News story

Spreading the British Army's influence in Africa

A small unit in the Ugandan capital of Kampala is helping to spread the British Army's expertise across East Africa. Report by Sharon Kean.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Most British soldiers bound for Africa find themselves exercising in the jungles around Mount Kenya or basking in the intense heat of Archer’s Post.

However, increasing numbers of UK military personnel are joining short-term missions to neighbouring Uganda where they are helping to prepare the nation’s army, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), for a difficult deployment to nearby Somalia.

After nearly two decades without a functioning government, the troubled country has been plagued by clan warfare and, more recently, Islamist insurgents who are destabilising attempts to introduce law and order and are putting the region at risk of becoming the new front line in the global battle against terrorism.

With UPDF troops leading the charge against extremist fighters in Mogadishu, an operational theatre with direct relevance to wider world security, British personnel are making a key contribution to the fight for peace and stability.

Typically spending up to two weeks in-country, UK training teams use hard-earned experience from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq to train the East African soldiers in areas as diverse as the English language, medical care, operational law, combat logistics and media operations.

Over the past 12 months the Defence Section, based at the British High Commission in Kampala, has orchestrated nearly 60 such visits by groups whose work is indirectly assisting the challenging campaign in Mogadishu.

Sharing British military expertise will strengthen the Ugandan troops leading the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is tasked with providing a secure environment in which a transitional government can enforce law and order:

In terms of our security priorities and the threat from Africa, what AMISOM is doing is really important,” explained Martin Shearman, the British High Commissioner in Kampala.

Uganda currently has 4,400 soldiers deployed in Mogadishu, alongside 3,200 troops from Burundi, fighting what is essentially a counter-insurgency battle bearing striking similarities to the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan:

We went in originally under the impression that we were going to conduct peacekeeping support operations but unfortunately that has not been the case,” the UPDF’s current commander of land forces, Lieutenant General Katumba Wamala, said.

“We are seeing a counter-terrorism environment so we need to prepare our troops for that.”

Lieutenant General Wamala has been at the helm of the Ugandan-led mission since foreign troops first entered Somalia in March 2007.

In that time AMISOM personnel and the fledgling Somali administration have had to contend with the threat of terrorism from Al-Shabab, an anti-government organisation that has publicly aligned itself with Al-Qaeda and carried out numerous violent attacks on troops, civilians and parliamentarians in the troubled country’s capital:

The way they operate is very typical of Al-Qaeda,” explained Lieutenant General Wamala.

They use the same tactics - IEDs, suicide bombers and foreign fighters. It calls for a lot of training which is why we need skills from a lot of people.

We have had a company from the French, American and British armies and each of those has made its own contribution and added value to the mission.

We take advantage of their experience and exposure in Afghanistan and Iraq because the theatre we will operate in is more or less the same.

Since taking up a post at the Defence Section in Kampala, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Etherington has prioritised building capacity within the UPDF:

I think I’ve been successful. Last year we had 59 incoming visits to Uganda and I think it’s put the nation back on the map - they are very willing partners,” he said.

A future goal for the Defence Section is to provide longer courses, designed to generate fully-trained specialists within the Ugandan Army who can go on to become tutors themselves.

Lieutenant Colonel Etherington believes that one of the most important areas for development is media operations and getting the UPDF to embrace technology, such as the internet, as a military tactic:

It’s a big one - at the moment Al-Shabab are winning the media war because they video attacks and put them on YouTube 15 minutes later,” he said.

Getting AMISOM to use this technology is a key enabler. It’s cheap and can have an immediate effect. It doesn’t have to take millions of pounds and tanks.

Other aspects of Ugandan capacity-building employ more traditional military methods.

In the case of a recent visit to the country by 3rd Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, British soldiers helped run a pre-deployment mission rehearsal exercise for home-based troops, making use of a newly-constructed training village at the UPDF’s base in Singo (visit the MOD website tomorrow to read more on this):

Last year they were training in a field for operations in an urban environment so I got 20 shipping crates dumped on the ground, cut some windows and doors out and built something more akin to the two-storey buildings they would encounter,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Etherington.

It’s not Mogadishu but it’s much better than what was there before and enables them to practise room and compound clearing drills.

Another project carried out under his watch was the funding and construction of a rapid deployment headquarters for the UPDF - akin to a smaller version of the UK’s Joint Force Headquarters.

The three-strong Defence Section also covers sub-Saharan neighbours Rwanda and Burundi and has directed some of its resources to help train and strengthen both nations’ armed forces.

As well as ensuring the MOD’s objectives for the East African countries are achieved, Lieutenant Colonel Etherington has a dual role as an in-country military adviser to the British High Commissioner:

Having defence links here is very important - it’s not just about being nice to foreigners,” said High Commissioner Shearman.

There is some return to the UK in terms of training but it’s also an important part of the bilateral relationship.

The Ugandan forces are very influential and input into their government, so being able to access military people through military channels is very important.

Before Lieutenant Colonel Etherington leaves his post this summer he hopes to sharpen the focus on Burundi’s forces and plans are under way to construct a mock training village similar to the one built in Singo.

As with the British work in Uganda, the aim will be to leave a lasting impression that enables the nation to hone its own expertise and in turn assist in bringing improved security to the African continent.

This article is taken from the February 2011 edition of Soldier - Magazine of the British Army.

Published 17 February 2011