Africa
1:24 pm
Fri March 29, 2013

Western Money, African Boots: A Formula For Africa's Conflicts

Originally published on Fri March 29, 2013 4:55 pm

For the past six years in Somalia, Western countries have been putting up the cash and African nations have been supplying the soldiers, a formula that has pushed back al-Qaida-linked militants and allowed Somalia to elect it's first democratic government in 20 years.

"We can fix our problems in Africa," says Brig. Michael Ondoga, a contingent commander with the African Union Mission in Somalia or AMISOM. "All we need is your support."

It's not at all hard to see why this plan is so agreeable to the American government.

AMISOM has driven al-Shabaab out of Somali cities and major towns, and it's done so at a low cost in terms of money.

America's contribution in weapons, wages and training for these troops is around $350 million. That is less than Washington spends on the war in Afghanistan in a day and a half.

And in a new development, the U.N. Security Council on Friday authorized sending 2,500 troops to eastern Congo and gave them the unprecedented mandate to launch offensive operations.

It's still a small force, and much larger U.N. contingents have been unable to deliver calm there over the past two decades.

The hope is that this new combat force will be successful by relying on African soldiers, led by African commanders, and steered by an African political organization.

There has also been talk of sending an African force into Mali in an attempt to restore order there.

Western Reluctance To Intervene

Americans have been reluctant to get involved in African conflicts since the disastrous battle in 1993 known as Black Hawk Down, when 19 U.S. Rangers, deployed to support U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia, were killed.

Less well known is that in 2011, the African troops had a similar experience, though they followed up in a very different manner.

Just like in Black Hawk Down, what was supposed to be a straightforward military strike fell victim to deadly ambush on the tight streets of Mogadishu.

"Taking over Gashandiga [an al-Shabab stronghold] was very critical," says Cmdr. Ondoga. "But to put the record straight, taking over Gashandiga was not a tough battle. It was holding it that became a problem."

The number of dead was almost identical. And again, as in 1993, Somali TV broadcast the bodies of dead Burundian soldiers being dragged through the streets by Somali children.

But after Black Hawk Down, President Clinton made the decision to withdraw American troops from Somalia.

In 2011, the Burundian army did not withdraw from the war. In fact, it dispatched more troops.

Six months later Ondoga says that AMISOM had pushed al-Shabab out of the capital.

"For us we know that if we don't stop this spirit of terrorism from spreading in the region," he says, "it will catch up with us and already it has affected our economy, you know? So it's a question of will. The will of the people."

Secrecy Over Casualties

For America, keeping troops in Somalia was politically unpalatable in the U.S. AMISOM takes a different tack by declining to disclose the death tolls of its soldiers. There's actually a gag order on releasing casualty figures inscribed by the African Union into the AMISOM charter. Only contributing troop countries reserve the right to make that information public.

Out of the 17,000 soldiers deployed as part of AMISOM, the number of dead is believed to be around 500. That's according to some official reported estimates from Uganda's former top commander. Some top officials have said it's more than 1,000. No one at AMISOM will confirm any figures at all.

Ondoga says this secrecy is to avoid emboldening the enemy. But also avoids questions about the cost of the war.

"You'd start asking yourself those questions, why should we die here? After all, we have no vital interest here," he grins knowingly. "My brothers the Americans started asking themselves those questions, 'What is our vital interest in Somalia?' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The U.N. Security Council has approved a new 2,500-strong combat force for eastern Congo. Its mission is to do what the more than 19,000 troops stationed there for two decades have not done: keep the peace. The new force consists of African soldiers led by African commanders from Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa.

CORNISH: They're also authorized to pursue and engage rebel groups and enter into far riskier battles than international peacekeepers usually have the clearance for. Welcome to what might be a new model for intervention in African trouble spots: Western money, African boots.

It's happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It may happen soon in Mali. And it's been happening for more than six years and working in Somalia. NPR's Gregory Warner went to Somalia to learn why, and he found a secret that African commanders don't like to discuss.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TRANSMISSION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible)

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: OK. Here's the situation. I've got a Ugandan soldier to my right, a Burundian to my left. We're bouncing along in an armored convoy built by South Africans, paid for by Western taxpayers and emblazoned with the logo of the African Union.

And outside, the peeling billboards show two crossed machine guns - AK-47s - over an open Quran. It's the mark of al-Shabab, who, up until last year, were still controlling this very area. Brigadier Michael Ondoga is a contingent commander with the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM.

BRIGADIER MICHAEL ONDOGA: We can fix our problems in Africa. All we need is your support.

WARNER: It's not at all hard to see why this proposal of African troops led by an African political organization intervening in African conflicts is so agreeable to the American government. AMISOM has driven al-Shabab out of Somali cities and major towns, and it's done so fairly cheaply.

America's contribution in weapons, wages and training for these troops is around 350 million. That's less than Washington spends on the war in Afghanistan in a day and a half. But most of all, this model means that American lives aren't being put at risk, like they were that Sunday in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: In 1993, the Rangers were deployed in support of the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Somalia.

WARNER: That battle, Black Hawk Down, changed how Americans get involved in overseas conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO TRANSMISSION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We got a Black Hawk crashed in the city.

WARNER: It's one of the reasons we're paying African troops to fight Somali terrorists today. But less well known is that in the winter of 2011, the African troops hit their own Black Hawk Down experience, with a very different ending. It was called the Battle of Gashandiga.

ONDOGA: Gashandiga had been their command and control center.

WARNER: The headquarters, says Commander Ondoga, of the terrorist group, al-Shabab.

ONDOGA: So taking over Gashandiga was very critical.

WARNER: And just like in Black Hawk Down, what was supposed to be this straightforward, quick and easy military strike fell victim to deadly ambush on the tight streets of Mogadishu.

ONDOGA: But to put the record straight, Gashandiga - taking over Gashandiga itself was not a tough battle. It was holding which became a problem and moving in supplies along that route.

WARNER: Even the number of dead was identical: 18 soldiers. Somali TV, again, showed this horrifying image of soldiers' corpses dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

But in 2011, the Burundian army did not withdraw from the war. In fact, the opposite: It dispatched more troops. Six months later, Commander Ondoga says that AMISOM had pushed al-Shabab out of the capital.

ONDOGA: For us, we know that if we don't stop this spirit of terrorism from spreading in the region, it will catch up with us, and already it has affected our economy, you know? So it's a question of will, the will of the people.

WARNER: The will, of course, of the soldiers fighting, but also the will of their families back home. Consider Ernest Nimubona(ph). He's one of those soldiers. He flew 1,400 miles away from his wife and children in Burundi to fight this war in a country he's never been to.

ERNEST NIMUBONA: Because for us, we say that when your neighbor's house is burning, don't sleep. Yours might be the next.

WARNER: It may help his neighborly feeling that his salary is set by international donors at around $1,000 a month. That's 10 to 20 times what he'd make at home. And his family will get $50,000 if he makes the ultimate sacrifice.

DR. JOHN SSENTAMU: OK. So you are welcome to the AMISOM level two theater.

WARNER: At the AMISOM military hospital, Major Dr. John Ssentamu leads me past barbed wire into a concrete bunker that houses the surgical theater.

SSENTAMU: Last year alone, over 400 surgeries, lifesaving surgeries were carried out in this theater.

WARNER: Out of 17,000 soldiers fighting here, the number of dead is around 500. That's according to official reported estimates. Some top officials have said it's over 1,000. But at AMISOM, no one will confirm any of these numbers at all. Major Ssentamu, the hospital director, can rattle off every stat except that one.

SSENTAMU: Yeah. I may not be able to give the exact figures because that really requires a proper look at the statistics.

WARNER: I encountered this reticence about death tolls across AMISOM. Consider just for a moment how different this is from the international mission in Afghanistan where every day we get a published update on contributing nation casualties. Whereas at AMISOM, I had to take my question all the way up the military chain of command until the head guy on the ground, Deputy Force Commander Lieutenant General Andrew Gutti, ventured to name me a figure. It was lower than the most lowball estimates out there.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL ANDREW GUTTI: OK. Last year is - cannot be a big number, not really more than 10.

WARNER: You're saying 10 soldiers lost in all of 2012?

GUTTI: I'm not saying 10. I'm saying not more than 10 registered figure.

WARNER: Later, I was told that Deputy Force Commander Gutti is forbidden from releasing the real casualty figures because of a gag order inscribed by the African Union in the AMISOM charter.

ONDOGA: Information is power.

WARNER: Commander Ondoga says this secrecy about casualties is to avoid emboldening the enemy. But it may also be to avoid provoking questions from the home front.

ONDOGA: You'd start asking yourself those questions: Why should we die here? After all, we have no vital interest here.

(LAUGHTER)

ONDOGA: My brothers, the Americans, started asking themselves those questions: What is our vital interest in Somalia?

WARNER: America asked that question in 1993, and it couldn't find a good answer. Now that Africans are intervening in these conflicts, those tough questions about the cost of intervention have not gone away. They've just been outsourced. Gregory Warner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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