Kampala bombings and AU summit may mean Somali conflict acquires an even greater regional salience

It appears that the ripples sent by the horrific Kampala bombing, in which 74 people were killed nearly two weeks ago, as the gathered to watch the World Cup final, have gone well beyond the Ugandan (and Somali) borders. The fact that this is the first Al Shabaab attack outside Somali territory, the role of Uganda on the AU mision in Somalia, the growing relevance of the East African Community and the desire from the US and other external players to solve the Somali conflict once and for all, may mean the attack is met with a strong response from different fronts. It is still very early to say and – as with all things related to Somalia – nearly impossible to make any sort of predictions, but there are indeed some signs that the Somalia conflict may be about to gain greater regional salience.
imgTo begin with, and although there are some critical voices with the presence of Ugandan troops on the AU peace mission in Somalia (AMISOM), it appears that, far from abandoning its commitment to AMISOM, Uganda wants a more comprehensive mandate that allows them to fight Al-Shabaab with less restrictions. With an angry Uganda even pondering unilateral actions, the news that two Ugandan peacekeepers were killed yesterday in Mogadishu, are unlikely to help calming the mood in Kampala.
Although Uganda and Somalia are the central players here, the conflict also touches neighbouring countries, especially Kenya, in many ways. For example it was reported that last Tuesday, Kenyan troops clashed with suspected Al-Shabaab members along the border (but not inside Kenya). And the consequences of this increased tension affect not only ministers, diplomats and military personnel, but also civil society members. As well as the innocent victims in Kampala, there have been reports that, according to the UN, Somali refugees in Kenya and Puntland are being harrassed, and news that journalists both inside Somalia and in Burundi are also under attack. There is therefore a regional preocupation with what an Al-Shabaab attack outside Somalia may mean, and the East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has pledged an extra 2,000 troops by the end of August which will joing the existing 6,100 troops deployed now in Somalia.
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President Museveni at the Ethiopian Village restaurant and bar in Kabalagala, where one of the bombs killed 16 people. Photo/JOSEPH KIGGUNDU /The East African
But the relevance of the bombings and the situation in Somalia goes beyond the regional dimension, and has now become a continental concern. For this week is taking place, precisely in Kampala, the bi-annual African Union summit. And, as it was to be expected, the blasts have placed Somalia on top of the agenda – as @Barry Malone writes for Reuters. So far the relevance of the conflict has seen Guinea pledging a troop batallion to joing AMISOM forces, and four other nations (Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Zambia) have sent military officers on a fact-finding mission, before deciding to commit troops. And the concern over the situation has even reached the US – where apparently a man was arrested as he tried to board a plane to Uganda – whose State Department has issued a travel warning for Americans in Kenya, citing Al-Shabaab. And accordind to The Economist, US officials also appear frustrated with the TFG and the lack of strength of AMISOM.
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Newly deployed African Union peacekeepers from Burundi walk along the streets of Mogadishu on their way to base October 12, 2008 REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Thus, it appears that we are facing a situation in which the aftermath of the Kampala bombings could see a potential escalation of the conflict – and the scale of the external intervention in Somalia – in which the US and Europe (who are already engaged and training troops on the region) would pledge de funds, and African nations would put the troops. Which should make us wonder whether this would be a productive or a counter-productive course to take. Some, like Andrew Harding (via Sahel Blog) would see this as a positive outcome: for a stronger AMISOM would “enlarge the stick”; something that needs to be complemented also with a “larger carrot” (more support for a coalition to be built around the TFG). Others, like Elizabeth Dickinson (also via Sahel Blog), see a potential escalation as the wrong option for, she writes:

In Somalia’s two-decade history of ungoverned chaos, it has been well-meaning foreign intervention — whether military or political — that has consistently refigured the country’s course. Usually, for the worse. Now the attempt to address al-Shabab’s broadening capabilities could kick off another round of international intervention in Somalia, with equally dismal results.

And on the latest Pambazuka News, Yohannes Woldemariam, argues totally against a regional response, and against further intervention:

Relying on Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi for keeping peace in Somalia is like sending Indian soldiers to occupy and pacify the Pakistani tribal areas. It is an oxymoron. It undermines the moderates and helps the extremists(…)
Somalia does not need intervention and further militarisation by self-serving neighbours. A possible starting point for rebuilding Somalia could be to use the money that is being wasted on AMISOM to assist the Somali people and the nascent democratic experiment in Somaliland in light of the severe democratic drought in the region.

And, on a more general note, Jeffrey Gettleman (via Texas in Africa) sees as daunting the task of bringing a state-backed central government to a country that has not known one for nearly two decades.
Important questions all of them, to which I cannot adventure to give an answer to. The most immediate thing however will be to keep an eye on the outcomes of the AU summit, and the US and EU responses to them, for this will be the first indicators of what the next steps will be. Nevertheless, the possibility of a trans-national terrorist group operating on East Africa is something that none of the contries on the region (and the continent) would like to even imagine. So it is easy to see that the commitment to do something about Somalia from this countries will be large. The challenge then is to channel these energies into a workable and inclusibe solution. How to do this exactly is the really difficult question…

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