Recent clashes between a resurgent Allied Democratic Forces and Democratic Republic of Congo government troops, as well as the resumption of hostilities between M23 rebels and Congolese forces, could plunge the entire Great Lakes Region into a major conflict.
Uganda is on high alert following the July 11 clash between the rebel outfit ADF, and the Congolese army at Kamango town, during which ADF overran the town, 14 kilometres west of the Uganda-DRC border. This resulted in some 66,000 refugees pouring into Uganda, according to the Red Cross.
The fear gripping the region is due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Congo, the long wait for the deployment of an international intervention force to keep peace between the M23 and Kinshasa government and the emergence of ADF.
Because of this threat of a renewed rebellion launched from Congo, Kampala has responded by putting out its antennas, beefing up security and mounting roadblocks internally to check suspected movements.
Chief of Defence Forces General Edward Katumba Wamala told The EastAfrican that, so far, Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) had not yet got mandate to enter Congo and take on the rebels, which necessitated internal security checks.
“Yes, there could be some stragglers [of the ADF fighters] that ran away with arms into the public, and so security had to be beefed up. We don’t have the mandate yet to go after them, because for now we believe the Congolese army has capacity to do that,” he said, confirming reports that last week security agents mounted roadblocks on major highways, especially in western and central Uganda.
Formed in 1996, the ADF has been lying low in Congo, its main base since the late 1990s and early 2000s, from where it launched a number of terrorist attacks inside Uganda — mainly in the Rwenzori sub region and Kampala.
Choosing to strike the way it has now, and inside the Congo, ADF is a security worry and setback for a region that until now is still working out the modality of deploying an international brigade to oversee the fragile ceasefire in North Kivu between Congo’s M23 rebel group and the Kinshasa government.
It is on this international brigade comprising troops from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi that Kampala for now hinges its hopes to deal with the ADF threat.
The bigger worry, however, is that this is happening at a time when new terrorist groups are emerging in some African countries — notably in Nigeria (Boko Haram) and Mali (Ansar al-Dine).
The relocation of terrorism hotspots in Africa from Somalia to Nigeria and Mali means the ADF, itself for a long time linked to Somali al Shabaab and al Qaeda groups, could well use its base in DRC to launch a new terror front there, targeting Uganda and regional governments that are allied to the West.
However, security machinery in Kampala is puzzled that ADF, long assumed to be decimated, has resurrected and somewhat changed tack — instead of striking at Uganda as it did in the late 1990s, it has chosen to attack inside the Congo.
“The town [ADF] they attacked is not far from the Uganda-DRC border. Why would they attack in Congo and not their target? We need to investigate this new strategy, almost similar to that of Lord’s Resistance Army.
Security beefed up
Are they trying to cause a regional war, or are they now a proxy?” said a security official, who preferred anonymity.
“We know that they have not attempted to cross the border line into Uganda but we are alert. Regarding our response, we have sent troops to beef up security along the border, we have emergency and medical teams there. We will wait for the international brigade to come in,” said Gen Wamala.
According to Uganda’s Security Minister Wilson Muruli Mukasa, there is intelligence information showing that the rebels have regrouped to a sizeable number of about 800, well armed with AK-47 assault rifles and other weapons. The security minister adds that the resurgence of ADF and Kamango clashes leave Kampala in a maze.
Apparently, there have been attempts by Kampala to talk ADF leader Jamil Mukulu into denouncing rebellion and returning to Uganda. Mr Mukulu is understood to operate out of Nairobi, which the rebel group used as its financial hub, Khartoum and some capitals in the Middle East where ADF draws its ideological position.
Some developments on both the regional and domestic fronts bred apprehension that forced Kampala to mount roadblocks. First is the vacuum in eastern Congo that pits several militia against the Kinshasa government, rendering the area ungovernable, and hence allowing the ADF to regroup.
But closer home, there are fears inside Uganda that the fallout between the regime and one of its top soldiers and co-ordinator of Intelligence Services, General David Sejusa, who fled the country in May after writing a controversial memo alleging a plot to assassinate top military and government officials, could cause such security jitters.
Gen Sejusa’s letter, initially intended for the Director General of Internal Security Organisation Colonel Ronnie Balya, leaked to the media, prompting an 11-day swoop by security and closure of two media houses and their outlets. In the aftermath of this, Gen Sejusa has launched an onslaught on the Kampala regime, calling it a “political monarchy that must be resisted using all means”.
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While Gen Sejusa has not been linked to ADF, security analysts say the resurgence of an otherwise decimated rebel outfit into a formidable 800 strong armed force, at a time when Gen Sejusa has just fallen out with his boss and fled the country, is a curious coincidence.
However, army spokesman Lt Col Paddy Ankunda dismisses this thought as “speculation” in the absence of an investigation.
It is also emerging that international security experts are beginning to question the force behind ADF.
While UN experts and other sources describe the ADF as a Ugandan Islamist organisation, having originated in Uganda, analysts are questioning whether the group can still be accurately described as Ugandan or Islamist.
“The group’s allegiance to Islamism seems rather superficial,” the International Crisis Group says in a report on the group.
Thierry Vircoulon, the crisis group’s Central Africa project director, told The EastAfrican that “it is very difficult to assess to which extent this is still a Ugandan group.” Noting that “the history of the ADF is mostly a Congolese history.”
ADF has become “a very useful label” for Congolese Mai Mai groups operating in North Kivu, he said.
“Some of them can exchange goods, ammunition and maybe fighters” with core elements of the ADF, he added. What is not in doubt, Mr Vircoulon said, is the ADF’s resilience.
“They cannot operate in Uganda but they can operate in Congo because of the different security situation there.” Similarly, a report earlier this month by a UN team monitoring rebel groups inside the DRC described the Allied Democratic Forces as “a tightly controlled organisation, with close to no combatants who surrender.”
The ADF’s arsenal is said by the UN monitors to include mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Foreign trainers are instructing ADF members in the assembly of improvised explosive devices, the report adds.
ADF has also recruited Somali refugees living in Kenya, the UN team said in a separate study 19 months ago.
In addition, “Nairobi has served as the hub of ADF economic and financial activities,” this January 2012 report stated.
Additional reporting by Kevin Kelley