UN report could alter fate of African Union mission to Somalia

Saturday November 10 2012

M23 fighters in Bunagana, eastern DRC. Uganda’s withdrawal of its troops in Somalia would be detrimental. Picture: AFP

M23 fighters in Bunagana, eastern DRC. Uganda’s withdrawal of its troops in Somalia would be detrimental. Picture: AFP 

By A JOINT REPORT, The EastAfrican

The future of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) hinges on the position the United Nations Security Council adopts next week on a report by a UN expert group that accused Rwanda and Uganda of military involvement with the M23 rebel movement.

The report, leaked to the media a month ago, drew angry reactions from Kampala and Kigali. Uganda issued an ultimatum requiring the UN to clear its name or the country would recall its forces from all peacekeeping operations in Africa, which include the Amisom mission in Somalia.

Rwanda is hoping the Security Council will be on its side when the final report on the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), prepared by the Group of Experts, is presented.

Rwanda, which was last month elected to the Security Council, termed the report unacceptable. “It is a product of a certain way of thinking by people who have certain intentions. Who want this region to be a certain way. The report came to fit some pre-conceived notions and ascertain intentions of some members of the international community,” Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, told TheEastAfrican in an interview.

“Why should we [Uganda] pay the price of security in the region?” Asked Asuman Kiyingi Uganda’s Minister for Regional Affairs.

“President Yoweri Museveni does not sleep because of the problems in the region and Ban Ki Moon and President Joseph Kabila are always on the phone asking him to use his contacts to calm the situation every time there is trouble in Congo, Sudan or Somalia,” said Mr Kiyingi.

Mr Kiyingi later explained that until the UN Security Council adopts a position on the offensive report, the question of Uganda pulling its troops out of Amisom remains a hypothetical one.

“If they insist on their report, then we shall give a timeline for our withdrawal,” Mr Kiyingi said, adding that the region was solidly behind Uganda in its standoff with the UN.

“Rwanda understands and appreciates the basis on which Uganda is taking certain positions on this report. We hope this report will be seen for what it is — a compilation of elements that have nothing to do with the reality, hopefully good sense will prevail,” said Ms Mwishikiwabo.

Reject report

Government officials in Kampala said they expected the Council, which convenes this week, to reject the report. They allude to the tacit backing of Russia, China and the United States of America while the United Kingdom is yet to make its position known.

While many commentators have described Uganda’s threats as premature and an attempt to blackmail the international community, Mr Kiyingi said there was no other way of dealing with the issue.

Harold Acemah, a retired career diplomat who once served in Uganda’s foreign service, said that besides the indelicate language Ugandan officials have used during their rebuttals “their reaction was premature because the final report could be different. But, even if it is not, reactions should only have been to a report that has been officially released. The threats are an overreaction and could be counterproductive.”

“We are adopting this extreme position out of the conviction that we are innocent and because without informing us, the President of the UN Security Council went ahead and issued a statement announcing their intention to impose sanctions against Uganda and Rwanda,” said Mr Kiyingi, describing the report by the UN group of experts as an act of provocation.

Independent commentators believe that while Kampala could be posturing, its strategy has a high chance of success because neither Uganda nor the international community can afford an escalation of the dispute, which is now being seen as part of an emerging contest for influence in the DRC.

Regional countries, under the umbrella of the International Conference on the Great Lakes (ICGLR), agreed to moot a 4,000 neutral force in eastern DRC at a summit in Kampala in August. The decade-old $1.6 billion a month United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Monusco) mission was seen to have failed in pacifying the warring factions.

Alongside pulling out of Somalia, Uganda has also threatened to abandon the Congo peace initiative. But sources privy to the goings on in the ICGLR heads of state meetings said: “If Uganda gets out, then the UN wins and the regional initiative dies. We don’t want this. It must be seen as a struggle between forces of instability in the region (in this case the UN) versus the forces of sustainable peace (in this case the ICGLR).”

According to Ugandan academics, however, it is unlikely that the UN will allow the country to act on its threats, while even Uganda may not be as eager to enforce them. Contributing more than two thirds of the 17,600 African Union troops that have routed Al Shabaab out of its strongholds in Somalia, a unilateral withdrawal holds inherent political and security risks for Uganda.

For the major powers that control the UN system, finding alternative troops to replace the Ugandan soldiers would be a major headache.

Challenges

Phillip Kasaija, an international affairs professor at Makerere University, said Uganda, whose Somalia mission was in the first place financed by the UN, would encounter logistical challenges in trying to bring its troops home without international support. On the other hand the major western powers, who have no reason to risk the lives of their troops, would rather reach a compromise than maintain the status quo.

“Uganda does not have the financial or logistical capacity to get out of Somalia on its own but, equally the key players in the UN Security Council, who would be obliged to fill the resulting vacuum, would not want to put their own soldiers on the ground so it is unlikely that the experts’ report will get anywhere,” said Prof Kasaija.

On the other hand, Prof Kasaija observes that in sending the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces to Somalia, President Museveni was making a political-diplomatic investment that has only partially paid off through the leverage it has given him in the current standoff. It is more likely the president will only settle for a full return on investment, especially if he chooses to run again in 2016.

Simon Mulongo, a National Resistance Movement MP who deputises the House Defence Committee Chair, also doubts Uganda can pull out of Amisom.

“Uganda went into Somalia based on certain interests and until they are achieved it cannot pull out. Our strategic interests have not been fully realised and if we pulled out now Al Shabaab would exploit the resulting vacuum to rebuild itself. I don’t think anybody, be it Uganda or the international community, wants that,” said Mr Mulongo.

In her press call on November 5, US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman was non-committal on whether she had asked President Museveni to keep the country’s troops in Somalia. She said she wasn’t going to discuss details of diplomatic meetings she had with leaders, only conceding that her bilateral talks in Uganda had “focused on the US-Uganda partnership in regional stability, including Somalia”.

Mwebetsya Ndebeesa, a Ugandan academic, said that insecurity in the DRC also breeds insecurity in Uganda and Rwanda and so they both have a genuine interest in the country.

Past threats

Rwanda has also in the past threatened to withdraw its participation from the peacekeeping mission in Darfur in western Sudan after a similar report on DRC accused it of committing atrocities against the Hutu ethnic group there.

Its threats compelled a critical review of the report, which saw the conclusions become more acceptable to Rwanda.

This time round, Rwanda has chosen to respond to each allegation made against it. However, the country does not expect the final report to read any different. Kigali is hopeful that good sense will prevail within the Security Council.

The final draft of the report was delivered to the Sanctions Committee on October 12, the same day it was leaked to foreign media outlets and five days ahead of the UN General Assembly’s vote to admit Rwanda to the Security Council. A day later, Ms Mushikiwabo says, Rwanda received a letter from the co-ordinator of the UN expert group Steven Hege requesting to talk to government officials in Rwanda.

“The report is causing trouble in the region and ultimately affecting communities in eastern DRC,” said Ms Mushikiwabo.

According to Ms Mushikiwabo, Mr Hege’s report has only succeeded in adding more confusion to an already complicated situation in eastern DRC.

Rwanda’s alleged involvement in the DRC conflict led several donors to cancel budgetary support aid to President Kagame’s administration, a move it is feared could negatively affect the country’s economic growth.

Reported by Michael Wakabi, Gaaki Kigambo and Halima Abdallah