It had been predicted for some time. Yet still, no one was prepared for the ferocity with which it unfolded. Last Sunday Al-Shabab militants from Somalia took their fight to Uganda.
Their target was a bar in Kampala where people were packed in to watch the World Cup final. Their aim was to pressure Uganda’s government into withdrawing troops from the African Union force that is currently struggling to prevent Al-Shabab and their fellow fundamentalists Hizbul-Islam from turning the whole of Somalia into to an Islamic Republic under Sharia Law.
Their victims were 76 innocent Ugandan men, women and children.
Uganda and Burundi are on the front line against Al-Shabab's brutal insurgency (see my previous piece for more background details). An intervention by Ethiopia in 2006 was short lived- despite back up from American bombers – and arguably served only to bolster the Islamists’ recruitment. This left the Ugandan-Burundian AU force to hold off the rising tide of militant fundamentalism and set up both nations prominent targets for attacks.
Whether Al-Shabab’s projection of its violence will achieve its goal remains to be seen. Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni has vowed to bolster the Ugandan force in Somalia and crush the militants. But this is far from certain; there are growing calls for withdrawal from the Ugandan population and the country already faces its own insurgency in the North. Furthermore, Museveni- a dictatorial leader with an appalling human rights record- has a habit of reverting to nationalist rhetoric and erratic military force. There is no guarantee he will either follow through on his vows or succeed in his aims.
If Uganda does pull out, Burundi will surely follow rather than go it alone against an ever more powerful insurgency. The tragedy is that no state will take their place. Perhaps understandably, owing to the military quagmire that has unfolded in Afghanistan, Western nations refuse to even consider sending troops to Somalia. Combined with the concurrent lack of political and military will across the rest of the world, this means that it will be the AU not the UN taking on Al-Shabab and their ilk.
Yet this reluctance may be fundamentally short sighted. An Al-Shabab/Hizbul-Islam ruled Somalia would be a hotbed for terrorism, criminality and human rights abuses that will affect the entire globe. Economically supporting the floundering Somali government and replacing the AU troops with a robust UN force could realistically prevent this from coming to pass. Trying remove such a regime in five or ten years time will be infinitely harder.