When the UPDF first entered Somalia in 2007, death was cheaper than salt on the streets of Mogadishu. Six years down the road, the situation has changed.
This mission is 'doable," Lt. Gen. Katumba Wamala told his Nigerian colleagues during a visit to Mogadishu in 2007. The Nigerians had sent in a liaison security team to look at the possibility of having Nigerian troops deployed.
"Even that phrase, doable does not exist in English," the Nigerian officer said. The Nigerian implied that the mission, spearheaded by Uganda at the time to bring peace to Somalia, was dead rubber. Wamala has been the overall co-ordinator of the Ugandan AMISOM contingent in Somalia for the last six years.
Although not based in Mogadishu, he has been visiting the country regularly through the last six years. When he returned to Mogadishu in January 2013, he again pointed out that contrary to the nay-sayers; the Ugandan-led mission had returned sanity in an environment many termed as 'dead and buried'.
If the Nigerian officer was there now, Wamala would probably have made the same statement again. And indeed, the Nigerian officer would now nod in the affirmative.
At the beginning of the AMISOM, while the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni and his generals hoped that the Somali question can be solved by an African solution, the rest of the world had no hope.
After all, 13 years before the Ugandan forces landed in Mogadishu, a seemingly more powerful force led by the US with Pakistan and Nigeria, had failed to bring peace to the war-torn country. The mission dubbed 'Operation Restore Hope', left a lot of 'hopelessness' in Somalia.
AMISOM soldiers talk to patients of Somali origin undergoing treatment courtesy of AMISOM forces in Mogadishu, January 7, 2013. PHOTO/Joseph Mutebi
22 years of the gun:
Until 2007 when AMISOM forces landed in Mogadishu, Somalia was virtually dead. For the last one year, an Ethiopian force had been present in key areas of the country, but it was now in retreat.
The world and most Somalis thought this would be the same case with the Ugandans.
"When we landed in Mogadishu, we were seen as dead men walking. What will they do here when more powerful countries have failed? But little did these people know that we had the will and the spirit," Wamala says.
Somalis had turned to the gun to solve all their problems. Even children as young as four years knew about guns.
"I know how to fire a 120mm mortar," a child barely 10 years boasted to this reporter, when he first visited Mogadishu. Death was normal and cheaper than salt on the streets of Mogadishu. Somalia, once lauded as one of the most powerful countries in the Horn of Africa, was now, 'the most dangerous country on earth'.
Even as 2012 started, the above description of this beautiful ocean side country still remained. On the military front, al-Shabaab was just a few kilometres from Mogadishu.
They still controlled the key cities of Baidoa and Kismayu and major towns like Afgoye, Johwar, Marka and Balad. But by the end of the year, all these cities and towns had been liberated by AMISOM and Somali National Forces (SNA).
"In the early days of our stay here, whenever you moved around Mogadishu, many Somalis, including children, showed us the sign of a 'cut throat' which implied that we were going to be slaughtered," says Col. Steven Mugerwa, commander of Ugandan Battle Group 9-plus. But no the Somalis respect us.
Although the militants still control some villages, they have largely moved their operations to neighbouring semi-autonomous states of Somaliland and Puntland.
A busy street in Mogadishu where economic activity is resuming as life returns to normalcy in Somalia. PHOTO/Joseph Mutebi
On January 16, for the first time in 22 years, the US finally recognised a government in Somalia and restored diplomatic relations. "Somalia has changed, al-Shabaab has been drastically degraded. But we still need more support," says Somali president Hassan Sheik Mohamud.
Muhamud is the first Somali president to travel to the US in 22 years and meet US leaders.
Mogadishu is slowly emerging out of the woods. The streets are lit up again, factories are returning, restaurants booming and people are going to the beaches again.
"They said they were going to drive us back to the ocean," Katumba says, adding that it is the AMISOM forces that have remarkably driven the militants into the woods and beyond.
With the current AMISOM mandate scheduled to end in March 2013, the major challenge for Hassan Mohamud is to convince regional countries and their funders in the US, AU and EU to extend it.
"Our allies have done well, but a lot more is needed. The world should not abandon our cause now," Mohamud said while in Uganda.
Muhamud also tried to convince the US to extend the mandate during his visit.
Success on the military front looks irreversible. The Ugandan and Burundian contingents have pushed the militants far away from Mogadishu. In the Shabelle region, the only major city that has remained in the hands of the militants was Baraawe.
In the Central region, AMISOM forces control the key cities of Baidoa and Beledwewyne while in the South, the Kenyan AMISOM contingent captured Kismayu in September last year and are now securing outlying areas.
"The militants have adopted guerrilla tactics, by laying improvised explosive devices, but the level of suicide bombings dropped in 2012. Their ability to wage war has also been reduced but they still pose a threat to peace," Brig. Micheal Ondoga, the Ugandan contingent commander said, adding that it looks beyond doubt that the mission is 'doable' after all.
As life settles back to normal, there is evidence to this, like this road being constructed in the capital Mogadishu. PHOTO/Joseph Mutebi
The new leadership, however, faces enormous challenges. A city that needs massive reconstruction, groups of militias that are still moving around Mogadishu, thousands still in IDP camps and a government with no serious tax base.
Politically, Mohamud will have to find a lasting solution to the clan networks that destabilised the country for many years.
But he will take heart from the rapid transformation that is going on in Mogadishu. For the past one year, Mogadishu has rapidly transformed from the 'most dangerous city' in the world to one of the most visited cities in the world.
Somalis from all over the world are returning home, businessmen are coming in to prospect for virgin deals, the ocean is open and the beaches are lively again.
"There are now at least 20 flights everyday and at least 15 big ships docking at Mogadishu seaport every week ,"
"You realise that most of the passengers coming in are not going back, which means they are coming back to settle permanently," explains Capt. Tabaro Kiconco, who is in charge of security at the airport. This only shows the confidence Somalis now have.
Across Mogadishu, a massive clean-up has been underway for the last six months. Tracer bullets that used to grace the night sky have been replaced with street lights, streets have been reconstructed and traffic jams are now a common occurrence.
Multi-coloured flats have swiftly been constructed in many parts of the capital, replacing the dilapidated excuses for houses that graced the city for many years.
To appreciate the level of construction that is going on across the capital, one just has to count the number of trucks running down the road towards al-Gezira in the south of the city coastline and coming back with sand.
According to information from the seaport, among other things, the ships that dock at the seaport unload a lot of construction materials including cement, iron bars and remarkably expensive building finishing from Italy and Indonesia.
"They have tasted and seen the fruits of peace. They will be very careful not to destroy it," Brig. Ondoga said. This peace that many of the 20-year-olds had never enjoyed until a year ago is the antidote that will threaten any body who will threaten it.