Africa leaders in Uganda address the rising threat of Islamic extremism.
Kampala, Uganda – The terrorist violence spreading from Somalia dominated this week’s African Union summit, resulting in a decision to boost the number of troops it deploys in the war-torn country.
Meeting just two weeks after the Somali extremist group Al Shabaab’s three bombings killed 76 people in Kampala on July 11, the African Union leaders meeting in this city found it difficult to discuss anything else.
The Al Shabaab rebels said the bombings were in retaliation for Uganda sending peacekeeping forces to prop up the Somali government in the country’s capital of Mogadishu. Uganda also hosts a European Union training camp for Somali soldiers fighting Al Shabaab.
Amid a heavy military presence in Kampala, more than 30 leaders and delegations from 49 of Africa’s 53 countries decided to increase the group’s peacekeeping force in Somalia, from 6,000 to 8,000 troops.
Summit leaders affirmed their continued assistance to the Somali government led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, which is under assault from Al Shabaab, an ally of Al Qaeda.
At the summit’s opening the leaders observed two minutes of silence for the Kampala attack victims.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni then delivered a tough speech in which he urged the African leaders to “sweep the terrorists out of Africa. Let them go back to Asia and the Middle East where they come from. I reject this new form of colonialism through terrorism.”
He called on the African Union to step up its campaign against Al Shabaab and the Islamist militants in Africa.
“These reactionary groups have now committed aggression against our country,” said Museveni. “We have the right of self defense. We shall now go for them.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder came to Kampala for the summit and called on the African leaders to stand together against the Somali insurgents.
“Make no mistake,” said Holder, “these attacks were nothing more than reprehensible acts of cowardice, inspired by a radical and corrupt ideology that systematically denies human rights, devalues women and girls, and perverts the peaceful traditions and teachings of a great religion.”
Officials of the U.S. Africa Command warned of a growing threat from Al Qaeda in Somalia and nearby Yemen and promised to increase military assistance to the Africa Union peacekeeping force by providing more equipment, training, logistical support and information-sharing. The Africa Union will also need helicopters as there are none presently in use in Somalia, according to African military experts.
The peacekeeping force in Mogadishu now consists of about 6,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops who protect a few blocks of Mogadishu and the airport. The troops are under constant assault from Al Shabaab. As the African leaders met in Kampala, several more people were killed in Mogadishu amid fresh fighting between African peacekeepers and Al Shabaab.
The African Union agreed to send 2,000 more troops from Guinea and Djibouti, two countries with Muslim majorities that leaders said Al Shabaab could not portray as “infidels.”
Commander of the African Union land forces in Somalia, Katumba Wamala, said that another four countries — Zambia, Ghana, Nigeria and mostly muslim Senegal — were “working with” Ugandan and Burundian troops in Mogadishu as they prepare to send ground forces.
Concern remains, however, that any offensive against Al Shabaab could increase the number of civilian deaths, risking popular support for the African Union mission.
Al Shabaab has imposed a strict version of Shariah law, including bans on music, bras and soccer, making the group generally unpopular throughout Somalia. The extremist organization has executed people by stoning and meted out amputations as punishment for not following its Al Qaeda-style ideology.
Museveni was one of several who called for the Africa Union’s mandate to be widened to include enforcement, which would allow peacekeepers to use force. Like the United Nations peacekeepers, African Union troops in Somalia are not allowed to attack unless fired upon first.
This issue was discussed in a private session of African foreign ministers, who agreed to change the peacekeeping mandate to enforcement. But the African leaders declined to endorse the proposed change.
African Union generals also called a special meeting to discuss Somalia.
“Our military people are having a meeting in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) to discuss the strategy and the logistics needed to deal with this Somali situation,” said Erastus Mwencha, deputy chief of the African Union.
On the streets of Kampala, Ugandans debated whether their troops should remain in Somalia. Where they do agree is that if Uganda is to stay, more African nations need to pitch in.
“I am not sure we should be in Somalia, but if we are going to stay, we need help. This is an Africa problem, where is the rest of Africa?” asked James Mugisha, a 20-year-old street vendor.
In Kampala, Ugandan authorities have arrested several people suspected of involvement in the July 11 bombings.
Two were arrested in western Uganda, while a Yemeni has been arrested in the east, according to local reports.
In the United States, Abu Talhah Al Amrikee, from Fairfax, Va., was arrested at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport on his way to Uganda. Al Amrikee is best known as Zachary Adam Chesser, who threatened the “South Park” cartoon creators if they continued to mock the Prophet Muhammad. He is alleged to have provided material support to Al Shabaab.
In total, security agencies around the world now hold more than 40 suspects in connection with the Kampala bombings, according to local reports.