Operation Shujaa mixed scorecard

Maj Gen Kayanja Muhanga, the commander of Operation Shujaa (left), in Boga Town, Democratic Republic of Congo. PHOTOS | UPDF

A report co-authored by two Congolese research institutes claims a number of geopolitical factors have put a question mark over Uganda’s Operation Shujaa in the restive eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo).

The report titled Uganda’s Operation Shujaa in the DRC: Fighting the ADF or Securing Economic Interests? is blunt in its expression of disapproval that the operation is the success that it has been made out to be.

“It is clear the military operations are not the success they are portrayed to be in the Ugandan press,” the report by the Congo Research Group (CRG) at New York University and Ebuteli reads in part.

It adds: “While the operation did succeed in creating isolated pockets of security, it has not managed to structurally weaken the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces).” 

Nearly seven months ago, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF)—with the blessing of Kinshasa—launched a joint operation against the ADF. The armed group stood accused of carrying out suicide bombings that claimed three lives and left scores injured in the Ugandan capital of Kampala last November.

After his son, Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba—who is also the UPDF’s Commander of the Land Forces—purred over the success of the operation on Twitter, President Museveni—the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces—also was generous with his plaudits while at Mountain Division headquarters Muhoti in Fort Portal this past week on Thursday.

“I came here to thank and congratulate all commanders and combatants on this very successful operation which started on November 30, 2021. This was a well-planned and well executed operation,” Mr Museveni said.

Modern approach?

President Museveni attributed the achievements registered by the UPDF to the use of simultaneous reconnaissance devices, aircraft, artillery and infantry in the operation. He added that this shows that the Ugandan army has now mastered the art of using combined arms.

The operation was commanded by Maj Gen Kayanja Muhanga of UPDF and his counterpart Maj Gen Bombele Comille, the commander of the Congolese army or FARDC. The UPDF put out a statement on Friday indicating that the operation “is still ongoing as we continue to hunt down the ADF terrorists.”

Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers and the Congolese army display items they recovered after attacking the ADF rebels’ camp in eastern DR Congo.

Addressing President Museveni on Thursday, Maj Gen Muhanga was eager to list the operation. Top of the list was reportedly dealing ADF fighters a devastating blow in the so-called ‘triangle of death.’ The operation is believed to have succeeded in its goal of pushing the ADF fighters from their historical base in the “Triangle of Death” to the northwest of Beni town. The CRG and Ebuteli’s report, however, says that “none of these claims have been substantiated by third parties.”

“Given the difficult and vast terrain in which they operate, the UPDF is probably limited to pushing ADF combatants into more remote locations,” the report notes. “Moreover, the current military strategy neglects the hybrid nature of the group, as the ADF is both a regional actor—with networks across eastern Africa.”

Maj Gen Muhanga told Mr Museveni on Thursday that the UPDF has succeeded in denying the ADF a source of recruitment and logistical supplies. They particularly miss the “Triangle of Death” whose areas of Mukakati, Erigeti, Kainama, Boga, Tchabi, River Semliki Bridge and Burasi were the perfect hideout.

Jury still out

When the ADF combatants retreated northwestwards toward the areas of Ngomuhimbo, Mapipa, Machini hills near Boga, they were reportedly pursued and in February the UPDF wrested Boga airfield from their grasp. 

While narratives by the likes of Maj Gen Muhanga about how the UPDF “used the third approach route” of Burasi-Boga to DR Congo from River Semliki on Haibale Landing Site in Ntoroko District to neutralise the ADF combatants, the CRG and Ebuteli’s report describes the militia as being “resilient, mobile and adaptive.” 

The writers of the report also warn that such military operations have only served to “escalat[e] tensions with Rwanda.”

“Rwanda has become increasingly marginalised and has even perceived its neighbour’s interventions as a threat. President Kagame has on numerous occasions expressed his concern and disappointment at not being included in the military operation against the ADF,” the report states, adding, “He has emphasised the need for collaboration, arguing there is a direct link between the ADF, the FDLR (a rebel group composed of remnants of the former Rwandan army), and other armed groups.”

On Thursday, Gen Wilson Mbasu Mbadi, the Chief of Defence Forces, told President Museveni that Operation Shujaa’s preliminary aim has been achieved.

 “We are now engaged in a typical counter insurgency operation against smaller groups that are scampering for dear life out of those camps that were destroyed by our preliminary bombardments and our occupation of those camps by our forces,” he revealed.

If there was ever a secondary aim of the operation, then it was improving the road infrastructure in the flashpoint of eastern DR Congo.

The CRG and Ebuteli’s report however says that a number of road projects have rubbed Kigali the wrong way.

“The road construction projects, in particular the road from Rutshuru to Goma, is similarly believed to pose a threat to Rwanda’s sphere of influence in eastern DRC,” the report reads in part, adding, “A number of diplomats and analysts told us that this road is seen as a red line by Rwandan officials, something that they have made clear to both Kinshasa and Kampala.”

There are fears that Kampala could be drawn into what some analysts have described as an inevitable conflict as Kinshasa and Kigali slide toward open hostility. The DR Congo shut its border with Rwanda on Friday shortly after a shootout at a border post in the flashpoint eastern region ended with one Congolese soldier dead and two Rwandan police officers injured.