Maj Gen Kayanja Muhanga, commander of the UPDF operations in the east of the DR Congo (centre), and soldiers from the Congolese army on the Mbau-Kamango road in Beni district on December 8. On November 30, the Ugandan air force and artillery shelled areas in Ituri and North Kivu, Congolese provinces bordering Uganda, where bases of the Allied Democratic Forces are said to have been. PHOTO | FILE

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Inside UPDF deployment to world’s most volatile pocket

What you need to know:

  • The deal to allow the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) into the DR Congo was built on a carefully- crafted relationship with Felix Tshisekedi on the eve of Congo’s presidential elections in 2018.

A fortnight ago, the Ugandan army launched artillery and aerial bombardment of Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) bases inside the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). 

Barely after, its infantry, tank brigade and other fighting units snaked through the forested paths and briefly camped at Mukakati in Beni on the edge of Ituri forest, North Kivu Province as their vehicles got mired down in treacherous roads towards ADF bases. 

Daily Monitor newspaper has learnt that the deal to allow the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) into the DR Congo was built on a carefully- crafted relationship with Felix Tshisekedi on the eve of Congo’s presidential elections in 2018.

It eventually resulted into the two Chiefs of Defence of Forces, Gen Célestin Mbala Munsense (Armed Forces of DR Congo) and Gen Wilson Mbadi (UPDF), inking a deal that would allow the troops to hunt down the ADF that recently paid allegiance to the Islamic State as a regional affiliate.

However, the agreement between the two States remains a tightly-guarded document.

What it means

Prof Ogenga Otunnu, a history scholar, based in the United States, argues: “If one goes by the official narrative given by government; that we’re in DR Congo to pursue the ADF that were responsible for the recent bombings in Kampala, then our presence is legitimate. That’s assuming that the intelligence shared with the public is reliable because as you know intelligence can be invented/manipulated.”

However, Otunnu says the primary objective may have little to do with pursuing terrorism but rather an attempt by the Ugandan government to try and salvage its national legitimacy by making itself the kingmaker in a troubled region. 

“In politics at times, you find the most plausible explanation that your citizens and international community will buy and that’s the one you advance. In other words, you may have different motives coming together, one could be pursuing rebels, shoring up political legitimacy of government, especially after a hotly contested election which the western world pronounced on itself as not having been free and fair and not accurate,” he said.

The major ADF group has been hiding in Ituru under the command of Musa Baluku whose allegiance to ISIS was likely driven by more than just an ideological alignment. “According to an ADF member opposed to this pivot, the hope was that the Islamic State would be splashing them with dollars and weapons and ammunition,” reads a research publication titled: The Islamic State in Congo by George Washington University.

The second splinter group is operating in the Rwenzori mountains in the DR Congo and continues to pay allegiance to ADF founder, Jamil Mukulu, who is currently jailed in Luzira Prison. 

One of its commanders, is the son of Jamil Mukulu, Yasin Hassan Nyanzi. Nyanzi was earlier on in 2013 granted amnesty by the Ugandan government but later slipped across the porous borders to return to the DR Congo.

With the spectre of conflict hanging over this vast country, many questions remain unanswered.

For how long will the UPDF remain in North Kivu and Ituri, which are some of the most volatile pockets on earth? 

Will the ghosts of the intractable conflict that sucked in more than eight African nations from 1998 to 2003 return to haunt the UPDF? What is the army’s exit strategy?

The eastern part of the Congo where the Ugandan army is located is nearly a failed State and divided into territorial chiefdoms run by tribal warlords, insurgent groups, professional cut-throats and an international syndicate that pays fees to roaming militias to protect their mining rights.

“Recurrent clashes and retaliatory attacks between armed groups continued, mainly over territorial control, in Masisi, Rutshuru, southern Lubero, and Walikale territories, which are mineral-rich and offer considerable financial benefits,” reads a UN panel of experts report on the DR Congo, which was addressed to the president of the Security Council in June.

Several reports also indicate that the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, a lame-duck outfit and the Congolese national army are usually complicit in the plunder and human rights abuses of nationals.

“In parallel, members of the DR Congo security forces deployed in Djugu and Irumu territories committed exactions, including conflict- related sexual violence, in particular against the Lendu and Bira populations considered as affiliated to CODECO and FPIC, respectively. The Group documented the illegal presence of Armed Forces of DR Congo (FARDC) members at gold mining areas in Djugu, Irumu and Mambasa territories, where local cooperatives mined gold with semi-industrial mining companies belonging to Chinese individual investors,” the report adds.

So is the Ugandan army, which is not entirely squeaky-clean going by the past record when its army was deployed in the DR Congo between 1998 and 2003.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), according to highly placed sources, plans to deliver a ruling on notice in the armed activities on the Territory of Congo case where the Kinshasha government sued Uganda. This comes after the completion of a recent hearing on mutual reparations. 

DR Congo is seeking $4.3b from Uganda, a sum that is larger than the combined budgets of Uganda’s infrastructure, health, education and defence sectors.

The Hague-based court in 2005 ruled that Uganda had violated international law by occupying parts of Ituri with its own troops and supporting other armed groups in the area during the conflict. 

It also ruled that DR Congo had violated international law during an attack on the Ugandan embassy in Kinshasa after Uganda filed a counter-memorial at the ICJ.  

The UN court then ordered DR Congo and Uganda to negotiate mutual reparations but in 2015 DR Congo returned to the UN court saying the talks were not progressing. 

Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s permanent representative to the UN and special envoy to the UN, told Daily Monitor newspaper that with the recent thaw in relations between Kampala and Kinshasa, they will continue to engage diplomatically in regard to the ICJ case. 

“There’s nothing we cannot talk about. We have tried to negotiate the judgment in the past, and we’ll continue –that was an unfortunate past,” he said.

Tshisekedi will also be keen not to alienate the Congolese elite who have put up flak against the UPDF deployment. 

“Congo has its own elites and politics, and you’ll expect a heated discussion on external intervention. But this operation is popular because ADF has been menacing eastern DR Congo; what we’re doing is good for Congolese politics, and perhaps President Tshisekedi has looked at it closely,” Ayebare argues.

“It also has a potential of complicating things for the current regime in Kinshasa which controls only part of the country and a bigger part of the country is controlled by warlords, more so as it prepares for elections in 2023,” Otunnu argues. 

To win over the support of its critics and the civilian population, both armies issued a joint statement recently. 

Maj Gen Leon-Richard Kasonga Cibangu, FARDC spokesman and Brig Gen Flavia Byekwaso, spokeswoman for the UPDF, said the mission will be executed through the strict adherence to international law, respect for human rights as well as the rules of engagement that state the forces will only target hideouts of the terror group.

“In order to gain the loyalty of the population and reverse the harmful propaganda instilled by the ADF and their allies, the FARDC and the UPDF have launched a vast awareness campaign and are carrying out civil-military actions, which are already bearing fruit,” the armies said and this will be in addition to rehabilitating roads into major townships in the eastern Congo.

Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) troops on the Mbau-Kamango road in Beni District, DR Congo on December 8. PHOTO | AFP

The UPDF’s deployment has also placed other regional players on alert.

Rwanda, which has been having a long-standing dispute with Uganda and Burundi continues to closely monitor events in North and South Kivu, where it claims the two countries want to shore up rebel fighters to attack the Kigali government. 

In turn, Kampala and Bujumbura claim Rwanda is supporting rebels fighting these governments.

Daily Monitor newspaper has seen a classified document, which shows that initially DR Congo wanted to invite the armies of three countries into the eastern part of the country.  It is not clear yet why this plan was shelved.

“The Democratic Republic of the Congo calls for reinforcements from the armies of neighbouring countries, its partners,” reads the document signed by the Congolese Army chief of staff, Gen Célestin Mbala Munsense, who speaks of an integrated general staff.

The armies, according to the shelved blueprint, would then conduct special operations aimed at decimating ‘all the active or dormant foreign and Congolese armed groups to secure suburbs and roads that are vital for the country.’

“The operations shall begin on November 15, 2019 by the installation of foreign armies and end in mid-May next year with the stabilisation of the region and the withdrawal of partner contingents. The four countries will assist the DRC Armed Forces in exchange for information, intelligence support, support for special force units, and control of the land and lake border,” the document read.

Could this conflict, which for now has been fought through proxy allies morph into a full-blown regional conflict?

Otunnu says: “The biggest fear at the time was not Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi going to DR Congo, it was the possibility of having a proxy war in DR Congo. Rwanda for instance blames Uganda and Burundi for supporting rebels based in eastern DR Congo. Uganda and Burundi also blame Rwanda for supporting rebel groups based in eastern Congo. The DR Congo government allowed entry of UPDF in part because it tried to negotiate with the different armed groups in 2018, then it attempted to pursue other rebel groups last year and this year.”

He adds that perhaps this plan was shelved on the premise that if all the three countries’ armies were deployed it ‘potentially could develop into a full-blown war.’

Ayebare says whereas other regional players may have an interest in eastern DR Congo for now ‘this is an agreement with Uganda and DR Congo to deal with the ADF, the rest to me is background noise.’

“We know it’s a crowded theatre, but we’re dealing with another force on the ground—MONUSCO—to ensure that there are no unfortunate incidents, and the other groups can be dealt with by Congolese forces. Ours is mission specific. Once we get ADF the rest is Congolese issues to deal with,” argues Ayebare.

Highly placed sources claim Kigali has placed its army on standby after the Ugandan army sent its fighters into North Kivu.

There are also fears of a regional arms race as these countries ramp up their firepower both on the ground and in the skies.

Uganda’s advanced Russian fleet of Sukhoi fighter jets has given the UPDF aerial superiority. Rwanda in turn, has purchased the advanced sky-dragon air-defence missiles from China to counter any threat in the skies. 

“There’s potential of an arms race that is going to be perhaps elevated by this moment of our presence in DRC, but that should not be exaggerated. Rwanda already has good intelligence on what Burundi has and does, so even before Uganda’s going to DR Congo Rwanda is ready, and vice versa. Rwanda also has good intelligence on Uganda and vice versa,” says Otunnu.

Whereas it’s quite plausible that these military arms were meant to protect the borders and sovereignty of these countries from hostility, the purchases have depleted the national coffers of these two countries.

Some government critics argue that the deployment of the UPDF is meant to deflect domestic challenges and thrust Uganda into the crosshairs of a global jihad fight.

In their view, this could turn into a boon for President Museveni whose halo has been slipping in the eyes of his erstwhile allies in the West.

 Otunnu says Africa is the last front of ISIS across Nigeria and the wider Sahel So, the West—America, France, Britain began to figure out how ISIS was expanding in Africa. The US government in March 2020 decided to unilaterally declare ADF as a front for ISIS, together with the bigger group in Mozambique. ISIS reciprocated the gesture by advertising ADF as part of its operations in Central Africa. 

“Uganda now, aware of the geo-political nature of things around decided to take advantage of that; that let’s remind the West that we’re being attacked by the same terror group that is a threat to their interest in Africa and also in the Western world,” Otunnu said.

However, Ayebare says it is cynicism, which is driving such a grossly flawed argument. 

“We have domestic politics and disagreements, that is a fact of any country but this is really separate. All political opinions, I have not come across one that supports terrorism, the question is maybe on the approach and how to deal with it, and I think you saw what happened on the streets on Kampala; the bombings. There’s no government in the world that will fold its hands and say this will sort itself.  We had a legitimate case of self-defence,” he said.

The exponents of the UPDF deployment into DR Congo argue that Uganda must defend its territory in a troubled region.

Makerere University Political science don, the late Prof Dan Mudoola, postulated that Uganda ought to have a large Defence vote because of its geopolitical location. 

Mudoola said that the country ought “to build a cordon of sanitaire around Uganda’s borders and at the same time to contain internal fluid situations.”

“ADF is now a franchise of the global jihadist movement—ISIS and others, and every country has to deal with them in the context of terrorism, and you know terrorism has been upgraded since September 11, 2001 and it has attained the status of Jus cogens [a fundamental principle of international law that is accepted by the international community of states as a norm from which no derogation is permitted] at the level of genocide/crimes against humanity, because of the indiscriminate nature they conduct warfare. So, each state has an obligation to deal with terrorism and terrorist groups. So, basically, we are obliged to deal with this menace,” Ayebare argues. 

Uganda also plans to build a number of roads in the eastern part of the DR Congo. 

In November, the Council of Ministers endorsed the DR Congo to join the East African Community (EAC) as the seventh member state. 

This could bring on board a market of 90 million people and open another getway for the region through the Atlantic.

By June, figures revealed that DR Congo was the leading importer of Uganda’s goods in the East African bloc.

“As DRC is joining EAC, that is another dimension, on working together to deal with the threats,” Ayebare says.

However, for Uganda to tap into the economic potential of the DR Congo --- perhaps the wealthiest nation on earth in minerals, experts opine that its army must not be viewed as an occupational force, win over trust of the local Congolese community and quickly exit the neighbouring state.

What they say

Plausible explanation 

In politics at times, you find the most plausible explanation that your citizens and international community will buy and that’s the one you advance. In other words, you may have different motives coming together, one could be pursuing rebels, shoring up political legitimacy of government,”Prof Ogenga Otunnu, history scholar. 

Popular operation. 

"Congo has its own elites and politics, and you’ll expect a heated discussion on external intervention. But this operation is popular because ADF has been menacing eastern DR Congo; what we’re doing is good for Congolese politics, and perhaps President Tshisekedi has looked at it closely,” Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s special envoy to the UN.

Awareness campaigns 

"In order to gain the loyalty of the population and reverse the harmful propaganda instilled by the ADF and their allies, the FARDC and the UPDF have launched a vast awareness campaign and are carrying out civil-military actions, which are already bearing fruit,,” FARDC and UPDF statement.

Issues 

"In parallel, members of the DR Congo security forces deployed in Djugu and Irumu territories committed exactions, including conflict- related sexual violence, in particular against the Lendu and Bira populations considered as affiliated to CODECO and FPIC, respectively,” UN panel of experts report on the DR Congo. 

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