Uganda halts Congo military operations

Maj Gen Kayanja Muhanga, the commander of Operation Shujaa, and UPDF soldiers erect tents in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo. PHOTO / FILE

What you need to know:

  • The pause of the mission to eliminate Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels, which President Museveni has billed as “successful”, comes in the wake of rising tensions between Uganda and Kinshasa over the former’s alleged support to M23 rebels that captured Bunagana town on Monday.

Uganda has halted the joint military mission with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), code-named Operation Shujaa, which began at the end of last November to eliminate Allied Democratic Force (ADF) rebels and other subversive elements.

UPDF spokesperson, Brig Felix Kulayigye,  last night confirmed that the operation that President Museveni, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, yesterday separately billed as “successful” in an address to senior commanders in Fort Portal, had been paused.

“The [UPDF military] activities have been halted and it will resume when the authorities decide and this follows what was discussed during the East African summit,” he said.

The decision follows two days of demonstrations by Congolese nationals against Uganda and Rwanda, mainly in the eastern DRC commercial city of Goma, on allegations of supporting M23 rebels whose fighters captured Congo-side Bunagana town on Monday, this week, following a lightning advance.

This is the second time the insurgents have seized Bunagana this year, the first at the end of March, but UPDF soldiers from the 25th and 35th battalions at the time swiftly chased them and restored control to Congolese authorities.

However, when M23 fighters overran Bunagana again on Monday, forcing more than 100 overwhelmed Congolese soldiers and police personnel to flee, Uganda’s military did nothing more than receiving and processing the return of the armed Congolese, and massing troops to secure Uganda’s frontiers.

The reason for the non-military intervention, Spokesman Kulayigye said, is that the M23 fighters, unlike in March, currently pose no threat to Uganda’s interests inside DRC.

“The other time we went there (Bunagana) because they (M23) wanted to burn our road equipment. Right now, there are no threats on the equipment,” he said.

In the aftermath of the capture of Bunagana, the Members of Parliament of the DRC led by Speaker Christophe Mboso condemned Uganda and demanded that their government suspend the agreement that permitted the joint military counter-ADF operation.

The parliamentarians singled out UPDF Commander of Land Forces, Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, also Gen Museveni’s son, and accused him in tweets of supporting Tutsi-Hema fighters, the majority in the rank-and-file of M23.

In a rejoinder on June 15, Lt Gen Muhoozi tweeted: “I hear someone in the DRC Parliament said that ‘Muhoozi is an enemy of Congo’”.

“Me? So, an ‘Enemy’ of DRC is one who saves people in North Kivu and Ituri from being slaughtered by ADF in ‘Le triangle de la mort’,” he wrote in reference to Operation Shujaa whose execution he broadly superintends as the CLF.

As tensions rose and President Tshisekedi summoned his top military command in Kinshasa for an emergency meeting, which decided on military response to M23 that began yesterday, Lt Gen Muhoozi, who has repeatedly tweeted that Uganda would side with Rwanda in conflict with others, on Wednesday afternoon tweeted that:

“I will also say that the Congolese brothers in Fardc we have worked with are great warriors! Very honourable and good soldiers! When we work together, we are unstoppable.”

The DRC joined the East African Community on March 29, raising hope its vast size and resource endowments would spur development of the previously six-member regional bloc.

But it was not long before the protracted internal burdens of Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country, mostly related to insecurity in mineral-rich but less government eastern part, morphed to afflict all of EAC.

Kinshasa accuses Rwanda and Uganda of supporting M23, and the two in turn accuse Congo of harbouring subversive elements, Kigali specifically cites the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), or remnant genocidaires, in the east of the country.

Both Kampala and Kigali deny supporting M23. The fall-out between the member states, including counter-accusations between Rwanda and Burundi, as well as the takeover of Bunagana by M23, prompted Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, current chair of the East African Community, to announce on Wednesday that the bloc would march a regional force to de-weaponise, disarm non-authorised individuals and groups and stabilise eastern DRC.

“I further call for the declaration of Ituri, North Kivu (Bunagana, Bugusa, most parts of Petit Nord, Masisi, Lubero, Beni-Kasindi main axis) and South Kivu provinces as a weapons-free zone, where any individual or group carrying weapons outside the official and legally deployed and mandated forces in the country will be disarmed,” he noted.

As the statement went out, President Felix Tshisekedi announced the suspension of all agreements with Rwanda whose national carrier, RwandAir, had previously been suspended from Congo airspace.

Mr Kenyatta is a co-chair of regional efforts to resolve the Congo crisis, and has hosted multiple meetings bringing together presidents Museveni, Tshisekedi and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame to thrash out a solution under the aegis of EAC.

In April, the East African Community heads of state met in Nairobi, Kenya, and agreed to establish a regional force to fight negative groups in eastern DRC and enforce peace.

In international security studies, and under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, peace enforcement includes deployment of wide array of means, among them military operation or sanctions, to overpower, isolate or punish masterminds or facilitators of actions that threaten international peace and security.

They also agreed that the opposing groups have dialogue with the DRC government, but President Tshisekedi side-lined M23 rebels after they resumed hostilities.

President Kenyatta announced that the commanders of the regional force are expected to meet in Nairobi this Sunday to plan troop deployment.

In Kampala, Prof Solomon Asiimwe, a lecturer of international relations and security studies, questioned the effectiveness of a military solution to Congo’s intractable problems, considering the vested interests of regional actors.

“The military option is a non-starter. Four members of the East African Community are involved in the eastern DRC issues. [A military solution would mean that] Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and DRC will be observers. So, it would be Tanzania and Kenya that will deploy troops. That means you need countries outside the EAC if they are to deploy troops,” he argued.

The region’s military strategists are yet to work out finer details of which country will contribute what number of troops and equipment, and command structure and responsibilities. 

Nonetheless, Prof Asiimwe suggested a well-structured dialogue, comprising serious people at the African Union level, as the best option, arguing that neighbours are using presence of subversive elements in eastern Congo as cover to intervene and exploit the country’s vast mineral deposits.

Dr Denis Mukwege, a renowned Congolese gynaecologist, Nobel Prize laureate and human rights activist, like Prof Asiimwe, yesterday tweeted that “the deployment in eastern DRC of a regional force composed of countries at the root of [its] destabilisation, atrocities and the plundering of our resources will bring neither stability nor peace and risks aggravating the situation! The reform of the Fardc and national police is necessary.”

Separately, DRC opposition leader, Martin Fayulu, in a statement called on Kinshasa to sever diplomatic relations with Rwanda, and rejected plans for a regional intervention.