Somalia is sweet and sour business for Burundi, Uganda

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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 


Posted  Monday, March 14   2011 at  00:00

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.

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