By Matthew Green in Kampala
Less than 24 hours before Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni began
deploying the vanguard of a peace mission to Somalia, his police force
was busy firing tear gas to disperse demonstrators in central Kampala.
protesters accused him of presiding over a breakdown in the rule of law
after security agents re-arrested six treason suspects released by the
High Court and beat a lawyer unconscious, the latest sign of growing
autocracy that has dismayed international donors.
But when the first Ugandan troops trotted down the cargo ramp of an
aircraft at Mogadishu International Airport the next day, Mr Museveni
took a clear step towards strengthening relations with his most
important ally - the US.
"Public perception is against him;
people increasingly see him as hardline and intolerant," said Angelo
Izama, of the Daily Monitor newspaper. "But the opposition knows he's
got a powerful ally in his camp."
Once feted as a soldier-scholar
who overthrew a corrupt regime to introduce a measure of free market
prosperity, Mr Museveni lost support at home and abroad when he broke a
promise to step down after parliament changed the constitution to allow
him to run again.
A year after the elections, he has
reinvigorated his leading role in the US "war on terror" by dispatching
the first contingent of a planned 1,600-strong Ugandan mission to
Mogadishu - a city that has a history of sending well-meaning foreign
troops home in body bags.
A volley of mortar rounds landed near
the airport as the first 400 troops arrived on Tuesday, while nine
civilians were killed and two Ugandan soldiers wounded the next day
when rockets were fired at a Ugandan convoy driving through Mogadishu.
But for Mr Museveni, the risk to his troops may be a price worth paying.
Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's prime minister, who enjoys US support as a
counter-terrorism ally in spite of a crackdown after elections in 2005,
Mr Museveni's strategic role has encouraged Washington to damp
criticism of him.
Forged during the Clinton years when Mr
Museveni formed the linchpin in a regional alliance against the
Islamist government in Sudan, his long-standing convergence with US
security interests has again come to the fore in Somalia.
deployment of Ugandan troops under the banner of the African Union in
Mogadishu is key to the US strategy to deny suspected al-Qaeda agents a
base in a country they fear could be used as a staging post for attacks
in east Africa.
The US gave its tacit blessing when Ethiopia
invaded Somalia in December to overthrow a coalition of Islamists
accused of links to al-Qaeda. Washington is counting on the Ugandan-led
force to protect a weak interim government as Ethiopia withdraws.
a news conference alongside a visiting US general last week, Mr
Museveni stressed he was sending troops to improve regional security
rather than to act as "policeman" for the US, although he acknowledged
Washington was providing funding.
"We have the courage," he said, "but we do not have the money."
under fire, the Ugandans are looking rather lonely. The AU is hoping to
muster 2,500 more troops from Ghana, Malawi, Bur-undi and Nigeria, but
UN officials say 8,000 are needed.
One diplomat in Kampala
described the deployment as a "suicide mission", but Mr Museveni
displays unblinking faith in an army he built from a tiny band of
comrades who launched his guerrilla war against former president Milton
Obote in 1981.
Given the scandals in Uganda, some Ugandans argue the troops would be better off staying at home.