An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Kampala bomb blasts

Most people are struggling to comprehend last Sunday's bomb blasts which left at least 74 people dead, and several hundred more injured. The blasts took place at around 9.30 pm local time in two locations - Ethiopian Village, in Kabalagala and Kyadondo Rugby Club, in Nakawa - as patrons at both venues were watching the final stages of the World Cup final.
Responsibility for the attacks was eventually claimed by Somalia's Islamist militia, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (usually known as just 'al-Shabaab') which both the international community, and the global media, have been quick to connect with the al-Qaeda network.
This is the first time that al-Shabaab - which is currently at war with Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) - has struck outside of Somalia itself, and the attacks therefore represent a significant widening of the Somali conflict, a 'regionalization' of that war. However, the question remains as to why al-Shabaab should have attacked targets in Uganda, rather than in, say, Ethiopia, or Kenya?
Certainly, part of the answer lies in the fact that Uganda is currently supplying over half of the troops (2700) for the African Union's Mission to Somali (AMISOM). Since early 2007, AMISOM has been effectively fighting al-Shabaab, and other Islamist militias, on the TFG's behalf, especially in and around Mogadishu. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the wake of the Kampala bombs, the Ugandan army (UPDF) has now offered an additional 2000 soldiers to the mission. However, other East Africa countries, especially Ethiopia, have also been engaged militarily in Somalia, and indeed, over a much longer period than Uganda. So why, then, were none of these other countries attacked on Sunday as well?
One answer is that al-Shabaab may well have tried to launch strikes in those other places as well, but were thwarted by local security services (some of whom are better placed to deal with Somali threats than the Ugandan security services). Certainly, the fact that the initial arrests after Sunday's blasts were all made in Kenya - or on the basis of Kenyan intelligence - suggests that the Nairobi-based intelligence services have a much tighter grip on al-Shabaab than do other regional governments.
In addition, it may have been easier for al-Shabaab to launch an attack in Uganda given that a number of their operatives had recently been brought into the country by…the UPDF.
From late last year onwards, the Ugandan army have been training Somali forces at the Bihanga Military Training School in Ibanda, South-western Uganda (as part of their AMISOM commitment). While this training programme is obviously designed for units loyal to the TFG, it is now clear that from the very beginning, it has been infiltrated by al-Shabaab. For example, it has been revealed that several al-Shabaab members who were recently killed by the UPDF in Mogadishu had previously been trained at Ibanda. Yet if the Bihanga programme has been infiltrated in this way, then it would have been particularly easy for an al-Shabaab cell to carry out Sunday’s attacks, by simply ‘staying on’ in Uganda after the course had finished.
In addition, it is also worth pointing out that Uganda may be a more highly symbolic target for al-Shabaab than either Ethiopia or Kenya. After all, the country is about to host a summit of AU leaders. More generally, not least because of its current status as the ‘development miracle’ in East Africa, Uganda perhaps better symbolizes the kind of (imagined) Western modernity against which groups like al-Shabaab perceive themselves to be resisting.
In this regard, the fact that the two main bomb attacks took place in the Kabalagala neighbourhood of Kampala is probably not coincidental, given that this area has for long symbolized ‘free living’. The neighbourhood first emerged as social hub during the Amin years, at which time most ordinary Kampalans feared to venture out in more central parts of the city after dark, given the fear of arbitrary arrest at that time. However, in recent years it has become more synonymous, in popular discourse throughout Uganda (and indeed, throughout East Africa) as a symbol of the social excesses of the western ex-patriot community.
As a result, over the last twenty years or so, Kabalagala has been repeatedly targeted for bomb attacks, by a range of reactionary groups (including by a number of other Islamist-oriented organizations). Thus, for example, in the late 1990s, a number of bars in Kabalagala were targeted in a series of grenade attacks carried out by the rebel Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
In short, then, Kampala may well have represented both a key political target, and a perfect symbolic target, for those who carried out last Sunday’s attacks.

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