Uganda’s mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo opens old wounds and awakens new anxieties

Two weeks after the deadly attacks in the Ugandan capital Kampala, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo launched a joint cross-border operation against a militia linked to the Islamic State (IS) group in eastern Congo. But Ugandan troops have been there before, with disastrous consequences, and there are fears that history will repeat itself in an unstable and resource-rich border area.

On November 16, shortly after two suicide bombings in the heart of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, killed four people and injured dozens, President Yoweri Museveni vowed to eliminate “terrorists” and “deal with those who operate from outside”.

The attacks were not the first attack by the Allied Democratic Forces (AFD), a militia linked to the Islamic State (IS) group, in Kampala. The group carried out two attacks in the Ugandan capital in October, but the casualties were low (one person died in addition to the suicide bombers), indicating limited bomb-making and logistical capacity.

The sophistication of the November 16 attack at the entrance to the city’s main police station, followed by another, minutes later, on the road leading to the parliament, shook Ugandans and forced the government to act.

Attacks claimed by ISA affiliated ADF in Kampala, Uganda in 2021. © Jowharscreengrab

In his statement to the nation, Museveni, a septuagenarian strongman who has ruled Uganda for more than 25 years, did not mince words. “The terrorists invited us and we are going to get them,” he promised. The declaration was signed as “Ssabalwanyi,” a nickname dating back to his civil war days, meaning “the greatest of fighters.”

Two weeks later, on Tuesday, Ugandan troops crossed the border into the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo in what the two countries called a joint operation against the ADF.

But chasing the ADF across the border also required a kind of invitation from Museveni’s Congolese counterpart, President Felix Tshisekedi.

This was opaquely amplified by reports of a presidential “green light” for a Ugandan cross-border mission circulating in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, last week.

The operation was finally announced on Tuesday, with a Ugandan army press officer declaring the launch of “joint artillery and air strikes against ADF camps with our Congolese allies.”

But the operation appeared to be more ambitious than the last time Uganda attacked the ADF in Congo, in 2017, when it said it had killed 100 fighters in airstrikes.

Residents of border towns and villages in eastern Congo reported seeing troops in Ugandan uniforms on the ground and army trucks full of soldiers crossing the border posts. Ugandan army spokeswoman Flavia Byekwaso later confirmed that the mission “will continue as we look for targets of opportunity during ground operations.”

But a Ugandan military operation in the Congo is fraught with challenges, including the specter of human rights violations that trigger new rounds of jihadist recruitment and more violence, analysts warn. Furthermore, Ugandan troops have operated inside the Congo before, with disastrous consequences, and there are fears that history will repeat itself in a resource-rich border area that has suffered the brunt of weak governance and regional power plays.

Memories of the civil war

The latest operation caused deep unrest in the Congo, where memories of the brutal conduct of the Ugandan army during the 1998-2003 civil war are still alive.

In 2005, the International Court of Justice based in The Hague ordered Uganda to pay reparations to the Congo for violating its sovereignty and violating human rights laws. Kinshasa is still seeking compensation of $ 13 billion, which Kampala has called “ruinous.”

“Uganda was active in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Congo wars and is accused of rape and looting of resources, so crossing the border back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is extremely controversial,” – Kristof Titeca, Africa expert Central and Eastern University of Antwerp, told FRANCE 24.

Another controversial issue, according to Titeca, is the nature of the ADF and its ties to the IS group.

From local rebel group to international jihadist affiliate

The ADF was founded in the mid-1990s by a Christian convert to Islam from Uganda, Jamil Mukulu, which brought together supporters unhappy with the Ugandan government’s treatment of Muslims, who make up about 14 percent of the population in the predominantly Christian nation.

The group was considered a spent force in the early 2000s, when Ugandan security forces drove ADF fighters from their bases and pushed them across the border into the Congo, where they operated alongside a myriad of militias terrorizing civilians in the country’s mismanaged eastern provinces.

In 2015, following Mukulu’s arrest in Tanzania, the ADF secured a new leader, Seka Musa Baluku, who shifted the group’s focus from trying to impose Sharia law in Uganda to promoting itself as an international jihadist movement.

FILE – In this May 22, 2015 file photo, Jamil Mukulu arrives at court to challenge the extradition proceedings against him, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. AP – Khalfan Said

Four years later, Baluku promised an alliance with the IS group. The ADF is now called Madina at-Tauheed wau Mujahedeen (MTM), literally City of Monotheism and Holy Warriors. In a video posted last year, Baluku stated: “Currently, we are a province, the Province of Central Africa, which is one province among the many provinces that make up the Islamic State.”

Months later, the Congolese army mounted a military operation against the ADF, which it counterattacked, unleashing attacks on civilians. The ADF killed more than 800 people last year, according to the UN.

ADF attacks have increased in eastern Congo, including a two-bomb suicide attack in June 2021 against a Catholic church and a busy intersection in Beni, a border town in North Kivu province. Besides suicide bombers, no civilians were killed in what experts called the IS group’s first suicide bombing in the Congo.

In March, the US government added the ADF, which it called “ISIS-DRC,” to its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

“For the United States, the ADF has been a priority since it partnered with ISIS,” Titeca said. “But although the ADF has established links with ISIS, the significance of the link is highly questioned.”

A report by the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo released in June said the ADF and the IS group benefited from making public statements linking them. But he found no “conclusive evidence” of the ISI group’s command and control over ADF operations, nor of any “direct support to the ADF, be it financial, human or material.”

Tshisekedi fails to deliver on a campaign promise

While jihadist propaganda reinforces the profiles of the ADF and the IS group, it can also perversely serve the interests of governments with poor human rights or administrative records.

Tshisekedi came to power in 2019 after a campaign focused on establishing security in the troubled provinces in eastern Congo. On May 1, the Congolese president declared a “state of siege” in North Kivu and Ituri, which has since been extended numerous times with little effect on the ground.

“Tshisekedi’s position in the east is in question due to the ongoing violence. The state of emergency that he declared has been ineffective, “said Titeca.

“The entry of Ugandan troops could increase regional tensions, particularly with Rwanda, both between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda and between Uganda and Rwanda,” explained Titeca. “On the other hand, by being framed within the discourse of the ‘war on terror’ or the ‘war against jihadism’, it increases the legitimacy of the Congolese and Ugandan governments, particularly vis-à-vis the United States.”

Museveni: the United States’ long-time ally in the region

For the Ugandan president, the stakes are even higher.

Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents, has long established himself as the West’s key ally in the fight against terrorism in the region.

It is a remunerative arrangement, which has earned Ugandan security forces millions of dollars since the early 2000s during the counter-insurgency against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Washington provided $ 104 million worth of security assistance to Uganda in 2016 and $ 80.5 million in 2018, according to the U.S. Security Assistance Monitor.The U.S. budget for security and development assistance exceeds $ 970 million per year, according to the State Department.

In return, Uganda has provided troops for peacekeeping missions in the region, for which it receives financial remuneration, including the AU mission in Somalia. Ugandans also serve as guards at US bases in Iraq.

Aid has continued despite numerous reports of human rights abuses and diversion of development aid to Ugandan security forces.

In January, Museveni was elected for a sixth consecutive term after a brutal crackdown on opposition, particularly supporters of his political nemesis, Bobi Wine, a popular pop star-turned-legislator. In one incident alone, security forces killed at least 54 people, including men in plain clothes wearing T-shirts, and thousands were arrested.

But except for a few statements of condemnation, the international community did very little, according to Titeca. “The United States threatened sanctions, but ended up only imposing the weakest sanctions possible: visa restrictions against unknown persons. Museveni feels emboldened by the lack of international reaction, “he said.

Fears of backlash

The quiet international response to Museveni’s contested election victory this year may have emboldened the Ugandan leader to launch a new intervention in a neighboring country following the November 16 suicide bombings in Kampala.

But anxiety has also increased among the Muslim community in Uganda over new security measures.

“The Muslim community in Uganda has been targeted by the security forces and feels marginalized,” explained Titeca. “The ADF was originally born in the 1990s out of a feeling of marginalization and frustration among the Muslim community, but this feeling can also become fertile ground for the recruitment” of jihadist groups, “he warned.

The Ugandan and Congolese armies have so far provided few details about the mission and scope of the latest intervention.

At a press conference in Kinshasa on Wednesday, Congolese army spokesman Leon-Richard Kasonga declined to say how many Ugandan troops were in the Congo or how long the joint mission would last.

“Patience,” Kasonga told reporters. “We have just started”.

Given Uganda’s track record in the region, the problem for many Congolese is that they can foresee what has just begun and it may not be the solution to their country’s chronic instability.

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