Calm but Fragile
Brig. Gen. Sam Okiding of Uganda Says Conditions in Mogadishu Have Improved, but IEDs Remain a Threat
Brig. Gen. Sam Okiding of the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) served as the Ugandan contingent commander for the African Union Mission in Somalia and as commander of AMISOM Sector One from November 2015 through November 2016. Sector One, which is based in the capital, Mogadishu, includes the Banadir and Lower Shabelle regions. Brig. Gen. Okiding spoke with ADF by phone in October 2016 about his experience and observations as the end of his AMISOM tenure drew near. His remarks have been edited to fit this format.
ADF: What was the situation on the ground in Sector One when you assumed command in 2015?OKIDING: I was here in 2012, and then when I assumed the office of the contingent commander in 2015, the situation was different. I can tell you a lot of things have changed positively. In 2012, they were fighting all day. But since 2015 when I came back, up to now, the situation is relatively calm. However, there are other situations that have developed. The situation is calm but fragile — very unpredictable. Al-Shabaab is highly mobile, their IED [improvised explosive device] technology has advanced, and it is now the weapon of choice. But when we compare the two situations, the situation is calm; it is improving.”
ADF: When you assumed command of Sector One, what did you decide needed to be your highest initial priority?
OKIDING: My initial priority was force protection. When I came, there were about three incidents where al-Shabaab attacked our AMISOM positions, and then when I had been one month or two months in the office they surprised the Gedo region and they attacked AMISOM. In the past the enemy lines were defined. But as time went on, they resorted to insurgency, with no front, with no rear. These are the people you mix with every day. So I had to study the enemy. I discovered three principles in the way they operate. One of them, being natives, they are very good at gathering intelligence. The second one is surprise. The third one, of course, is speed. When we looked at all the defenses al-Shabaab attacked, they applied these principles. So I decided to base my planning against these principles.
ADF: Without giving away operational details, can you speak a little bit more about how you pursued that priority?
OKIDING: Al-Shabaab these days uses VBIEDs; these are vehicle-based improvised explosive devices. In brief, these are vehicles which are loaded with explosives. Now, all the defenses they attacked, they used these vehicles. We fortified our defense by creating what we call armor ditches [to impede the advance of armored vehicles]. An armor ditch is actually a weapon for armor, even tanks. And we got the vehicles. So that is one way. And then, of course, we changed our lifestyle. That is the second point. I told the Soldiers never to sleep or to rest during nighttime. Our Soldiers now rest during the day. And during the night they start their normal activities. So there is no way you can surprise them. So basically those are the two areas that we have implemented, and we are seeing positive results.
ADF: Given that you are stationed in Mogadishu, can you describe what daily life is like in the Somali capital today?
OKIDING: The situation here is calm. A lot of things have changed. In 2007, the situation was very, very, very hostile — we all know that. But today, there are so many highscrapers mushrooming, people go to the ocean to do fishing, the businesses boom in the entire city, the boats dock [one] after the other. In fact, one of the busiest airports in Africa is [Aden Adde International Airport]. Because the interval for the takeoff and the landing is not more than 10 minutes. So everywhere is busy. Despite the isolated cases of assassination, VBIEDs and the rest, the town is a normal town like any other city in Africa. People are busy, people are working and life is back to normal.
ADF: What do you count as your biggest success during your tenure as Sector One commander? What are you most proud of?OKIDING: What I’m most proud of is the situation has changed. I’m also proud of having handled very important functions. Right now we are overseeing the elections, and Somalia is going through general elections — Parliament and the presidential election. That’s one. Two, we have also hosted IGAD. [Somalia hosted the 28th Intergovernmental Authority on Development Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government in Mogadishu on September 13, 2016.] The heads of state were here, and they were convinced that AMISOM is doing a very commendable job, because we managed the security. And the thing I’m most proud of is when I took over the office I promised my commanders, my political leaders, that al-Shabaab will not overrun any of my defenses. And I think God is supporting me in this endeavor. Because I have talked to the Soldiers; they have read a lot, they are ready and will bridge the gaps, and I’m sure it will come to pass. And that’s what makes me very happy and very proud.
ADF: What is your assessment of the current strength of al-Shabaab in Somalia and the East African subregion?
OKIDING: To come with actual figures then I would be deceiving myself, but what you hear from people is that they number between 3,000 and 5,000. But we can’t rely on those figures. What I can tell you other than that is there is an increase of foreign fighters, from Yemen, Syria and other countries.
ADF: Uganda in 2010 was the victim of al-Shabaab bombings at the World Cup venues in Kampala. Have you gained any perspective during your Sector One command that you think will help the UPDF, Ugandan police and other Ugandan agencies effectively prevent and combat al-Shabaab attacks on Ugandan soil?
OKIDING: The answer is yes. One, our people have gained experience. Uganda deploys the military, the UPDF military, and also the Uganda Police Force. So both the military and the police are deployed in Somalia. We have also learned a lot as far as fighting al-Shabaab is concerned. Two, specifically that is why we came to Somalia. I told you this is an ideological war. You put it right, because in 2010 they were in Kampala, they went and killed our people in Kampala. So we have a global issue. It is not a Somalia affair; it is an affair which involves all of us. That’s why African countries are here, that’s why European countries are here, that’s why Americans are here. So we have also gained some experience in combating them, whether in Somalia, whether at home, I think we’re in a better position to do that.
ADF: There has been talk of AMISOM’s mandate eventually ending. And there have been news accounts of Uganda, AMISOM’s first and largest troop-contributing country, indicating that it might withdraw in 2017. What will have to happen to ensure that sufficient government institutions are in place for Somalia to survive without AMISOM?
OKIDING: What I will remind you is that right now we are not operating under Chapter 6 of peacekeeping. We are operating under Chapter 7 of peace enforcement. Now, after 2018, probably the United Nations would come in for peacekeeping in Somalia. And by that time, probably the SNA [Somali National Army] would have gained capacity. So, there will be two bodies in charge of the security: One will be the United Nations and then the other will be the Somali National Army, plus other security agencies. But for us, this is the line we think will be followed. When AMISOM scales down, the U.N. and the SNA step up. That’s our feeling.
ADF: Did AMISOM forces under your command in Sector One play a role in training the Somali National Army, and if so, how has the SNA progressed? What is its capacity now, and what will it need to be able to take over security responsibilities in the country?
OKIDING: Yes, we mentored the SNA. AMISOM military, AMISOM police mentored the Somali military and the Somali police. We mentored them in terms of training, we mentored them in terms of operations. We operate side by side. And there are some challenges, but those challenges now are beyond individual Soldiers. What you should be aware of is that Somalia is still under an arms embargo. But those are political decisions. As far as I’m concerned, the SNA is on the right track. If all goes well, I think by 2018 they will have built capacity.
ADF: Is there anything you would like to add?
OKIDING: The toughest challenge we have as we keep on degrading al-Shabaab … they have resorted to the application of the IEDs. And you know, IEDs, they are in categories. There are those you can manage, and there are those which you cannot manage, especially those that use the pressure plates. The pressure plates are giving us some headaches, although we are trying our best. So that’s what they have resorted to now; they are trying to make the roads impassable, but we are always there. So that is the most challenging aspect we are faced with right now. But other areas I don’t see any problem; we are being supported, everything’s going well, the population is on our side.