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.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Election 2011 - Besigye shows his political acumen

So we now have the probable date of next year's elections, following the publication of the Electoral Commission (EC) 'roadmap'. If all goes according to plan, the main presidential and parliamentary elections will take place in late February 2011.

As the campaigns now gather pace - ahead of the new deadline for the registration of candidates (on October 26th) - Besigye is once again demonstrating his political skill. Having recently suffered a series of setbacks, including challenges from within his own Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and competition from other opposition candidates - most notably Olara Otunnu of the Uganda People's Congress (UPC) and Norbert Mao of the Democratic Party (DP) - Besigye is once again on the offensive:

- In recent weeks, Besigye loyalists have undertaken a sustained campaign of undermining both Otunnu and Mao, by representing them as stooges of the NRM. The tactic, previously used on one of Besigye's internal challengers, FDC MP Beti Kamya, is to list historic connections between those individuals and Museveni, in an attempt to portray them as moles who have been planted specifically to fragment the opposition vote.

- Besigye has also sought to undermine both Otunnu and Mao by providing both public and private support to splinter-groups within both the UPC and DP. In late June, the FDC leadership gave their approval to a break away UPC faction led by Sam Luwero, which has subsequently formed its own party, the Uganda National Congress (UNC), and which is now expected to also joint the FDC-led Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC).

- This follows an earlier move in which the FDC had stood-down their own candidate for the Mukono North byelection, in order to let DP candidate Betty Nambooze win (FDC leaders, including Besigye himself, also travelled to Mukono to campaign on Nambooze’s behalf). Nambooze represents a faction of the DP which is openly hostile to Mao’s leadership.

- The move also played well with the FDC’s Baganda constitency, given that Nambooze is also a prominent member of the baganda elite. Indeed, as a result of the event, several key members of the Kingdom of Buganda establishment appeared to come out in support of Besigye – something which did much to repair the ethnic divisiveness of his earlier rift with Beti Kamya (who had based her challenge of on the claim that Besigye - an ethnic mukiga - was sidelining baganda interests within the party).

As a result of these moves, Besigye has once again emerged, in recent weeks, as the key figure in the Ugandan opposition. And it is for this reason that the government are currently focusing so much of their attention on him personally.

Thus, over the past three months alone, the police have twice stood by as Besigye was beaten up, first, at a rally in Mpigi District (as he was attacked by a lone agitator), and then at an event in Kampala, (when he was set-upon by a vigilante group, the ‘Kiboko Squad’). In addition, the police have twice arrested Besigye, first for comments he allegedly made urging FDC members to ‘break the thumbs’ of NRM supporters, and then for comments he allegedly made that the government had secretly sold-off Lake Kioga to an (unnamed) South-African firm. He has also narrowly avoided arrest on a number of other occasions. Moreover, regional administrators have effectively barred local radio stations – or any other media outlets – from carrying interviews with Besigye, or any other members of the FDC (as noted in the recent HRW report, discussed in a previous blog).

The opposition's chances against Museveni at next year's elections will be greatly improved if they can unite around a single candidate. Recently events have once again demonstrated that Besigye still has the best chance of emerging as that candidate. And it is for this reason that the government are currently so focused on trying to thwart his campaign.