The unpredictable war

May 25, 2009 12:00 am

, MOGADISHU, May 25 – African Union peacekeepers based in Mogadishu have an acronym for the guerrilla war in Somalia, VUCA, meaning volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous.

From a distance, they hear echoing blasts of heavy weaponry. A Mogadishu district is under attack from radical insurgents once again and the Ugandan peacekeepers calmly scan their radio to locate the clashes.

"Here in Mogadishu, it is like that," says major Barigye Bahoku, spokesman for the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). "We have a word for that: VUCA".

The Horn of Africa country has been at war for nearly two decades.

Foreign forces and peacekeepers have come and gone but an end to the bloodshed still looks out of reach.

The latest round of bloodletting in the Somali capital kicked off on May 7 when hardline Islamist groups launched a fresh offensive aimed at removing internationally-backed President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

On Friday, Sharif’s paltry forces launched an unsuccessful attempt to push back the rebels and a fraction of the cabinet remains holed up in the presidential compound, under AMISOM protection.

In a command room plastered with maps at the AMISOM headquarters in Mogadishu, a board lists the "events" of the day.

"At around 0200, insurgents fired three mortar shells at seaport but missed the target. At around 1600 insurgents attacked State House (parliament) from southern direction using small arms," read one entry.

General Francis Okello, AMISOM’s Ugandan top commander who is in charge of the 4,300 troops from Uganda and Burundi deployed gradually over the past two years, argued that violence in Somalia was cyclical.

"It is like a wave in the sea… Since I have been here, it is at least the third wave of violence. It goes up, reaches a peak, then it stabilises before coming down again towards a relatively quiet period of time that we never know how long it will last," said Okello.

All AMISOM officers interviewed by AFP agreed that the embattled transitional government’s counter offensive allowed it to regain ground over the Islamist Shebab militants.

But after a few hours, the government abandoned the positions, unable to defend them for lack of manpower and equipment.

Sharif was elected in January and has sought international assistance to build up his security apparatus but government forces still do not exceed a few hundred.

AMISOM is confident that all the transitional government needs to regain control of the capital is 5,000 well-trained and disciplined troops.

Seated in his office, the commander, his eyes glued to a laptop connected to the internet, said "even the Al Shebab are divided and sometimes fight among each other on the basis of clan mistrust or diputes.

"They are not popular among the population because the culture they are bringing is new to the Somalis. They (Somalis) are used to their freedom.

But it may not be easy to get the various factional forces into one government army.

"His (Sharif’s) main challenge is now for the new government to improve the security situation by bringing everybody together, but we cannot blame him, it’s not easy," said Okello.

He says Sharif is battling rebels whose strength lies in four areas.

"They are very quick and good at mobility, they use terror against the civilian population, mobilise finance from abroad easily and of course their propaganda, they use the media very well. That is what make them effective," he said.

"But even here in Mogadishu they cannot mount attacks the same day on three different fronts. The insurgents give the impression they are everywhere but in fact really control very little ground," he said.

Admitting the presence of "foreign fighters" among the extremist militants, Okello insists that a solution to the Somali crisis "cannot be only military."


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