The army is investigating reports that commanders charge soldiers money to second them for deployment with the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). An Observer investigation has found that commanders of UPDF's specialised units deployed around the country sell the Amisom slots to their charges for between Shs 500,000 and Shs 1 million.
Soldiers who pass the initial selection from their units then face a second hurdle during specialised refresher training in preparation for deployment in Somalia. Military sources further told us that many of the soldiers have to part with more money along the chain, to ensure they are among those deemed fit for deployment to Amisom.
Asked what the army was doing about this matter, the UPDF spokesman, Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, said the military considered such actions criminal and would not hesitate to punish perpetrators if it gets conclusive evidence.
Ankunda, however, said the UPDF had hitherto hit a dead-end in its investigations. The information that the UPDF has so far gleaned on the vice allegedly practised by its commanders can at best be described as rumours.
"We have been investigating these rumours but nothing substantive has come out yet," he said. Ankunda appealed to anyone with information about the sale of Amisom slots to provide it to the army.
"For us [within the UPDF], that is criminal and whoever is involved, if there is incriminating evidence, they will be punished," he said. Since the creation of Amisom in January 2007, the UPDF has sent different contingents of soldiers, known within military ranks as battle groups, to serve initially for six months. Subsequently, Amisom battle groups have served for 12 months at a time.
Uganda was the first country to contribute troops to Amisom, a United Nations-sanctioned operation managed by the African Union. The UPDF has since provided the largest batch of soldiers to the peacekeeping mission. According to the Amisom website, the UPDF has 6,223 troops in Somalia, the largest among the five national contingents.
According to various UPDF sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, members of each Amisom contingent are selected from the various units deployed in the different divisions around the country.
The UPDF headquarters sends radio messages ordering commanders of the different specialised units in the respective divisions to submit names of soldiers who they recommend for deployment in Somalia. The specialised units reportedly include artillery, tanks, motorised and infantry (ground troops).
"Each commander selects the soldiers according to the quota that his unit has been instructed to submit," said a source. "Because people know that there are a lot of benefits of serving in Amisom, the commanders ask the soldiers to pay them if they want to go."
The selection process, at both the units and at the UPDF Peace Support Training School in Singo, where the army undertakes refresher training for its Somalia-bound troops, is also said to be characterised by influence peddling by senior figures in the military and in government.
"There are people who go on merit and there are people who go because of paying cash or because of who they know," said a source.
Because of the irregular ways through which some soldiers secure opportunities to serve in Somalia, a number of deserving soldiers - who will have even performed to satisfaction during the refresher course - lose their slots to colleagues willing to cut corners.
"You can do well in training and then they screen you and somebody tells you that you have high blood pressure. In the army, you can't appeal. It means that if you don't treat those people well, they will keep you out," confessed a source.
Ankunda said they were combing the army for leads that could help the army know who is responsible for the vice, albeit with little success so far. He, however, said there are no qualms that the army as an institution does not condone the practice.
Amisom has become a lucrative cash cow for UPDF soldiers, many of whom earn several times what they are paid back home. Each UPDF soldier deployed in Somalia earns a monthly allowance of $828 (about Shs 2 million) from the African Union.
That allowance is separate from the monthly salaries that each soldier earns back home. However, compared to the Amisom allowance, the UPDF salaries are paltry. A private in the UPDF earns Shs 326,508. Amisom also compensates the families of Amisom soldiers who die in the line of duty, with $50,000 (about Shs 127.5 million).
From the start of Amisom, the UPDF has enjoyed worldwide acclaim for its role in helping to disintegrate the al-Shabab and pacify parts of the Somalia capital, Mogadishu. That reputation has, however, been injured lately by a series of self-inflicted shots to the collective foot of the UPDF.
In 2012, three UPDF choppers en route to Somalia to bolster the Amisom ground troops crashed around Mt Kenya, killing at least two officers. President Museveni attributed the crashes to failures in operational command and sacked some of the UPDF Airforce commanders who were in charge of the mission.
Last year, the army arrested Brig Michael Ondoga, the Uganda contingent commander, for alleged corruption. Brig Ondoga and several other senior officers are currently on trial at the UPDF General Court Martial in Kampala.
The court martial has unearthed some of the sordid actions that UPDF commanders oversaw in Mogadishu, including stealing fuel, food and other UPDF supplies to sell to the al-Shabab fighters. A soldier also testified that UPDF instructors used Amisom facilities to train at least 10 al-Shabab fighters.