Training the next generation of miltary governments for Africa? or is this a humitarian mission, as the headline at africom.mil suggests: Opening ceremony in Northern Uganda Marks Start to Humanitarian Exercise.
KITGUM, Uganda - Soldiers from Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and the United States participate in an opening ceremony at the start of Natural Fire 10, October 16, 2009. Natural Fire 10 is a multi-national, globally-resourced exercise focused on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and regional security. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Africa)

KITGUM, Uganda - Soldiers from Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and the United States participate in an opening ceremony at the start of Natural Fire 10, October 16, 2009. Natural Fire 10 is a multi-national, globally-resourced exercise focused on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and regional security. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Africa)

AROMO, Uganda - Seaman Apprentice John Sanders, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3, and Uganda Peoples' Defence Force Corporal Ongora Bonny begin constructing the foundation of a bridge in Aromo, Uganda, October 10, 2009. The bridge, scheduled to be completed in January 2010, will benefit local residents by improving their transportation ability. (Photo by Staff Sergeant Ronald Lafosse, CJTF-HOA)

AROMO, Uganda - Seaman Apprentice John Sanders, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3, and Uganda Peoples' Defence Force Corporal Ongora Bonny begin constructing the foundation of a bridge in Aromo, Uganda, October 10, 2009. The bridge, scheduled to be completed in January 2010, will benefit local residents by improving their transportation ability. (Photo by Staff Sergeant Ronald Lafosse, CJTF-HOA)

Natural Fire 10, a multinational military exercise involving five East African partner states — plus partners from the U.S. military — began October 16, 2009 in northern Uganda.

Soldiers from Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and the United States opened the exercise with a ceremony attended by senior military officials from each country.
The 10-day exercise focuses on humanitarian and civic assistance, disaster relief and regional security.

Roughly 550 U.S. personnel and 133 military personnel from each of the five partner nations are taking part. Altogether, there will be nearly 1,220 participants. Three training opportunities are going on simultaneously. Medical, dental and engineering projects will assist the local community and security partnership exercises near Kitgum which will increase the soldiers’ ability to work together.

Meanwhile, in Kampala and Entebbe, military leaders and senior civilian officials from participating countries will take part in a tabletop exercise — facing simulated emergencies in Africa. This type of exercise will sharpen senior and mid-level military leaders’ skills in their response to disasters, to offer humanitarian assistance and to prepare for pandemic situations.

Medical care will include direct care by a doctor or dentist, to include optometry and pharmacy services as well as dental extractions. Education classes on HIV/AIDS, nutrition and hygiene will also be provided. The care will be provided at Pajimo Health Center, Palabek Health Center, Mucwini Health Center and Kitgum Government Hospital.

Engineers will work together to make improvements at a high school, primary school and a hospital. Improvements include repairing or replacing roofs, window panes and doors, repairing walls, installing handicap ramps and placing a concrete floor. Engineer projects will be conducted at the Kitgum High School, Mucwini Primary School and Kitgum Government Hospital.

Natural Fire 10 closes with a ceremony October 25, 2009, when all participants will return to their countries.

Natural Fire was first held in Kenya in 1998, with U.S. partnership. Since, then it has been held every two years in East Africa. In 2000, it grew to include Tanzania and Uganda, as well as the U.S. and Kenya — a significant step for the EAC alliance. In 2006, Natural Fire expanded to include field training and humanitarian assistance. Since then, the exercise has grown to feature five partner states, with the addition of soldiers from Burundi.

This gives you the basic description of the exercise. You can see the location of Kitgum on this map. You will notice that Kitgum is right on the border of southern Sudan, where there is oil, and where US coporations are buying up large tracts of land. There are recent significant discoveries of oil in Uganda, with more expected both in Uganda and in the DRC.

Ugandan districts affected by Lords Resistance Army, map created by Mark Dingemanse for Wikimedia.

Ugandan districts affected by Lords Resistance Army, map created by Mark Dingemanse for Wikimedia.

There are many questions about what other agendas are at work with this exercise, besides the ones that have been publicly announced.

Paul Amoru describes the location of the exercise:

Northern Uganda, the former epicentre of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict, has become home for US Marines and army officers, at least for the next three weeks.

Over 600 military personnel from Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda are also expected to arrive in Kitgum District, where Uganda, along with these partners will hold a 10-day exercise, focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

For a region that has just returned to normalcy, three years ago, the high levelled military cooperation has triggered raw excitement among the formerly displaced community. The US-led exercise is dubbed Natural Fire 10.

Advanced US military personnel, who are settling in the war battered region, have already mounted several installations in Kitgum, including a water purification plant at Akwang Sub-county. The plant will produce up to 20,000 litres every day.

UPDF 4th Division spokesperson Ronald Kakurungu yesterday remained upbeat about the event. “This is an opportunity for us to associate more with civilians. We expect to cement our strategic relationship with the community,” Capt. Kakurungu said.

As an article in the East African points out:

the decision to site the exercise in northern Uganda raises questions about whether it may presage a renewed US-supported assault against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Natural Fire 10 will involve live fire in the field as well as convoy operations, crowd control and vehicle checkpoints, the US Army reports.

And while Maj Gen William B. Garrett III insisted recently that the exercise is focused on training for humanitarian relief, the US Army commander added that the forces he will lead in Natural Fire 10 will be ready to respond to any security threat that may arise in the Kitgum region.

The Obama administration is being urged by dozens of Democratic and Republican members of Congress to help finish the fight against the LRA.

Several non-governmental organisations based in the US also advocate US military action to put an end to the maraudings of the LRA.

The US provided operational support to a joint Ugandan-DR Congo-Southern Sudan offensive last December that was aimed at capturing or killing LRA leader Joseph Kony and dealing a decisive blow to an insurgency that has terrorised Ugandan civilians for the past 20 years.

But the operation dubbed Lightning Thunder failed in its objectives.
[you will find more details on Operation Lightning Thunder here and here]

Kony escaped, and his forces embarked on a killing spree that took the lives of an estimated 1,000 Congolese villagers.

Natural Fire 10 may well have the primary purposes claimed for it, but the skills being taught to the East African soldiers “are readily transferable to any sort of operations that their commanders want to undertake,” notes Daniel Volman, head of the Washington-based, non-governmental African Security Research Project.

Kony and the LRA have spread out from northern Uganda into both Sudan and the DRC. They are in the way of the exploitation of the oil and other natural resources. So suddenly, in addition to the humanitarian horror they have always been, they are now inconvenient to the interests of global money. So now there is talk of further military action against them. The Acholi Leaders Peace Initiative writes to us courtesy of Africa Focus, about the possibility of a military option:

The military option has been explored numerous times in the past, notably Operation North (1991), Operation Iron Fist (2002) and Operation Lightning Thunder (2008-2009).

Experience shows that despite such attempts to end the conflict, only dialogue can be attributed to the relative calm experienced in Northern Uganda since July of 2006 Military strategies launched against the LRA have time and again led to severe reprisal attacks on the innocent civilian community as illustrated by the recent 900 civilian deaths during Operation Lightning Thunder.

Not only has the cost of the military option been expensive regarding the loss of human life, the financial implications of war are also immense. The large sums of money required to carry out war drain the resources needed to bring about development and reconstruction of affected areas.

It must be acknowledged that there are numerous groups which are causing insecurity throughout the region. While the LRA is one said group, any strategy that is put in place must also address the other negative forces working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Uganda who pose a threat to stability.

As the conflict has transformed into a regional issue, diplomatic engagement with regional stakeholders, namely those from Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Sudan, Central African Republic, and Uganda is integral so that the needs and concerns of all affected are adequately addressed.

Furthermore, we feel that not all non-violent strategies have been explored adequately. While some have put forward that dialogue has failed, we argue that there were certain factors such as the stick and carrot approach, vested interests, presumptions, and the lack of coordination and communication between the LRA, GoU, and mediating parties did not provide a fruitful environment for dialogue to take place.

Time and again, issues of spoilers both regionally and internationally have played a role in frustrating any attempts at peace. For any regional strategy to be successful, we feel that such spoilers need to be investigated, made known if found guilty, and held accountable for their actions in the interest of sustainable peace.

It has been observed that past development programs in Northern Uganda have failed to make an impact on the ground due to various factors such as corruption. … [a] plan needs to be put into place to ensure that support is maintained to the affected civilian population to prevent them from once again being victims due to the actions of others.

Among the regional spoilers have been the governments of Uganda and Rwanda, both of whom have been in competition with each other and with the DRC to take advantage of the mineral resources of the DRC. Both those governments are taking part in this exercise. And both of those governments have acted as proxy warriors, looking after the interests of US and other western interests in minerals in the DRC, in addition to their own interests. This has led to unending war and humanitarian disaster in the Eastern Congo.

Democratic institutions need encouragement and support in East Africa, as in many other places. Military exercises, no matter how humanitarian their decriptors, do not provide support for democratic institutions. Military exercises feature soldiers as government. Those who eye Natural Fire 10 and other recent US military exercises on the African continent with skepticism and apprehension have much to justify their fear.