The Congo curse, Shs1 trillion fine and return to the jungles

Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers load mortor bombs on a plane at Bunia airport in Bunia Town in DR Congo on April 26, 2003. Photo/File

What you need to know:

  • During the first deployment of UPDF soldiers to DR Congo, President Museveni said it would secure Uganda’s security interests.

Twenty-four years ago, James Kazini, a brave soldier and veteran of the treacherous battlefront, ruled the roost. He was sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) as overall commander to treat a festering wound in the heart of Africa, a year after the kleptocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko had been ousted.  
Paul Lokech, a junior officer, was serving as Kazini’s aide-de-camp (ADC) (camp assistant) then. As the plane circled above Congo’s forests, Kazini looked in his eyes and told his ADC that he would one day become a senior commander.

The decision to deploy Ugandan troops was taken by the Army High Command, which was chaired by the Commander-in-Chief, President Museveni, on September 11, 1998.
The President argued that the deployment would secure Uganda’s security interests by denying the Sudanese government an opportunity to destabilise Uganda through eastern Congo; deny habitation to Uganda’s dissidents such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the Congo and protect Uganda’s territorial integrity from invasion by Joseph Kabila forces.
Some Members of the sixth Parliament put up flak against the deployment arguing that the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) could get entangled in the proverbial quicksand.

Uganda’s history is littered with many lessons. In 1965, Kabaka Yekka MP Daudi Ochieng tabled evidence implicating deputy army commander, Idi Amin, of illegally obtaining gold, timber and coffee from DR Congo rebels who were being shored up by Milton Obote’s government.
With its vast resources, DR Congo had been an expansive fiefdom for a number of outsiders to exploit — from Atlantic slave traders to Belgian colonisers — to mining multinationals — who plundered this territory.
Not much had changed at the time Uganda deployed its troops to eastern DR Congo. 

Among the army officers who played a key role in the DR Congo deployment are former Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence boss and Defence ministry Permanent Secretary, Noble Mayombo, who died mysteriously on May 1, 2007; former army commander James Kazini, who was killed on Nov 11, 2009 by Lydia Draru; Peter Kerim, the deputy commander of the Reserve Force who died in 2012; and former deputy Inspector General of Police, Paul Lokech, who died on August 21, 2021 from a blood clot.

The other officers, who participated, were the president’s brother, Gen Salim Saleh; former Chief of Defence Forces and now Works and Transport minister Gen Katumba Wamala, who escaped with serious injuries when assassins targeted him last year; Kahinda Otafiire, who is the East African Community (EAC) minister; and Kale Kayihura, the former IGP who was sanctioned by the United States of America for human rights abuses and corruption under the Global Magnitsky Act in 2019.
Last Thursday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Uganda to pay $325m (Shs1.1 trillion) in compensation to DR Congo after its army was accused of human rights violation and plunder during its deployment in the eastern part of the country.

The reparations – a middle-of-the-road settlement – were far short of the $11 billion (Shs38.8 trillion) in reparations demanded by Kinshasa over a conflict that is believed to have killed hundreds of people.
Barely after the judgment, many actors, including Opposition leader Kizza Besigye, said the $325m debt should not be transferred to the taxpayer but individuals who looted DR Congo’s resources. 
Kabumba Busingye, an international law lecturer at Makerere University, said: “I think it (judgment) is an important message to the actors that, there’s need to respect international law. In the on-going conflict [current UPDF deployment to the DR Congo], the actors made it clear that they sought an invitation, in writing, which is a departure from the previous incident, which led us to court.” 

UPDF soldiers and Congolese soldiers plan how to attack an ADF base inside the jungles of the DRC. Photo/Courtesy

He says the judgment serves as a message to domestic actors that we need to hold our State accountable, “because this judgment in monetary terms has implications not just for our children but also our children’s children. It should trigger a national conversation on the cost of bad governance on the international area, and locally.”
“Even without this judgment, the finding that we violated very basic cardinal principles of international law leaves us a country in a bad place and we will take time to recover. In the 1970s, we were party to hijacking [of a plane carrying Israeli nationals], so in the bad books of international law we feature prominently. Now this reparation phase sends a stronger message about reckless international actions,” Kabumba said.

He says the court took the middle ground on the premise that “there’s issuing a sum, which is burdensome for a country to pay given its existing debt obligations. The second thing, I think, was that of the several parties involved in the conflict, only Uganda submitted to the court’s jurisdiction. Rwanda for instance refused to turn up and under international law it was its prerogative. Uganda on the other hand turned up, and bore the full legal culpability for not what were actions of really one actor but many.”
Kabumba said Article 94 (2) of the UN Charter provides that the UN Security Council is in charge of enforcement of ICJ decisions. 

“The challenge is that the UN Security Council is itself a political body, and any decisions it takes must be unanimous. If there’s any veto by a permanent member, then no action can be taken. So as long as you have a friend on that body essentially enforcement of the court’s decision can remain in abeyance,” he said.
Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the UN, says by the time of the judgment, bilateral relations between Uganda and DR Congo have since improved. 
“Of course, there’s international law which Uganda adheres to after Uganda in 1963 accepted to compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ which means that decisions of the court are binding to Uganda and that’s good,” Ayebare said.
“So, the ruling actually to me is an improvement. Remember the original claim by DR Congo was $23b (Shs81.2 trillion), but now you have $325m, which is about two percent, so in terms of the money the ruling is much better. On the terms of allegations, rape, defilement, many were quashed; that is why the court applied general rules of compensation not specific rules.”
The envoy also revealed that Uganda adopted a soft-stance and waived a claim it had lodged at the ICJ against DR Congo after its embassy in Kinshasa was attacked.

“What the government of Uganda objects to is wrong-doing in the case. Wrong-doing always has a context, which is that there was a large-scale domestic conflict in Congo involving seven countries with differing interests and 30-armed groups. So how do you apportion blame? And that’s what we object to. The court sort of assumes that there were two parties; DR Congo, which was wronged, and Uganda as the sole aggressor. The good news is we have good bilateral relations with DR Congo and we’ll continue talking about it,” Ayebare said.
Ayebare says the suit that the DR Congo filed is “a suit against the Ugandan government. Individuals are not subject of the jurisdiction of the ICJ, it is countries. Court issued a ruling on the reparations but didn’t say you shouldn’t talk; so, we’ll continue our dialogue on the matter.”

In 2002, the UN panel of experts released its final report into the plunder of DR Congo minerals and named a number of army officers and warlords involved in a tangled web meant to ostensibly loot Congo’s mineral wealth, engage in cross-border trade, and tax revenues for the purpose of enriching members of the cartel.
In May 2001, the Justice David Porter Judicial Commission of Inquiry was established to investigate the findings in the UN Panel of Experts report. Upon its completion, the inquiry exonerated President Museveni, his family, his government, and top military officers of charges levied against them. However, the Porter report found some allegations to be true against some individuals — Salim Saleh, Jovia Saleh, and James Kazini. It was recommended that these allegations are fully investigated but no action was taken after government shelved the report.

Porter’s Commission discovered that much of the evidence was fabricated but human rights organisations opined that this was an attempt to whitewash the crimes of those named by the UN report.
According to the UN report, the objective of the elite network in the areas controlled by Uganda was meant to exercise monopolistic control over the area’s natural resources. 

The Uganda network allegedly consisted of a core group of members including certain high-ranking UPDF officers, private businessmen and selected rebel leaders/administrators. Generals Salim Saleh and Kazini were the key figures alongside other senior army officers, according to the UN report. 
UPDF or militias associated with individual UPDF officers allegedly established physical control over areas containing commercially viable natural resources - coltan, diamonds, timber and gold. 

The UN report alleged that this cartel relied on the transnational criminal group led by the Russian arms trafficker, Victor Bout.
For nearly two decades, Bout grew infamous as the “Merchant of Death” — his nickname for the black-market weapons deals for which, in 2011, he was convicted in a US federal court and sentenced to serve 25 years in jail. 
Mr Bout, according to the UN panel of Experts report, purchased the Uganda-based non-operational airline company Okapi Air. The purchase of the company allowed Bout to use Okapi’s licences. The company was subsequently renamed Odessa. The Panel claimed that it was in possession of a list of outbound flights from 1998 to the beginning of 2002 from Entebbe International Airport, which confirms the operational activities of Mr Bout’s aircraft from Ugandan territory. 

Sources told the panel that gem diamonds from Mbuji Mayi in the DR Congo during the conflict accounted for much of the increase in diamonds transiting through Dubai in recent years. 
“Exports from the United Arab Emirates to Antwerp increased to $149.5 million in 2001 from $4.2 million in 1998 according to the Diamond High Council’s statistics. The Panel has been told of chartered flights direct from Mbuji Mayi to Dubai, and other routes via Dar es Salaam, on which illicit diamond exports have been carried. Likewise, Dubai became a transit point for coltan from the Uganda-controlled area and a portion of the diamonds originating from Kisangani in the Rwanda-controlled area. 

The arms and diamond smuggler Victor Bout uses the United Arab Emirates as his permanent base, with nine of his aircraft stationed at Ra’s al Khaimah International Airport,” read the report.
Among those who appeared before the inquiry was the UPDF commander of Land Forces, Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba. 
Muhoozi was allegedly involved in a business jointly owned by Jovia Saleh Salim Saleh and a Lebanese Khalil dealing in diamonds, gold and coffee beans. 

Victoria Group, the name of the firm in the UN report had offices in Kampala to ostensibly purchase diamonds, gold and coffee beans from Isiro, Bunia, Bumba, Bondo, Buta and Kisangani. 
However, Ketra Tukuratiire, the acting registrar - general, testified that Victoria Group was not known in Uganda. 
“It is neither registered as local company nor as a foreign company. Apart from Khalil whom this Commission has not been able to interview, as he is a non- resident in the Country, all the alleged owners of the groups have denied any connection with the group,” she said. 
Jovia Saleh, however, admitted that she knew Khalil and that herself and Khalil at one time established a Lebanese Restaurant known as Leban (U) Ltd on Bombo Road in Kampala, in the middle of 1999. 

“They are no longer operating the restaurant. Jovia has denied that, apart from restaurant business, she had had any other dealings with Khalil and in particular, diamonds. However, this Commission has come to the conclusion that Jovia’s participation in Khalil’s operations, and Victoria in particular, cannot be excluded,” the report states. 
Then at the rank of Lieutenant, Muhoozi revealed to the Commission that he only travelled to Kinshasa on two occasions. 

“The first was in 1997, during the regime of Laurent Kabila, when he went to look for a market for meat products on behalf of his family ranch, which is well known for the keeping of cattle and the need for a market. The second occasion was in early 1998 when he had started working for Caleb International, Salim Saleh’s firm, for discussions with some potential partners in the DR Congo with the possibility of developing some mining interests there,” reads part of the Porter report.

The last batch of soldiers with the Uganda People's Defense Force (UPDF) return through the town of Goli after withdrawing from the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) embattled Ituri region on May 19, 2003. PHOTO/ FILE/ AFP

Though it cleared him on a raft of allegations, the Porter Commission of Inquiry found Gen Salim Saleh culpable of committing offences under Section 396 of the Companies Act “when he falsely stated that his son, Alexander Mahuta, was an adult businessman in the returns he filed with the registrar of companies, when he knew he was a minor.” 
The Commission observed that although Gen Saleh later disposed of his shares, he did so amid a welter of backdated paperwork, to his wife, in a company where the only other shareholder was his infant son.
“This Commission has no doubt that he wished to give the appearance of disposing of his interest while in fact keeping control of the company: and indeed, Jovia in her evidence, admitted that Salim Saleh kept an active interest,” the Commission states
 The report revealed that in 1998, Take Air, in which Gen Saleh was a shareholder and director, submitted invoices to UPDF and was paid Shs111 million for flights to the Congo that could not be identified. 
“Gen Saleh could not explain the reason for the payment. He promised to check with his staff and report back to the Commission. This was not done. Months later the General appeared before the Commission again. When asked about the documents he had promised including manifests, he said that he had so far failed to get them. Take Air had closed in late 1998 and he (Saleh) had difficulties in tracing its Managing Director who left Uganda in March 1999. To- date the payment is still not accounted for. Further investigations are necessary and recommended,” reads the Commission report. 

The inquiry established that two of Gen Saleh’s Airlines - Take Air and Air Alexander International Ltd - were among companies whose planes were chartered by UPDF to fly to Congo. 
“Another case, which has come to the attention of this Commission relates to the unsatisfactory registration and irregular handling of Air Alexander International Ltd. The Commission recommends that these cases should be pursued for appropriate action.”
In his sworn-evidence, Salim Saleh said that he visited Kinshasa only during peacetime, that is before 1998, at the invitation of the late Laurent Kabila; and that he had never been in any part of eastern Congo. 

Jovia Saleh told the Commission that she had never been in any part of the DR Congo and refuted the allegation that she was at the root of the Kisangani wars. 
“However, this Commission has evidence connecting Jovia with Khalil and Victoria in diamond smuggling where this Commission has found that it is unable to rule out the participation of Jovia Akandwanaho in the diamond smuggling operations of Victoria, revealing that there is some truth in the allegations made against her by the original Panel.”

It was alleged that James Kazini was the master in the field, the orchestrator, organiser and manager of most illegal activities during the first Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) deployment in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 
“He was examined by the Commission at length, but he denied any involvement in business activities,”  the Justice David Porter Judicial Commission of Inquiry states.
The Commission report further stated: “He has lied to this Commission on many occasions. Whilst this Commission bears in mind that he was the man on the ground, and that many allegations have been freely made from the DR Congo which have not stood up to close examination, nevertheless this Commission has found that many of those made against Gen Kazini are supportable.”  

The Commission report read that it had received documentary evidence implicating Kazini in other local administrative matters. In one case, he instructed UPDF commanders in Isiro, Bunia, Bondo and Buta, among other areas, to allow one company, La Societe Victoria, to do business in coffee, diamonds, gold uninterrupted in areas under their control as it had been cleared of taxation by the President of Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), Jean Pierre Bemba.
However, the Commission discovered that a letter from Kazini requesting Thomas Mathe, who was the minister of finance of RCD-ML, to allow his (Kazini) Coltan through customs, was forged.