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  • on 11.05.2012
  • at 09:30 AM
  • by Randa Ghazy

War and peace in Somalia: seven lessons Burundi and Uganda can teach Kenya’s soldiers 0

When you ask Burundi and Ugandan officers serving in Amisom, the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, when all of the country will be under control of the Transitional Federal Government, you will immediately sense that there is an elephant in the room.

That elephant is the question of when the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), which entered the Somali fray last October, will take the key port city of Kismayu.

Ethiopia, which followed Kenya into Somalia a month later in November, quickly moved to capture Baidoa within weeks, doing so on February 22 this year. They are pulling out, and Ugandan troops are already arriving to replace them.

Kenya has taken a cautious approach, with officials in Nairobi saying the KDF is aiming to build a political consensus among the various clans and militias around Kismayu, so that when it eventually takes the city, it does not get bogged down with running it as if it were an occupier force, but can instead hand it over to Somali groups like the Ras Kamboni fighters. Kenya has trained and armed about 4,500 of the latter.

This approach is different from the one the Ugandans and Burundians — and the Ethiopians — have taken. They go in with the TFG forces, and hand over areas they have taken to the government as part of the process of creating a unified political authority.

The real complication arising from the fact that Kenya is not yet in control of Kismayu, is that come June, when Somalia should have a new constituent assembly to pass the draft constitution, followed by the election of a new parliament, Kismayu could still be in Al Shabaab hands.

There is some talk now that after Afgooye — where Al Shabaab massed its military assets, and where several of its key commanders are now based — falls to the TFG and Amisom forces in the next few weeks, Burundi and Ugandan troops could be dispatched to Kismayu to join the KDF effort to take the city.

The Ugandan troops were the first to arrive in Mogadishu in March 2007, followed by the Burundians in December of the same year.

The Ugandans got an early baptism of fire. On the third day after their arrival, a giant cargo plane was landing at Mogadishu International Airport with supplies for the contingent. The Al Shabaab brought it down. The carcass still lies on the edge of the runway.

For five years, they have battled Al Shabaab, and learnt some useful, albeit painful, lessons — lessons that, one imagines, they have shared with their Kenyan counterparts, and that will be useful in shaping expectations about the outcome. Some of these lessons are:

1. Al Shabaab is not just a Somali, but a multinational force

When AMISOM commanders tell you the nationals from other countries they have captured fighting with Al Shabaab, it is quite an impressive list: Kenyans, Tanzanians, Ugandans, Americans, Britons, Nigerians (Boko Haram was trained by the Shabaab in Mogadishu), Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Sudanese, Egyptians, Iranians — the list is endless.

While the Somalis themselves are quite pragmatic and willing to cut a deal, the foreigners are diehard religious radicals who view death as martyrdom. The lesson here is that you probably can’t talk around Al Shabaab. You have to confront them, and it is only after their defeat or when they are weakened, that the indigenous Somali in it will find the room to negotiate.

2. The Shabaab are much tougher, better than you think

You will not find a single Burundian or Ugandan officer in Amisom who belittles Al Shabaab’s military prowess. The Shabaab, they say, might as well have invented urban guerrilla warfare because they are extremely good at it. The tide turned against them in Mogadishu in 2010 only after the Burundians and Ugandan troops also mastered the art. The stories they tell are quite dramatic. Many intense battles were fought in Mogadishu where, after six days of fighting, Amisom and TFG forces had only gained 200 metres from the Shabaab.

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