised to contribute troops to AMISOM, they have not walked the talk – they don’t have a compelling need to demobilise.

The Somalia mission has also been a major stabilisation factor for the Burundi army.

A private in the Burundi army earns a monthly wage of about $20 (yes, you read that right, $20).

In Somalia, though he is paid scandalously below the UN rate, he still earns $750.

The average tour of duty for a Burundian soldier in Somalia is one year, so he comes out of there $9,000 rich.

If he had stayed home, he would have earned only a miserable $240 for the year.

The result is that Burundi AMISOM troops, now form a new bottom layer of the small Burundi middle class, as several of them have built homes, and purchased some high status household items.

Burundi, as the US embassy predicted correctly, has also bolstered its international image considerably.

“We are taken seriously in several international forums these days”, a long-time acquaintance and Burundi diplomat said, “we are sitting at tables that we might not have been allowed even to lay for others a few years ago”.

Also, for Burundi, which has the same often-bedeviling Hutu-Tutsi divide as Rwanda, the diplomat said Somalia has been an important opportunity “to build national cohesion”.

The enemy is no longer Hutu or Tutsi, but the Somali militant and Al-Qaeda elements.

Uganda, whose military is richer, and therefore went in with a lot more equipment, has pocketed a so-called “equipment fee” in the “tens of millions of dollars” paid by the African Union – from the UN.

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, have also won some personal political gains.

Last year in June, Nkurunziza mugged his rivals in the elections, which they eventually boycotted.

The AU and the rest of the international community didn’t want to see, hear, or speak too much of any irregularities.

President Museveni carried out his own vote heist in the recent February election, and he too was only scolded with mild and ambiguous statements from African Union, Commonwealth, and US election observers.

In the global scheme of things, having a peacekeeping force in Somalia, is more important than stolen votes in Burundi and Uganda.

If there is any good in this, says the UN diplomat, “it is that it will take a lot to get Burundi and Uganda to cut and run from Somalia.”

Indeed, there is what the UN diplomat calls “healthy competition” between Burundi and Uganda to maintain some form of parity in troop levels.

Over the last three years, whenever Uganda has increased its AMISOM numbers, Burundi has done the same.

For Uganda, there is additional glory in keeping its status as the “lead contingent.”

If other African countries were to contribute to AMISOM, Uganda would probably also boost its numbers, so that it can maintain its head honcho status in Mogadishu.

If the leaked diplomatic cables tell us anything, it is that peacekeeping in dangerous places like Somalia, works best when there is something in it for the peace keepers.

Or at least their commanders-in-chief back home.