Ugandan mission in DR Congo opens old wounds, sparks new anxieties

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

On November 16, shortly after twin suicide bombings in the heart of Kampala killed four people and wounded dozens, President Yoweri Museveni vowed to eliminate the “terrorists” and “deal with those operating from outside”.

The bombings were not the first attack by the Allied Democratic Forces (AFD), a militia with ties to the Islamic State (IS) group, in Kampala. The group conducted two attacks in the Ugandan capital in October, but the casualties were low – one person was killed besides the suicide bombers – indicating limited logistics and bomb-making 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 parliament – rattled Ugandans, forcing the government to act. 

Attacks claimed by the IS group-affiliated ADF in Kampala, Uganda in 2021.
Attacks claimed by the IS group-affiliated ADF in Kampala, Uganda in 2021. © FRANCE 24 screengrab

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

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

But going after the ADF across the border also required an invitation of sorts from Museveni’s Congolese counterpart, President Felix Tshisekedi.  

This was extended in an opaque manner with 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 air and artillery 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 air strikes. 

Residents in Congo’s eastern border towns and villages reported seeing troops with Ugandan uniforms on the ground and army trucks packed with soldiers crossing border posts. Ugandan army spokeswoman Flavia Byekwaso then confirmed the mission would “continue as we look for targets of opportunity during ground operations”. 

But a Ugandan military operation in Congo is fraught with challenges, including the spectre of human rights violations triggering fresh rounds of jihadist recruitment and further violence, analysts warn. What’s more, Ugandan troops have operated inside Congo before, with disastrous consequences, and there are fears that history could repeat itself in a resource-rich border area that has borne the brunt of weak governance and regional power games. 

Memories of the civil war 

The latest operation sparked deep unease in Congo, where memories of the Ugandan army’s brutal conduct 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 Congo for violating its sovereignty and breaching human rights laws. Kinshasa is still seeking $13 billion in compensation, which Kampala has called “ruinous”.

“Uganda was active in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Congo wars and it is accused of violations and looting resources, so crossing the border back into the DRC is extremely contentious,” Kristof Titeca, a Central and Eastern Africa expert at the University of Antwerp, told FRANCE 24.  

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

From local rebel group to international jihadist affiliate 

The ADF was founded in the mid-1990s by a Ugandan Christian convert to Islam, Jamil Mukulu, who gathered followers disgruntled with the Ugandan government’s treatment of Muslims, who comprise around 14 percent of the population in the predominantly Christian nation.  

The group was considered a spent force by the early 2000s, when Ugandan security forces routed ADF fighters from their bases and pushed them across the border into Congo, where they went on to operate alongside a myriad of militias terrorising civilians in the country’s poorly administered eastern provinces. 

In 2015, following Mukulu’s arrest in Tanzania, the ADF acquired 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. 

Jamil Mukulu arriving in court to challenge extradition proceedings against him, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A  file photo from May 22, 2015.
Jamil Mukulu arriving in court to challenge extradition proceedings against him, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A file photo from May 22, 2015. AP – Khalfan Said

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

Months later, Congo’s army mounted a military operation against the ADF, which retaliated by unleashing attacks on civilians. The ADF killed more than 800 people last year, according to the UN. 

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

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

“For the US, the ADF has been a priority since it became associated with ISIS,” said Titeca. “But while the ADF has established links with ISIS, the importance of the link is very much contested.” 

A report by the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo published in June said the ADF and IS group benefited from making public statements that link them. But it did not find “conclusive evidence” of IS group command and control over ADF operations, nor of any “direct support to ADF, either financial, human or material”.

Tshisekedi fails to deliver on a campaign promise 

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

Tshisekedi came to power in 2019 following a campaign focused on establishing security in Congo’s troubled eastern provinces. 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 contested because of the ongoing violence. The state of emergency that he declared has proved to be ineffective,” said Titeca.

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

Museveni: America’s old ally in the region 

For Uganda’s president, the stakes are even higher.  

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

It’s a remunerative arrangement, earning Ugandan security forces millions of dollars since the early 2000s during the counterinsurgency against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). 

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

In return, Uganda has contributed troops for peacekeeping missions in the region, for which it is financially compensated, including the AU mission in Somalia. Ugandans also serve as guards on US bases in Iraq.

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

In January, Museveni was elected for a sixth consecutive term following a brutal crackdown on the opposition, particularly supporters of his political nemesis, Bobi Wine, a popular pop-star-turned-lawmaker. In one incident alone, at least 54 people were killed by security forces which included plainclothesmen in T-shirts – and thousands were arrested. 

But barring a few statements of condemnation, the international community did precious little, according to Titeca. “The US threatened sanctions, but it only ended up imposing the weakest possible sanctions: visa restrictions against unknown individuals. Museveni feels emboldened by the lack of international reaction,” he noted. 

Backlash fears 

The muted international response to Museveni’s contested election victory this year may have emboldened the Ugandan leader to launch yet another intervention in a neighbouring country following the November 16 twin suicide bombings in Kampala.  

But it has also increased anxieties among Uganda’s Muslim community of further security crackdowns.  

“The Muslim community in Uganda has been targeted by the security forces and feels marginalised,” explained Titeca. “The ADF originally grew in the 1990s out of a feeling of marginalisation and frustration among the Muslim community, but this feeling can also turn into a fertile recruiting ground for jihadist groups,” he warned. 

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

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

“Patience,” Kasonga told reporters. “We’ve just started.”  

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