For three hours on Sunday, war-ravaged Somalia felt like a new world. Less than 24 hours earlier, parliament had approved Prime Minister Mohammed Abdulahi Mohammed’s new cabinet by a healthy margin, one week after shutting down during the first ratification. The new cabinet is considered the best in recent memory and the Transitional Federal Government’s (TFG) existence may be riding on its abilities.
"We will focus on securing agreement on a constitution and arrangements to form a government to succeed the transitional government within three months to come, whose mandate is due to expire in August 2011," said Prime Minister Abdullahi last week.
But something even more immediate may hinge on the TFG’s palatability towards Western donors. Soon after parliament adjourned, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni found himself on the tarmac at Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu for the first time since 1992. Driven to the Ugandan command center at Halane Base Camp around 1 PM, Museveni held private meetings with his commanders, toured the camp and its hospital, rallied the ground troops - and displayed his COIN speak by ordering them to respect civilians’ and their property.
“I am very happy that the people of Somalia now have a new cabinet and are united,” Museveni added.
TFG officials responded with enthusiastic gratitude after holding closed door talks, as they should. Villa Somalia may not last long without its Ugandan muscle. Somali President Sheikh Sharid Ahmed would tell Museveni, “This is a great honor and opportunity for us. We are honored by your visit.”
Visibly on his game, Museveni has attempted to supercharge the TFG and its African Union (AU) shield during a critical phase in their war against al-Shabab. He was gone by 4:30, a whirlwind of activity designed for maximum effect. The first foreign head of state to visit Somalia in 21 years wanted to make an impression to all audiences - his troops and people, TFG officials, average Somalis, and al-Shabab.
“No body here in their wildest dreams could have imagined what has just happened,’ said UPDF contingent spokesperson, Cpt. Chris Magezi, “The President’s visit is a massive show of solidarity with the people of Somalia and the work the peacekeepers are doing in Mogadishu. It has not been easy.”
Magezi described Museveni’s surprise as a miracle.
Yet the real miracle will only occur when he actually stabilizes Somalia from its current imbalance. Museveni delivered the supreme performance for a head of state - bearing peace in one hand and war in the other. Museveni toured with eyes wide, probing for whether the TFG’s new cabinet is up to his task. Empowering peace aside, his talks with Sharif and Mohamad boil down to one final question: how many AU troops will be arriving?
No price is too high for Museveni, who has repeatedly demanded an increase from 7,000 to 20,000 since the July bombings in his capital. Having wished to boost his forces prior to the attacks, Museveni easily leveraged the UN to remove the AU’s troop cap and has tempted Western donors into funding an extensive campaign. The regional body of IGAD approved up to 20,000 troops during last week’s summit in Ethiopia. Asked how many troops he’s willing to deploy while touring Mogadishu, Museveni responded “any number if asked to do so."
“Uganda is a country of 33 million people,” Museveni explained. “If there was a war we would be able to mobilize three million people. Raising troops for Somalia would not be a problem at all.”
However this may be a problem for Somalia.
While Somalis are undoubtedly exhausted of both TFG and al-Shabab’s rule, conditions remain unprepared for a massive influx of AU troops. Additional support may all the more necessary as the TFG attempts to evolve into a new form, but will be relatively useless if the TFG cannot make efficient use of it. For now the government and its Ethiopian support (proxied through Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna) continue to battle for Somali’s central region, with each group unable to permanently expel the other.
Sufficient forces shouldn’t be deployed throughout al-Shabab’s territory; Somalia must be reclaimed piece by piece, not in one wide sweep. TFG and Ethiopian troops are gnawing away at al-Shabab’s western border in preparation for a nation-wide offensive, a sound theory that depends on the shakier question of whether the AU can push al-Shabab out of Mogadishu. The capital could absorb 15,000 troops by itself, considering the city’s urban buildup and how little territory 7,000 troops have managed to gain.
Governments often make the mistake of believing itself to be popular just because the insurgents aren’t, and Somalis who loathe al-Shabab will be just as quick to blame the government for clearing territory it can’t hold.
Although Museveni’s hawkish cries have generated a large degree of skepticism outside of the AU, there’s still truth in his position. AU officials are justifiably agitated by criticism that foreign forces should leave Somalia, as their last line of defense prevents the country from descending into a worse-case scenario. Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda would be more affected by insecurity and refugees than they already are.
And too many resources remain frozen in the international community’s endless battle against pirates.
“They don’t take the Somali problem seriously,” said Museveni. “They are busy enjoying themselves in the ocean, having a nice time in the ocean. Do you know how much money they send in the ocean? The pirates who go to the ocean to steal from ships come from land. Have you heard that Somalis have become aquatic?”
But Museveni isn’t simply reaching a logical conclusion - he wants that money for his own troops. Western dollars fund by the TFG’s paychecks and the AU’s salary, and as eager as he is to fill Somalia's void with his troops, Museveni isn’t willing to pay for them. Numerous Ugandan officials have openly declared that they’re waiting for the cash and will deploy soon after. Museveni is criticizing the West through piracy, tired of Washington’s hesitation over backing the TFG and thus his own strategy.
According to diplomatic sources, the White House prefers a new government before committing to any significant offensive. This halfway policy is said to be grinding on those actors invested in escalating the war - and clearly on Museveni. Unfortunately halfway policies, however tempered by rational observation, often lead to stalemate.
America and Europe need a stable government to confidently deploy more troops, as they’re under criticism for ignoring the TFG’s ineptitude. Museveni needs more troops so that his contingent making up two-thirds of the AU force aren’t indefinitely lost in Somalia. Each policy must connect at the middle - the TFG - or else both are doomed.
Perhaps Museveni believes that war leads to peace. It might. It could also entrench Somalia’s perpetual stalemate and alienate those who still retain hope in the TFG and AU. The choice is admittedly tough, but it must be determined on reason and not self-interest. And it’s in few people’s interest to saturate the country with foreign troops until the TFG proves itself first.
Going by credit will put Somalia in a deeper hole.