Uganda: Here's How UPDF Can Turn Its Military Adventures Into Gold

UPDF soldiers in Somalia.

The Chief of Defence Forces, Gen David Muhoozi, was quoted in the Daily Monitor saying Ugandan soldiers deployed in Somalia (Amisom) to fight the al-Shabaab militants are "stranded due to underfunding, logistical deficits and a challenged Somali national force".

When Somalia looked like a place in hell, Uganda was first to deploy in Somalia in March 2007 and, notes the Daily Monitor report, 'still has the largest number of soldiers in the 22,000-strong African Union Peacekeeping Mission. Other troop contributors include Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya".

"... cannot defend what we already have and neither can we effectively offend the enemy to degrade [its] capacity. That is the dilemma we are in and that is why the TCCs (Troop Contributing Countries) met to put across the concerns of the mission, so that with the international partners, we can find a way forward," Gen Muhoozi said.

Those "international partners" have now told the Amisom countries, who have beaten back al-Shabaab at least enough to allow the re-establishment of a wobbly Somalia State, to leave in the coming months.

Despite its gains, there's no disputing that its mission is deeply unpopular among sections of Somalis, with the international left, and in the troop contributing countries.

This time, though, the UPDF didn't waste treasure and blood in Somalia. The first time I went to Mogadishu, the UPDF would not allow you to step out of an armoured car without a bullet proof vest, and the city looked a like monstrous hurricane had just swept through.

To look at the transformation of Mogadishu today - the real estate boom, the semblance of normalcy in many parts of it despite terrorist bombs, and the scramble for Middle East African powers for a piece of it, is partly a vindication of the mad courage of the first UPDF troops that basically flew into Mogadishu blind, and fought for the first piece of land on which an international presence to build a response to the Somali crisis on the ground started.

But being a poor country imposes its limitations, and ultimately, you have to give a nation back to its people to take it forward, or wreck it again.

But considering that Ugandans died in their thousands in Somalia and other more ill-judged military adventures in the region, there is something good we can still take from all this that will be of valuable civilian use, and help peace-building in Africa.

I suggest that the UPDF, or the Ministry of Defence, should fund two programmes. One, "War Studies". The other "Post-war State Reconstruction". Other warrior nations, like the US, do it. We might as well borrow a leaf.

I have, in a private social context, spoken to UPDF officers who have been involved in South Sudan, DRC, Rwanda during the war, Central African Republic, Somalia, and even Angola, and sometimes they tell you things very casually that can make you choke on your food or fall off a chair.

The things they say are striking both for how profound they are, and for how seemingly unaware they are of just how extraordinary their insights are. For example, we have read a lot about how al-Shabaab was beaten out of Mogadishu by the UPDF and Burundi army. What you probably haven't heard much about is "why".

If you listen carefully, one reason lies in the ingenuity of Katwe workshops in Kampala. For that is where the tiny hunter vehicles that enabled UPDF to hound al-Shabaab out of the narrow streets in face-to-face bloody combat of the early days were made.

And in turn, that really goes back to why in the early 20th Century Ugandan history, Katwe rose as the centre of "native innovation".

Valuable learnings can also come from spectacular failures like DRC. There are people in the world who would like to know, and the knowledge would be good for structuring interventions elsewhere in Africa and the world. It is a pity fellows like Brig Nobel Mayombo have since passed on.

Listening to Mayombo talking about what, with hindsight, could have been done differently in the DRC intervention, you would say to yourself; "this bloke should be lecturing in Sandhurst, not monkeying around in our Kampala".

There is no army in Africa, for better and worse, that has dabbled in military adventure like the UPDF. It should not die with the knowledge it has gathered. We also know it can't create a world class war studies college, the money would be eaten and the whole thing would end up being shambolic.

The next best option is to do it through a new small college affiliated to Makerere University (call it the "Africa Peace and Security Studies Centre") - or any other worthy university in the country - a faculty or studies programme. If they don't, someone else will. I have spoken at defence colleges in this region. Not everyone is sleeping.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

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