Uganda’s East African neighbours have pledged soft support should the country choose to go on the offensive in Somalia as Kampala weighs its options in the wake of the twin bombing that left nearly 80 people dead late on July 11.
Blamed on the Al Shabaab militia that has since claimed responsibility for the attacks, the bombs that targeted revellers who were watching the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, went off at two locations three kilometres apart.
President Yoweri Museveni, who is convinced that the Al Qaeda-allied Al Shabaab masterminded the attacks, has vowed revenge and Ugandan officials now confirm that Kampala is pursuing a two-track strategy that could see it follow Al Shabaab into Somalia with or without UN Security Council consent.
“I think Al Shabaab underestimated our capacity and the extent of our resolve to go after them. We are evaluating our military engagement and from now it will not be business as usual on the ground; these attacks mark the beginning of the end of Al Shabaab,” Uganda’s Junior Foreign Affairs Minister Okello Oryem told this newspaper.
Describing the reaction of Uganda’s neighbours in the East African Community as “very positive,” diplomatic sources separately told The EastAfrican that there is tacit agreement that non-troop contributing members will provide soft support such as intelligence gathering and analysis.
Sources add that although it is estimated that as many as 20,000 troops are needed to drive Al Shabaab out of Somalia, Uganda is willing and capable of raising its troop levels in the country to that number.
Off the record, military sources say Uganda feels it has the capacity to go it alone in Somalia and has been building up its military strength for such an eventuality.
The Uganda People’s Defence Forces air wing has received additions to its arsenal in recent weeks in what observers see as a concerted push to increase Uganda’s military capability.
“We are one of the most efficient armies in Africa. We can defend our country from anywhere, even within Somalia,” Ugandan army and Defence Ministry spokesman Lt-Col Felix Kulaigye said separately.
The only obstacle to military action it would seem, are existing international conventions and regional pacts that would require Uganda to secure approval from its peers.
Against the possibility that such a greenlight may not be forthcoming, Kampala, which contributes nearly 5,000 of the existing troop strength under the African Union Mission to Somalia, Amisom, is pursuing a two-track.
One track involves using the latest outrage to mobilise opinion in the UN Security Council in favour of changing the Amisom mandate from peacekeeping to peace enforcement, while the other relies on a bilateral agreement Kampala has struck with Mogadishu.
Mr Oryem, who confirmed that Uganda was revaluating its diplomatic strategy with a view to “getting the UN Security Council more focused in evaluating the evolving situation in Somalia as it relates to the mandate of Amisom,” also wants the international community to contribute more to make the AU force and the Transitional Federal Government more effective on the ground.
So far, Uganda and Burundi have borne the burden of policing Somalia as other countries that promised troops sit on the fence.
This state of affairs has convinced Uganda that it may not get the political support for military action against the insurgents.
As a fallback position, it has entered into an understanding where it will undertake military action in Somalia at the invitation of the TFG.
Military thinkers in Kampala believe that such a bilateral arrangement would bypass any limitations imposed by international conventions, and Uganda could act in the Somali theatre in much the same way Zimbabwe joined the great African war in the DR Congo just over a decade ago.
“Anybody who brings war to us, we take back that war to them. We shall pursue Al Shabaab from Somalia in line with the wishes of the Transitional Federal Government,” said Uganda’s Army and Defence Ministry spokesman Lt-Col Felix Kulaigye.
Although similar action by Ethiopia when it ousted the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu in December 2006 was torpedoed over concerns of unilateral action, Kampala believes the July 11 bombings have worked to reshape international opinion over what needs to be done in Somalia.
“These attacks definitely help strengthen the resolve and rationale for a more robust and decisive action in Somalia,” said James Mugume, the Permanent Secretary in Uganda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mr Mugume added that as a follow-up to the July 4 Igad meeting in Addis, regional leaders will propose the deployment of the Eastern Africa Standby Brigade, EasiBrigade, in Somalia.
Uganda is also examining the possibility of using such fora as the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) which already has provisions that offer some room for intervention.
The ICGLR is governed by the Nairobi Pact, under which the protocol on non-aggression and mutual defence encourages member states to work together and dismantle unwanted armed groups.
The executive secretary of ICGLR Liberata Mulamula said once the TFG’s request for membership is approved by the Summit, it would create a framework under which Uganda or any other member state could be invited to militarily assist Somalia’s interim government.
“Somalia has already applied to be a member; once that request is approved, Uganda will be able to work together with the Transitional Federal Government and fight Al Shabaab under the legal framework that governs the organisation,” said Nathan Byamukama, the ICGLR programme officer in charge of cross-cutting issues.