Last week Ugandan authorities discovered an al-Shabab terrorist cell in our biggest city, Kampala. Explosives were discovered in the raid, and there is little doubt that this group of terrorists had no other intention but to cause carnage on the streets of the city.
It is not the first time we have had to face down the menace of al-Shabab. It was only four years ago when bombs planted by extremists ripped through two locations as crowds gathered peacefully to watch the football World Cup. While that attack strengthened our resolve to meet the scourge of terrorism head on, it brought home to our citizens the very real threat on our front door. Now almost a year from the barbaric events of the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, these latest developments show that governments throughout East Africa can never let their guard down.
The government of Uganda has taken immediate steps to shore up our national security – increasing security in public places, partnering with organisers of public events and activating further counterterrorism measures, including surveillance. Coalition of expertise. Yet, it is the nature of how last weeks’ discovery came about that is worth examination. Along with other recent successes in defenestrating key branches of terrorist cells in East Africa, our tactics were based on a broad based coalition of expertise – of intelligence sharing by various AU nations, with additional international assistance.
The absence of any major attack since is vindication of the steps we have taken in Uganda since the outrages of 2010. But we know that complex and often sophisticated terror networks cannot be met by a single nation’s resolve alone. Terror networks like al-Shabab have proven that they can operate effectively across porous borders, utilising technology and sophisticated criminal networks – child trafficking, poaching, and drug smuggling – that do not recognise the rigid boundaries of nation states.
And with Ahmed Abdi Godane, the spiritual leader of al-Shabab now dead courtesy of a US air strike with African AMISOM forces operating in partnership on the ground in Somalia, it seems a flexible, multipronged international coalition is the answer to effectively challenge the once creeping dominance of extremist Islamic factions in East Africa. The Kampala terror cell was an uncomfortable reminder that it takes more than targeted air strikes to sever the tentacles of extremist cells that operate throughout our region. But AMISOM’s relative success in Somalia does indicate that Africa can be at the epicentre of the successful stymieing of terror on our continent.
As Ugandans, our commitment to fight terrorism on our continent manifested itself at the very beginning when we were the first country to deploy troops in Somalia. We operated for almost two years before other troop contributing countries joined.
Web of warlords. When AMISOM soldiers arrived – in which a Ugandan contingent was at its core – they were repelled by fierce opponents and many saw the mission as having little chance of success. US forces in the thousands, and other foreign contingents, had previously come and gone with few tangible gains. Yet AMISOM is now a credible peacekeeping force that has negotiated Somalia’s deeply divided and fractured web of warlords, clans, and militant factions to bring a semblance of stability to the capital, Mogadishu. Somalia has some distance to go before it can boast of restoring the fundamental pillars of a functioning state, but it was an African force, with western financial commitment and technology, that has made the most progress. AMISOM has been a story of international cooperation. The financial commitment was considerable – some $1.5bn in aid, with additional funds for the AU Mission. Yet in comparison to peacekeeping operations in DRC or Afghanistan, what has been achieved by a coalition of African nations for the resources expended is considerable.
But it also will be proactive action among communities where the most progress will be made. In Somalia, troops were taught responsible fire control to reduce civilian casualties. They reached out to local populations, including supplying basic medical care. And when terror cells continue to perpetuate the narrative of western intervention in foreign lands, the presence of a united, regional African force shows we can win the hearts and minds of those who doubt our motives.
Defeating terror is of course much more than conquering territory, or parading conspirators on television. As politicians our mission also lies in fixing the fundamentals. That means strengthening institutions, securing borders, raising education standards, standing up for the vulnerable and making sure that we suffocate the intoxicating allure of extremism by offering a genuine alternative.
There have of course been setbacks. Some of them have resulted in grave loss of life, homes and livelihoods. But the arrests of last week – and the advances of the last year – have shown that international cooperation, with African nations at the very heart, is the most effective answer to terrorism. This will of course require our wealthier international partners to play a key role. But in Africa, we are proving we can meet these challenges on our own two feet. This war will only be won if it is led from within.
Nsereko is an Ugandan lawyer, columnist, author, security sector manager and politician