DR Congo & East Africa region at crossroads: Which Way Forward in Fight vs Allied Democratic Forces Terrorism?
What you need to know:
This year efforts have been ramped up to see that Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo corporate at least in pacifying the volatile eastern part of the Central African country which has been bedevilled by a viral epidemic and civil war, and is currently home to ADF, an Islamic State-linked terror group, writes Derrick Kiyonga.
Following last week’s attacks in Uganda, East and Central Africa has been cast in the global limelight as it has shown how it could be turned into a hotbed of international terrorism with security agencies across the volatile region at crossroads on how to foil the attacks.
When Uganda was last attacked in 2010, there was an agreement that Somalia-based terror organisation al-Shabaab was behind the attacks that left at least 76 dead in the twin bombings that rattled Kampala, but the recent bombings have left security agencies with no clear idea of who were the masterminds.
When what the security forces called “a home-made bomb” was donated at an eatery in Kawempe township near Kampala last Saturday, police claimed it was an “act of domestic terrorism,” but the Islamic State threw a spanner in the works when it owned the attacks, saying through a Telegram channel that it was “targeting members and spies of the crusader Ugandan government.”
But army spokesperson Brig Flavia Byekwaso said the media should go with the security agencies’ narrative.
“If I were you, I would take what security forces are saying because what you are saying that ISIS [Islamic State] said needs to be verified. You need to do background checks because recently we have seen a lot of propaganda on social media,” Brig Byekwaso said, adding: “You better go with the sources you are sure of.”
Abbas Byakagaba, the director for counter-terrorism, could also not put a finger on who was behind the attack, but he could only say that the notorious Allied Democratic Forces, ADF, an ISIS-linked terror group, was one probable culprit.
The security agencies had somehow gotten used to terror attacks planned by al-Shabaab with the militants taking a foothold in Kenya where they have carried out intermittent attacks, more so near the Somalia border.
In 2013, al-Shabaab killed at least 67 people during a four-day siege at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, and in 2015, they attacked Garissa University and killed more than 140 students leaving the region in shock.
TAl-Shabab is affiliated to Al-Qaeda, a worldwide network of Islamic extremists and Salafist jihadists founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden but now a whole new dimension has been added following the creation of ISIS, or ISIL, which African countries are struggling to contain.
In Southern Africa, ISIS partnered with an Islamist group called al-Shabaab (no link to the al-Shabaab in Somalia) and took a foothold in Mozambique where it staged attacks in the northern Cabo Delgado province, in the process chasing away the central government as well as the local population.
The violence, including the raiding of villages and towns, has killed more than 3,306 people and displaced at least 800,000 from their homes over the past four years, but the onslaught was halted when Rwanda sent about 1,000 soldiers to confront them.
By the time Rwanda intervened, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) the regional bloc, to which Mozambique belongs, had reneged on it’s pledges to contribute troops.
South Africa, the most powerful country in the bloc, said it couldn’t fulfil its commitment because of what it termed as “organisational and logistical” reasons.
The fact that Cabo Delgado is the site of a $20 billion liquefied natural gas project run by French energy giant Total has posed question marks on what exactly Rwanda’s real interests are, but also now there are questions on when these foreign troops will pull out.
This is not an easy question considering the fact that Mozambique troops had failed to overwhelm the jihadists in the years before foreign troops arrived.
Rwanda isn’t the first African country to send troops to another under the banner of stemming terrorism. Uganda, its northern neighbour, has for more than a decade been embroiled in African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (Amisom), whose objective is to back the feeble central government in Mogadishu and stop al-Shabaab’s efforts to topple it.
While Ugandan commanders have painted Somalia as a success story, claiming “African solutions for African problems,” the attacks in Kampala show that they have a local problem, which they have so far failed to solve.
Like before, Kampala has recognised that ADF was behind the attacks but what they have refused to admit openly is that the militant group is now affiliated to ISIS.
“We heard about IS [ISIS] claiming the Komamboga [Kawempe] attack, but we know the ADF-based information,” Security minister Jim Muhwezi said while appearing on NBS TV talk show Frontline this week.
“We have always known that the ADF wants to attack, the warning from the UK didn’t specify. I can’t blame the security because we have always been alert.”
Though ADF has continued to carry out bomb attacks and has assassinated security and government officials, President Museveni and his emissaries have insisted the group was defeated on Ugandan soil back in 2007.
Asked why the ADF still carries out attacks, authorities have always apportioned the blame on the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] which some consider a failed state.
“The ADF was defeated in Uganda,” Mr Muhwezi said. “They still have their base in DRC. They regroup, retrain, and then attack.”
Though Uganda says ADF now has its home in DR Congo, various reports this year have indicated that the terror group formerly headed by Jamil Mukulu, who was extradited from Tanzania to Uganda in 2015, isn’t different from ISIS.
The Kivu Security Tracker (KST), a valued monitor, says ADF is one of the projected 122 armed organisations that rove eastern DRC – causing havoc in both the DRC and Uganda and in the process leading to loss of of lives.
When it was first formed in Uganda as an Islamist militant outfit, the ADF predominantly concerned itself with domestic complaints, but after remerging in DRC, it has taken on a more worldwide jihadist breadth, with attacks progressively being claimed in the name of the ISIS.
“Yes it’s possible,” Brig Byekwaso responded when asked if there’s a link between ISIS and ADF. “When you look at the trend and how terror groups have been developing, each feeding into the other, apart from al-Qaeda… they only change names given the countries where they are. So yes, ADF being a terror group, chances are there they have links with ISIS because these are groups that have the same goal: a beat of jihadism, beat of payment in heaven.”
Earlier this year, the US State Department patented ADF a “foreign terrorist organisation” known as “ISIS-DRC” or “Madina at Tauheed Wau Mujahedeen.”
The US says ADF is now being superintended by Seka Musa Baluku and had morphed into ISIS’s so-called “Central Africa Province” -- an outfit that ISIS declared in April 2019 as it was losing ground in Syria and Iraq following the intervention of the US.
President Museveni in his recent address didn’t say exactly what the security forces were going to do to stop ADF from carrying out urban terrorism, but what is clear is that Uganda won’t achieve much if DRC is left out of the equation.
This year efforts have been ramped up to see that Uganda and DRC corporate at least in pacifying the volatile eastern part of the Central African country which has been bedevilled by a viral epidemic and civil war.
In May, a contingent of Ugandan forces arrived in Beni in DRC’s North Kivu province to build a centre that would be used as a launchpad for joint operations against the Islamists by the two armies.
Not much progress has been revealed on that front and the attacks in Uganda will only ramp up more pressure on security forces to go deep into DR Congo.
“Congo is ungovernable,” a high-ranking army officer told this writer on condition of anonymity since he isn’t allowed to speak to the press. “The Congolese army is extremely weak and for Uganda to be stable we need to do something about Congo.”
Uganda’s incursion into DR Congo might be aimed at eliminating jihadists, but there’s the possibility of opening old wounds.
In the 1990s Uganda twice intervened in the vast mineral-rich country under the pretext of flushing out rebel groups but it ended up being convicted of pillaging the country’s minerals by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague – which ordered Kampala to compensate Kinshasa with $10 billion (about Shs36 trillion) that it’s yet to pay.
The Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) additionally was found liable of stirring ethnic conflict and failing to take measures to put an end to the conflict in the areas it occupied, hence Uganda sullied its obligations under international human rights laws and international humanitarian laws.
“Considering that history, it’s very hard for the two countries to work together to fight the Islamists,” Mr Mwabustya Ndebesa, a senior lecturer of history at Makerere University, explained in a phone interview. “They can put on a show but the mistrust still exists.”
Ndebesa’s theory was corroborated by the fact that in 2014, a court in the DRC convicted warlord Mukulu of terrorism and murder and sentenced him to death in absentia and when he was captured in Tanzania, a year later, the Congolese authorities wanted him extradited to their country, triggering off protests from Kampala.
“Gen [Edward] Katumba, the Chief of Defence Forces at the time, had to quickly jump on the plane to Tanzania to stop that from happening because Uganda believed the Congolese would free Mukulu,” a source from Uganda’s intelligence agencies says.
Be that as it may, the relationship between Kampala and Kinshasa has been smoothened with Uganda offering to upgrade about 500kms of roads in eastern DRC to bitumen to ensure vital trade among the mineral-rich cities in the DRC.
“This is just butter on a bread roll. Peace is the bread and roads are the butter. It’s good that [DRC] president [Felix] Tshisekedi sent his team to do something about the roads. We are also ready for the electricity. We took power to Kasindi and now Beni and Butembo. We shall extend to Mahangi. We are ready to work on three things, security, roads, and electricity. Even if we don’t do anything else, for now, people on both sides will be happy with these,” Mr Museveni said as he joined Mr Tshisekedi at the launch of Mpondwe Bridge in Kasese District in June.
Security sources also believe that jihadist groups have intensified their attacks because they are emboldened by the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan where they had been since 2001 after toppling the Taliban who have now returned to power.
“They think now they have an upper hand,” a source close to Uganda’s intelligence said on condition of anonymity. “They think with America ‘defeated’ they can now do anything they want.”