Uganda’s War on Terror Comes Home

Somalia's radicals strike back.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

KAMPALA — When Edward Odocken, 25, arrived at Kampala’s Kyadondo Rugby Club to cheer for the Netherlands in the World Cup final yesterday, he was expecting little trouble other than teasing from his two companions, both of whom were supporting Spain. Then the bomb detonated.

"All of a sudden there was a blast and people began to run," said Odocken, a tennis instructor. As he and his friends reached the gate, another explosion went off. "It hit people very seriously," Odocken explained, his voice laced with guilt as he noted that he escaped with only a deep cut on his leg. "Some people didn’t have heads and some people were coming out without arms and getting in the ambulance to go to the hospital."

Across town, about 50 minutes earlier, another bomb had been detonated at a popular Ethiopian restaurant, also decked out with big screens and extra chairs for the festivities. As word spread from person to person through worried calls and panicky text messages, bars all over town began to empty. The outcome of the game was no longer important. Managers at one establishment simply turned off all the televisions, sending a clear message: Go home now.

By this evening, 74 people were confirmed dead in the bombings, the majority at the rugby club, with nearly as many wounded. The death toll seems likely to rise. According to reports from Mulago Hospital, Kampala’s largest trauma treatment facility, health providers are working frantically, but the hospital simply lacks the capacity to treat certain injuries quickly enough to save people.

Ugandan police and military officials are still investigating, and the United States has promised FBI assistance, but the attacks appear to have been committed by al-Shabab, the hardline Islamist group fighting for control of Somalia. After some initial confusion, with various al-Shabab proxies expressing pleasure but not admitting responsibility, a spokesman for the insurgent group took full credit in a statement to reporters in Mogadishu. Earlier, a Ugandan army spokesman said investigators had some grisly evidence — a severed head — suggesting one of the bombs might have been detonated by a Somali national in a suicide attack.

It’s clear why al-Shabab would have picked Uganda: It is the largest supplier of peacekeepers in the African Union Mission in Somalia(AMISOM), sharing with Burundi the burden of defending Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG). In recent months, al-Shabab has publicly threatened to attack Uganda and Burundi for defending the fledgling Mogadishu-based government, and most analysts agree that without the African Union troops, al-Shabab could quickly capture control of the capital.

Since AMISOM’s launch in 2007, Uganda — with logistical and financial support from the United States — has been one of the mission’s most adamant supporters, sending over 2,000 troops with little complaint (it helped that the West was paying most of its bills).

Yesterday’s attacks, however, are likely to force the Ugandan government to rethink — or at least justify — its involvement in Somalia. Indeed, across Uganda today, questions are already being raised. Many Ugandans are now wondering why their country went to Somalia in the first place and are seeing the attacks as a good reason to leave. "The United States went into Afghanistan and Iraq with the argument that we have to take the war to the terrorists," said Daniel Kalinaki, managing editor of the Daily Monitor, Kampala’s largest independent newspaper. "In our case, we’ve gone to foreign shores to fight and maintain a peace, and we’ve brought the war to our own territory." Odocken, the tennis player who survived the bombing, argued, "If Uganda doesn’t stop, these people will keep on [attacking us]."

No matter what Kampalans have to say about their country’s policies today, however, public sentiment might have little influence on the Ugandan government’s next move. President Yoweri Museveni has long defined his relationship with the United States by positioning himself as a staunch ally against Islamist extremism in East Africa. Moves like immediately volunteering troops for the AU mission, viewed by the United States as a high strategic priority after it helped topple the temporary rule of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, have given Museveni a sort of trump card, allowing him to deflect concerns about human rights, governance, and corruption.

Museveni was defiant as he visited the sites of the attack today. "If you want to fight, why don’t you attack soldiers or military installations instead of fighting innocent people watching football?" he said. "We shall go after them because we know where they come from." The deputy foreign affairs minister, Okello Oryem, echoed this sentiment, telling the Wall Street Journal, "It would be a cowardly act to withdraw, and we won’t do that."

In fact, some escalation of the AU mission was already being planned before the attacks. In June, Uganda officially became host to a European Union military deployment to help train Somali soldiers for the fledgling TFG army. With the help of the United States, the recruits are flown to Uganda from Mogadishu for training.

Additionally, on July 5, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional organization of six East African states — Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda — agreed to a request from a TFG delegation to reinforce the 5,000-troop AU mission with an additional 2,000 troops, though no final decision was made on who would supply them. Angelo Izama, a journalist and co-founder of Fanaka Kwa Wote, a research organization focused on development and security in East Africa, thinks Uganda will likely be one of the contributors. "If there’s some sense of commitment from other actors, I think you’ll see more soldiers going there rapidly," he said.

Finally, AMISOM’s fate is all but sealed by the fact that the attacks happened during the run-up to national elections, which are scheduled for early 2011. Museveni, who has been in power since 1986 and is seeking a fourth term in office, will campaign on his legacy of bringing stability to the country after a civil war and a decades-long rebellion by the Northern Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army. In reacting to the bombing, Museveni needs to show voters that he still knows what to do in the face of a military threat. He will probably put on a significant show of force in responding domestically and abroad to al-Shabab’s attack and continued threats.

That may be good news for the survival of the TFG in Mogadishu, but at least two groups in Uganda have good reason to be fearful of such a response. The relatively large Somali community in Uganda has been dreading an incident like this for years, and many fear it will face retribution by mobs or arrest and interrogation in government safe houses, a number of which were exposed in 2008. The atmosphere of insecurity will also make it much harder for opposition parties and candidates to campaign. Police and soldiers already intervene frequently in opposition rallies, and Kalinaki, the newspaper editor, expressed doubt that the government will allow any large gatherings for some time.

More clues will be revealed next week, as the African Union summit in Uganda is almost certain to discuss Somalia at least as much as its official theme of maternal health. For now, Kampala is still coming to terms with its suddenly exposed vulnerability. Many are mourning, and many more, like Odocken, are grateful to be spared. "I think that it was God’s wish to help me out," he said. "A lot of people died, and we were also there."

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