On September 20, 2019, a white United Nations (UN) helicopter hovered over Ceel Jaalle, Lower Shabelle, Somalia as heavily-armed Ugandan soldiers on ground moved to receive supplies.
A short distance away from a heavily-fortified Uganda military base is a training centre for Somali soldiers.
Moving in a convoy of armoured fighting vehicles, Battle Group 28 commander, Col Wilberforce Sserunkuma is relaxed.
The occupants of the armoured vehicle are battle-hardened soldiers who have fought Somali terrorist movement, Al Shabaab for months.
Using a white hankie, Sserunkuma wipes sweat from his forehead.
After a five-minute tense drive, we arrive at the shooting range and training ground for Somali forces.
“This area has several tribes which used to have different militia groups,” says Capt Ninsiima Rwemijuma, the spokesperson for UPDF’s Battle Group 28.
“When they agreed to lay down their weapons, we decided to give them joint training. We told them how bad it was to be divided,” said Rwemijuma.
“As you can see, we are now helping them to perfect their marksmanship. They are acquiring skills on hitting targets,” added Rwemijuma.
About 20 youthful Somalia sit cross-legged in the sand.
An instructor orders the trainees to dismantle and reassemble an AK 47 assault rifle.
The trainees lay on the sand and hold their guns firmly.
Paper targets are used to perfect the trainees’ shooting skills.
Growing the Somali forces’ numbers is critical for AMISOM as it prepares to relinquish the responsibility of managing the country’s security to the nation’s forces.
Some of the trained Somali forces work closely with AMISOM troops to conduct patrols and cordon and search operations.
Other areas where Somali forces are being involved include manning of checkpoints and counter Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and general offensive operations.
“Whenever there is an offensive operation, we do it together with Somali forces,” said Capt Rwemijuma.
“They used to have sharp differences among clans but that is over. They handed over guns and after training they will be ready for reintegration in Somalia National Army.”
Since the year started, about 250 local forces have been trained in Marka alone.
Other countries such as United States and Turkey are training Special Forces and regular troops respectively.
But the top military strategists say fighting an elusive and slippery enemy like Al Shabaab requires more numbers of local forces, addressing the political differences among states and increasing the capacity of AMISOM to sustain attacks on Al Shabaab.
Challenges in combating Al Shabaab
UPDF Contingent Commander, Brigadier Michael Kabango says SNA boosted its forces with new six fighting battalions in a space of one year.
He, however, says Al Shabaab remains a big threat for the country’s national security.
For example, Al Shabaab still charges taxes from businesses in areas which they control.
“They run a tariff system. There is extortion going on. In Lower Shabelle, they earn about $30m per year in taxes,” says Kabango, a former Uganda military police commander.
The second challenge is UPDF’s inability to send forces far away from bases.
“We can’t project our forces very far. We keep them near logistic lines. We’ve helicopters but there are many rules on their usage. They can’t carry certain ammunition; and can’t be used in some areas,” says Kabango.
He says, “if we could get attack helicopters, the story would change.”
The third constraint in countering Al Shabaab is the Somali federal government’s failure to provide social services to the people.
“They delay to deliver services. The civilian leadership should do its job,” he adds.
This is true to Acting AMISOM Force commander in charge of plans and operations, Lt Gen Nakibus Lakara.
He says resolution of political conflicts among political leaders and cleans would create a conducive atmosphere for government to deliver on its mandate.
Reminded that Somalia has in recent years intensified the recruitment for police officers, Kabango responded: “Police is for law enforcement while the military is total security. There is now law and order to keep.”
The fourth challenge, according to Kabango is the Somali people’s general hostility to foreigners.
“Al Shabaab takes advantage of divisions,” said Kabango.
The fifth problem is the enrollment of foreign fighters by Al Shabaab which maintains links with terrorist group, Al Qaeda.
Kabango said through its tariff system, Al Shabaab is able to raise millions of dollars to pay its combatants, something he says is very rare among insurgent groups which are usually driven by faith.
An investigation by ChimpReports indicates that around 2010, hundreds of snipers took to the Mogadishu’s abandoned buildings where they killed several Ugandan soldiers and local collaborators.
“The foreign fighters and snipers were allover Mogadishu. They made movement of troops, logistics and emergency services extremely difficult,” said Land Forces spokesperson Col Henry Obbo.
“It was not until we cleared them that operations against Al Shabaab and eventual fall of Mogadishu were realized,” recalled Obbo who took part in many offensive operations in Somalia.
It is understood then Special Forces commander, now Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, camped in Mogadishu for weeks where he led clandestine operations against snipers.
“We were inflicting heavy casualties on snipers,” recalled a soldier who preferred anonymity to speak freely.
“On some days, we would record about 100 foreign fighters and snipers killed in action. Snipers are killed by snipers. The clearance of snipers by Special Forces paved way for the fall of Mogadishu.”
Despite these successes against foreign insurgents, researcher David Shinn of George Washington University says a lot of work must be done to counter this threat.
He says Al Shaabaab learned its strategy and tactics from al Qaeda and the Taliban and relies heavily on a relatively small number of foreign fighters, most of whom are Somalis with foreign passports from the large Somali diaspora.
The non-Somali contingent probably numbers about 200 to 300, although it brings battlefield experience from Afghanistan and Iraq and provides al Shabaab with expertise in bomb making, remote-controlled explosions, suicide bombing and assassinations.
Some of the foreigners are said to occupy key positions in al Shabaab.
Light at end of tunnel
Nevertheless, as AMISOM forces gain more ground, Kabango sees a bright future for Somalia.
He says government of Somalia and federal states need to sort out issues of governance to cultivate ground for peace and security.
“If you sort out political issues, then you can sit together and manage security. This is work in progress,” he adds.
To defeat Al Shabaab in the next two years, AMISOM needs force multipliers, counter IED technology and attack helicopters to change the tide of war.
Kabango says AMISOM and development partners will continue to play a stabilization role but ultimately, Somalis have to take charge of their destiny.
“Government needs to build institutions to gain confidence of the people so they can tell who is for Somalia,” he says, adding, “There is need to generate more forces to take charge of the country’s security. But this requires resources, political will and a common vision.”