Uganda’s Somalia adventure

14 Feb 2024


On May 26, 2023, Al Shabab attacked a UPDF base in Somalia with devastating effects. UPDF said 54 soldiers were killed while Al Shaba claimed to have killed 137. I had grown wary of our mission and sought to understand the experience of similar missions elsewhere. That is how I came to read The Afghanistan Papers, an insightful book by Craig Whitlock.

Whitlock’s book found me thinking about how futile UPDF’s mission in Somalia is. I have visited Somalia thrice and been impressed by the performance of our troops. In 2012, UPDF mounted a campaign to kick Al Shabab out of Mogadishu. It was the most ferocious campaign it ever fought. Al Shabab contested every inch of ground. Like the battle of Stalingrad, UPDF had to fight for every street, every block, every floor of every block and every room on every floor. The battle entered a phase of sniper warfare and UPDF had to call in American snipers to fight alongside it and to train its soldiers in sniper warfare. UPDF triumphed.

Emmotoka ngeva okuttika ebyamagyuzi okuva ku meeri ku mwaalo. Ekif. Hasifah Naava

It was a campaign immediately successful but ultimately futile. When I first visited Somalia in 2012, Al Shabab had just been kicked out of Mogadishu and seemed defeated. When I last visited in December 2017, Al Shabab had been degraded but was slowly but steadily recovering from the 2012 blows. It would take them an entire year to build one Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VB IED) to attack an African Union (AU) Forward Operating Base (FOB). By last year, they could attack an AU FOB with four to five VB IEDs in one month.

Why is Al Shabab resurgent? I had been interviewing Somalis and other people working in the country about the situation in Somalia. Uganda and the AU were using American and European lenses to look at Al Shahab. Like Western powers, we saw it as a terrorist organisation out to terrorise the people of Somalia. Our mission there, though not clearly defined, has been to protect the people of Somalia against Al Shabab, to help them build a capable government with an army and a police force that can perform the vital functions of state – to ensure law and order and protect the rights of Somalis to life and property. Supported by Western powers, the AU has also been trying to build a liberal democratic state in Somalia.

While reading Whitlock’s book, the question I had been asking myself for four years kept coming back: Is Al Shabab the enemy of the Somali people? From all the interviews I had done, I knew that Al Shabab does not steal from the ordinary people of Somalia. Those who steal from them in Al Shabab-controlled areas are subject to sharia law. Al Shabab cuts off your hand after a speedy trial. On the other hand, the Somali National Army (SNA) lives off the local population. Like the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) in the early 1980s, when their salaries; paid by international donors, delay, they mount roadblocks and extort money from travelers.

Secondly, if someone pays taxes to Al Shabab, they issue a receipt. Then the person can transport their goods and travel with that tax receipt from one part of Somalia to another. And in all Al Shabab administered areas, those in charge will respect that receipt and not charge you more taxes. This is the exact opposite with the Somali government that Uganda, the AU and its Western allies are propping up. It is so corrupt that everywhere businesspeople go, officials collect taxes from them even on items whose taxes they paid in one part of the country or city.

Beyond being uncorrupt, Al Shabab also administer justice quickly, transparently and fairly within the cultural context of Somalia, a predominantly Muslim country. They rely on sharia to administer justice. Westerners and western educated elites may find sharia backward and abhorrent. But Somalis see it as good law consistent with their religious values and beliefs. Take the case of a Somali lady whose dad had been a high-ranking officer on the Siad Barre government. She left Mogadishu as a child and lived all her life in the USA. She returned to Somalia in 2019 and became an MP. She found her home occupied by other people. She wanted it back.

She went to court to recover it. But she got stuck in protracted legal technicalities, corruption, absenteeism, foot dragging, incompetence, indifference and the apathy of the official government court system built on Western ideas. After three years of almost no progress she went to an Al Shabab Court. They listen to all sides and ruled that she was entitled to it. In two weeks the case was heard, judgment delivered and she got back her home.

Somalis who work for AMISOM at its different bases go to Al Shabab courts when they have cases. More intriguing is that generals in the SNA, officials of the Somali National Government (SNG), etc all go to Al Shabab courts for justice. These sharia courts are devoid of corruption, are quick and issue judgments most Somalis find fair, transparent, and consistent with their sense of justice based on the religious and cultural teachings.

On the other hand, official state courts in Somalia are corrupt and incompetent. They follow procedures that are arcane and alien to the people and therefore not understood or appreciated by the population. Even if they were honest and quick, these courts’ principles of justice are not consistent with the Somalis sense of what is fair and just. They rely on legal technicalities which people do not understand and which they don’t find just or fair. Thus, many Somalis in government-held areas go to Al Shabab-held areas to resolve their disputes and adjudicate their cases.

Because of the legitimacy it enjoys in the eyes of the people, Al Shabab collects more taxes than the SNG. It builds schools and hospitals and provides education and health services to the people in its areas of control. All business people in Mogadishu pay taxes to al Shabab. They can evade taxes to the government or bribe its officials to pay less. With al Shabab they pay the full amount. This is partly, if not largely, because Al Shabab is highly respected by the people as the legitimate representative of their interests and values. But it also because there are severe consequences if one fails to pay. So the carrot and the stick are held in equal balance. I will elaborate on this next week.

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