KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — At least 40 Ugandan soldiers, including an army brigadier who held a position near the top of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, have been recalled from Somalia and arrested as a Ugandan military panel investigates allegations they stole from the mission, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for Uganda's military, said Tuesday.
Some allegedly sold guns and ammunition on the black market. Others hoarded gas to sell, trying to avoid using the fuel-guzzling armored vehicles, endangering the lives of many peacekeepers.
Critics have long accused Uganda's military of entrenched corruption, but the seriousness of the allegations against some Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia underscores the limitations of Ugandan-led African forces as they try to keep al-Qaida-linked rebels at bay in the Somali capital.
"We take these allegations very seriously: that some officers and men were involved in selling food and fuel, logistics for operations," Ankunda said. "We can't allow individuals to spoil the bigger mission for the African Union."
Uganda has contributed most of the 17,000 troops deployed in Somalia under the international peacekeeping mission known as AMISOM. The mission is commanded by Ugandan Lt. Gen. Andrew Guti, who is not believed to be under investigation. But one of Guti's former deputies, Ugandan Brig. Michael Ondoga, is now under "open arrest" in Uganda over allegations stemming from the alleged loss of rations and gas meant for AMISOM operations, according to Ankunda. Ondoga and dozens more officers will likely face a military tribunal in the coming days, he said.
It was not possible to get a comment from Ondoga.
Ugandan Brig. Dick Olum, one of the senior commanders still deployed to Somalia, said he was shocked by some of the allegations, noting that "there is no way you can work without armored vehicles" while keeping peace in Somalia. He said an upcoming investigators' report would clarify the scope of the allegations.
Official corruption is rampant in Uganda, where long-serving President Yoweri Museveni is himself accused of encouraging or ignoring graft in order to keep power. Human Rights Watch says in a new report that "corruption in Uganda is severe, well-known, cuts across many sectors," often with "disastrous consequences" for human rights and justice for ordinary people. Despite multiple investigations into official corruption, according to the watchdog group, no high-ranking government official, minister, or presidential appointee has ever served a prison sentence in the 27 years since Museveni took power by force. Uganda's military, which is run with limited parliamentary oversight, has faced multiple scandals over the years, including the case in the 1990s of so-called "ghost soldiers" who did not exist but were on the public payroll.
Under AMISOM the Ugandans work alongside troops from African countries including Burundi and Djibouti. Despite the dangers of keeping peace in Somalia, where al-Shabab rebels routinely try to kill foreign troops, the mission is highly desirable to Ugandan soldiers attracted by better pay and the prestige of serving in an international mission. But some Ugandan soldiers who served in Mogadishu have said some of their commanders disappointed them, with some complaining they were sometimes offered stale rations.
In a recent meeting with Museveni, some soldiers accused their commanders of selling guns and ammunition and even of wanting to keep armored personnel carriers parked, because taking the gas guzzlers on regular patrols reduced the amount of fuel commanders could sell on the black market, according to an account last week in the Daily Monitor, a semi-independent Ugandan newspaper.
Ankunda, the Ugandan army spokesman, confirmed that soldiers returning from Somalia launched several complaints against their commanders in that meeting with Museveni. He said at least 40 Ugandan soldiers up and down "the logistics chain" had been implicated in alleged wrongdoing.
As the backbone of AMISOM, Ugandan troops are credited with helping to rout al-Shabab from Somalia's seaside capital, Mogadishu, more than two years ago. Today, backed by a sweeping multinational effort worth millions of dollars in equipment, wages and training, AMISOM can claim a degree of success that had initially seemed highly unlikely. Although al-Shabab still mounts occasional attacks such as one earlier this year on a United Nations compound, Mogadishu is relatively peaceful these days.
But the security gains made since 2011 may have encouraged some Ugandan peacekeepers to find opportunities for stealing logistics, said Angelo Izama, a Ugandan analyst who runs a security think tank called Fanaka Kwawote. Ugandan troops in Somalia have created "a progressively complex and corrupt ecosystem" in which many look for opportunities to make money, according to Izama.
"For some Ugandans the Somalia mission was seen as an income-generating expedition," he said.