Ugandan mission in DR Congo opens old wounds and arouses new anxieties

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Two weeks after deadly attacks in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo launched a joint cross-border operation targeting militia linked to the Islamic State (IS) group in eastern Congo. But Ugandan troops have been there before, with dire 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, left four dead and dozens injured, President Yoweri Museveni pledged to eliminate “terrorists” and “deal with those”. which operate from outside ”.

The bombings 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 death toll was low – one person was killed in addition to the suicide bombers – indicating limited logistics and bomb-making capacity.

The sophistication of the November 16 bombing – at the entrance to the town’s main police station, followed by another, minutes later, on the road to parliament – shook the Ugandans, forcing the government to act.

In his statement to the nation, Museveni, a strong man in his seventies who has ruled Uganda for more than 25 years, did not mince words. “The terrorists invited us and we are coming to get them,” he promised. The declaration was signed “Ssabalwanyi” – a nickname reminiscent of his days of civil war, meaning “the greatest of combatants”.

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

But attacking the ADF across the border also required some sort of invitation from Museveni’s Congolese counterpart, President Félix Tshisekedi.

This was opaquely extended 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 secretary 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 airstrikes.

Residents of towns and villages bordering eastern Congo said they saw Ugandan uniformed troops on the ground and army trucks full of soldiers crossing the border posts. Ugandan army spokeswoman Flavia Byekwaso then confirmed that the mission “will continue as we seek targets of opportunity in ground operations”.

But a Ugandan military operation in Congo faces many challenges, including the specter of human rights violations triggering new waves of jihadist recruitment and further violence, analysts warn. In addition, Ugandan troops have already operated inside the Congo, with disastrous consequences, and there are fears that history will repeat itself in a resource-rich border area that has borne the brunt of the weakness of the country. governance and regional power games.

Memories of the Civil WarThe latest operation sparked deep unrest in the Congo, where memories of the brutal conduct of the Ugandan army during the 1998-2003 civil war are still vivid.

In 2005, the Hague-based International Court of Justice ordered Uganda to pay reparations to the Congo for violation of its sovereignty and violation of human rights laws. Kinshasa is still claiming 13 billion dollars in compensation, which Kampala has described as “ruinous”.

“Uganda was active in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Congo wars and it is accused of violations and looting of resources, so the return of the border to the DRC is extremely controversial”, Kristof Titeca, expert in Central Africa and Oriental at the University of Antwerp, told FRANCE 24.

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

From local rebel group to international jihadist branchThe ADF was founded in the mid-1990s by a Ugandan Christian convert to Islam, Jamil Mukulu, who brought together supporters unhappy with the Ugandan government’s treatment of Muslims, who make up around 14% of the country’s population. majority Christian country.

The group was seen as a depleted force in the early 2000s, when Ugandan security forces routed 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 poorly administered eastern provinces.

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

Four years later, Balukup entered into an alliance with the IS group. The ADF is now called the Madina at-Tauheed wau Mujahedeen (MTM) – literally, the city of monotheism and sacred warriors. the many provinces that make up the Islamic State.

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

ADF attacks have increased in eastern Congo, including a double suicide bombing in June 2021 targeting a Catholic church and a busy crossroads in Beni, a town on the border of North Kivu province. Other than 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-RDC” – to its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

“For the United States, ADF has been a priority since it became associated with ISIS,” Titeca said. “But while the ADF has established links with ISIS, the importance of that link is highly disputed.”

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

Tshisekedi does not keep his campaign promiseWhile jihadist propaganda strengthens 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 bringing security to troubled eastern Congo provinces. On May 1, the Congolese president declared a “state of siege” in North Kivu and Ituri, which has since been repeatedly extended with little effect on the ground.

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

“The entry of Ugandan troops could increase regional tensions, especially with Rwanda – both between the DRC and Rwanda as well as between Uganda and Rwanda,” Titeca explained. “On the other hand, as it fits into the discourse of the ‘war on terrorism’ or the ‘war against jihadism’, it increases the legitimacy of the Congolese and Ugandan governments, in particular vis-à-vis the states. -United.

Museveni: America’s former ally in the regionFor the Ugandan president, the stakes are even higher.

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

It is a lucrative arrangement that has earned Ugandan security forces millions of dollars since the early 2000s during the counterinsurgency against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Washington provided Uganda with 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 a year, according to the State Department.

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

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

In January, Museveni was elected to a sixth consecutive term following a brutal crackdown on the opposition, especially supporters of his political nemesis, Bobi Wine, a pop star turned lawmaker. In a single incident, at least 54 people were killed by security forces – including men in plain clothes in T-shirts – and thousands were arrested.

But aside from a few declarations of condemnation, the international community hasn’t done much, according to Titeca. “The United States threatened sanctions, but it ended up imposing only the weakest possible sanctions: visa restrictions against unknown people. Museveni feels emboldened by the lack of international reaction, ”he noted.

Fears of backlashThe muted international response to Museveni’s contested electoral victory this year may have spurred the Ugandan leader to launch another intervention in a neighboring country after the November 16 suicide bombings in Kampala.

But it has also heightened concerns among the Ugandan Muslim community over new security measures.

“The Muslim community in Uganda has been targeted by the security forces and feels marginalized,” Titeca explained. “The ADF was born in the 1990s from a feeling of marginalization and frustration within the Muslim community, but this feeling can also turn into fertile recruiting ground” for jihadist groups, “he said. he warned.

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

During a press briefing in Kinshasa on Wednesday, Congolese army spokesman Leon-Richard Kasonga declined to say how many Ugandan soldiers were in 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 predict what has just started and it may not be the solution to their country’s chronic instability.

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