Uganda will be seeking permission from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to expand the operational area of the two countries’ joint pursuit of the Allied Defence Forces (ADF), suggesting the hunt may be extended.
But President Yoweri Museveni’s move to criticise the lethargy of former Congolese president Joseph Kabila in dealing with the terrorist group in the past elicited a storm this week.
Mr Kabila labelled Museveni an expansionist and destabiliser.
While addressing the nation on security matters on July 13, President Museveni, who continuously lauded Kabila’s successor Felix Tshisekedi’s decision to allow the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) to operate in the DRC since November 2021, said Uganda had enough troops to hunt down the rebels up to Mbandaka, outside the operation area, if the Congo government were to allow it, while also guarding its rear in Uganda.
Expanding the operational territory of Operation Shujaa, as it is officially known, has been one of the contentious issues raised in the past, as well as whether to increase the number of boots on the ground.
Sources privy to discussions in the meetings say that President Tshisekedi, who Museveni termed more cooperative than his predecessor, has been reluctant to allow it because of pressure from officials in Kinshasa.
Yet Museveni’s praise of his successor and a vow to go farther against ADF inside the Congo has rattled Kabila.
Through his spokesperson, Barbara Nzimbi, Kabila this week dismissed Museveni’s “gratuitous false accusations” aimed to “distract the Congolese people and divide them.”
Ms Nzimbi added that Kabila’s government, which was first to recognise the ADF as a terrorist group, had constantly informed the United Nations and the international community about atrocities committed by the rebels.
Museveni said that by relying on a strong army, a relatively stronger intelligence service and political stability, his government has been able to largely keep the ADF out of Uganda since their 2007 defeat in Semliki Valley, when they attacked in large numbers.
“The ADF were there in Congo (after 2007). Although their growth is not dramatic, the (DR) Congo Government of HE Kabila supported by some regional and international actors, gave them free tenancy in North Kivu and Ituri province,” Museveni said.
The Ugandan leader argued that Kabila ignored the ADF because they provided a buffer against Rwanda and Uganda, which he initially accused of having vested interests in the eastern parts of the country. The ADF previously didn’t engage the Congo army, FARDC, until 2013, when they started attacking them, forcing the soldiers to fight back.
The rebels, he added, then started mining gold, selling timber, harvesting people’s cocoa, collecting taxes, and extorting people, all of which was on account of Kinshasa not accepting assistance to deal with the group when neither they nor the UN had the capacity.
Ferdinand Kambere, deputy secretary-general of Kabila’s PPRD party, scoffed at Museveni’s remarks, noting that the Ugandan head of state just wants a puppet of Kinshasa.
“Museveni is lying. He is using trickery. He is afraid because if the Tshisekedi regime leaves, he wants the next president to keep the UPDF in the DRC. He wants to keep his army in Congo, even with the next president, on the pretext that they are looking for Islamists,” he said.
Operation Shujaa has seen aerial bombardment of rebel camps, infantry fighting which forced the rebels flee deeper into DRC, killing and looting along the way.
They have now shifted to, mainly, terrorising rural folks, unarmed civilians, and moving in smaller groups away from the frontlines.
According to the UPDF Spokesperson Brigadier Felix Kulayigye, the country, in its attempt to wipe out the rebel group, will seek permission to follow them beyond the current area of operation that was codenamed the Death Triangle.
The ADF rebels have reportedly moved out of Sector three of the operation which runs from Kasindi to Mwenda all the way to Beni and moved beyond the Beni-Eringeti-Komanda-Bunya Road where they have broken into smaller groups which they hope are not easy to see with some individuals hiding in the trading centres.
Brig Kulayigye said that this decision, and many others, are subject to discussion in an upcoming review of the war by security chiefs of both countries that happens every two months.
“The operation is reviewed from time to time, mostly to examine the process and extent of success achieved within a specific time. And definitely our wish would be to meet our ultimate target of wiping out the rebels,” he said.
A UN group of experts recently said the ADF was expanding its operations owing to funding from Islamic State and the joint operations by the Congolese and Ugandan armies are not achieving much.
When asked whether the country had put in a formal request to Kinshasa, Brig Kulayigye said: “What was the main objective of this mission? To destroy the ADF entirely and follow them to wherever they run to and that is the wish we still have.”
A source at the Ugandan Ministry of Defence, however, said that at a diplomatic level, President Museveni as the commander-in-chief is engaging his Congolese counterpart on the matter.
A Wednesday statement from State House, Entebbe said Museveni had received “a special message” from Tshisekedi, which was delivered by the DRC State Minister for Regional Integration Mbusa Nyamwisi and a special adviser to President Tshisekedi, Kanku Shiku.
Additional reporting by Partrick llunga