Ugandan ‘soldiers without borders’ in the Great Lakes

Saturday October 12 2013

Ugandan soldiers guard an area being cleared for a park in central Mogadishu this year. Ex-UPDF fighters are reportedly being recruited into the M23 rebel group in the DRC, which is fighting the Kinshasa government. But could they become a security threat in the Great Lakes region? Photo/AFP/ AU-UN IST/ STUART PRICE

New revelations that Ugandans are once again being recruited into the Congolese militia, this time into the M23 rebel group that is fighting the Kinshasa government, have created a new war parlance — soldiers without borders.

The phrase borrows from the humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders, better known by its French name Medecins Sans Frontieres, that operates around the world in war-torn regions and developing countries.

Security analysts argue that with conflict persisting in the Great Lakes Region for nearly three decades, Uganda has supplied the highest numbers of fighters in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Somalia.

Most of these are the rank and file of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF), officially deployed under international, UN Security Council or African Union mandates, currently about 10,000 troops — serving mainly in the AU Mission in Somalia (Amisom), and the hunt for the Lord’s Resistance Army in the DRC and Central African Republic.

However, there is a crop of Ugandan soldiers who enlist unofficially into militia and end up as fighters without borders. They have, in recent years, found their way into eastern Congo, fighting alongside the M23, and among the troops of Congolese renegade Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) in the Kivu region.

Ugandan Lt Richard Bisangwa, who last month defected from M23 and handed himself in to security in Kampala, said there are “several Ugandans” in the rebel group. But Bisangwa is only the latest in what has become a common narrative in the Congo conflict.


In 2010, The EastAfrican interviewed some of the 42 Ugandan youths who had fought inside the Congo, alongside Gen Nkunda’s forces between 2008 and 2009.

The fighters come in different forms; some are soldiers of fortune — hired by state and non-state actors — in the hunt for Congo’s minerals and timber, according to Paddy Musana, a lecturer of peace and conflict studies at Makerere University.

“You have to ask where these people are recruited from. Are they from Kampala or near the border? If they are recruited close to the border, then it’s likely they are not mercenaries, but have an attachment with people across the border. But you also have to ask, if we can export people to Iraq, why wouldn’t we do it to mineral rich Congo? So, if it’s not for stability, then it’s exploitation of minerals. Remember Uganda has been selling a lot of gold on the international market, and this gold is not mined in Uganda,” Mr Musana said.

Major Okwiri Rabwoni, a retired UPDF officer who fought from 1985 in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, ousting three governments in 12 years, best defines this type of soldier. He argues that borders drawn by the colonialists cut through ethnic communities with similar identities all over the Great Lakes region.

In a recent interview, Maj Rabwoni, who grew up on the left-leaning ideas of Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Sekou Toure and Julius Nyerere, dismissed the idea of being a mercenary. Rather, he argued that he was not just a Ugandan, but an African who had a duty to fight injustice, no matter what side of the border he was on.

“I am afraid of going to war for money. I can’t get killed looking for money when I can make it working for peace. I don’t have to sacrifice myself for money. So I couldn’t have been a mercenary at any cost. Fighting all these wars has to be ideological… and because ideology is like faith, then you are able to lay down your life, sacrifice for a cause,” he said.

In October 1990, Rwandan refugees who had been drafted into Uganda’s National Resistance Army rebel force between 1981 and 1986, together with some Ugandans like Maj Rabwoni under the Rwanda Patriotic Army, invaded Rwanda in a war that ended after the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

When the genocide was over, there was a new threat; the Rwandan soldiers in former president Juvenal Habyarimana’s government had moved into eastern Congo and were planning a comeback. Kigali sent troops into Congo to counter the threat, but this would later mutate into a Rwanda invasion of Congo, pushing towards Kinshasa. Maj Rabwoni was part of this move to oust the then Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Like the 1981-86 NRA war, the Rwandan invasion of Congo replicated the Ugandan experience — Congolese refugees who had suffered decades of marginalisation by Mobutu’s government joined RPA between 1990 and 1994, and when Kigali fell, the refugees launched their own drive towards Kinshasa.

“During my stint in the RPA, I knew something was going to happen after the Rwanda war. I knew it. Because very many boys who were from Rwanda, Burundi and DRC were joining the ranks of RPF — the situation that had happened in Uganda was replicating itself,” said Maj Rabwoni.

For security reasons, and the fear of reprisal for the plunder of another country’s natural resources, many soldiers have kept their involvement in Rwanda and Congo a secret, but others like Maj Rabwoni, who later became a politician and now runs a governance think tank, are open about it.


“I cannot speak for them and I cannot mention their names because some of them have issues with security — but the reason why I am open is because I am not a mercenary, and I wasn’t a mercenary,” he says.

Because of the Congo misadventure, Uganda was handed a $10 billion fine in 2001 by the International Court of Justice in 2005, arising out of plunder of Congolese minerals and timber by senior officers of Uganda’s army during the second Congo war between 1998 and 2003. 

There is every temptation to make a fortune from the DRC, Africa’s most naturally endowed country with vast deposits of gold, diamonds, coltan and uranium. Ugandan army officer and author Lt Col Ulysses Chuka, based one of his novels, For the Fairest, on the fortune that a Ugandan police officer stumbled on while on a mission in the Congo in the 1980s; the police officer encounters someone selling precious stones that were given to him by a fleeing Belgian mercenary two decades earlier. 

But Maj Rabwoni, like Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara, who also fought in the Congo in the 1960, was not attracted by the country’s wealth. Instead, he argues that the pursuit of certain ideals pushed him to rid Africa of dictators, starting with the regime in Uganda, whose soldiers “stole my shoes when I was a schoolboy.”

Rabwoni made friends at school with Rwandan refugees from 1959. At the time, the UN only supplied the refugees with food aid. His chance to get justice for the refugees came when he joined the NRA and worked under present day Rwanda President Paul Kagame, first in Uganda, and later in the RPA war against the then Rwanda government.

“I felt it was unjust for such bright young people to spend all their lives as refugees. It was unfair; it was unAfrican. So when the time came, in October 1990, that was one of the reasons why I went with them into Rwanda,” he says.

While Rwanda and Congo have provided the best documented theatres of war for Uganda’s soldiers without borders, they also fought alongside the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army of South Sudan against the Khartoum government.

ALSO READ: New security concerns in the region as rebels resurface in DRC

Two months ago, The EastAfrican spoke to Maxben Lotyang, a 35-year-old Ugandan who, along with three others, spent years in SPLA before returning home in 2000. 

“Four of us were captured when I was just 10; we were put into a camp, and from there we were put into the SPLA together with many Toposa from South Sudan,” he said.


While powerful army officers around the Great Lakes Region’s countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo itself, as well as Western companies may have the capacity to sustain a war economy — arming a few people with AK47s to guard swathes of territory before starting to exploit natural resources — new fighters are recruited using lies.

According to 32-year-old Dan Manzi, one of the Ugandan youths who was recruited into Gen Nkunda’s CNDP in 2008, the contacts in the recruiting cells often dangle the carrot of “UN jobs in eastern Congo, where we were promised $3,000-$5,000 a month. But the story changed when we crossed into Congo. It’s then we knew we were being recruited to become rebels.”

There are concerns that such former fighters defecting from their militia units in Congo or South Sudan pose security threats, but UPDF spokesman Lt Col Paddy Ankunda said, “They are not a big security threat. We can’t turn a blind eye to them, but our main concern is the ADF [Allied Democratic Forces] which operates out of eastern Congo.”

But while Kampala may downplay the danger posed by these fighters enlisting in militia around the Great Lakes region, there are thousands of Ugandans who have been exposed to sophisticated military skills in Iraq, where they are exported to work as guards of the US military establishments.

The US firm Triple Canopy, a major contractor of such services, draws most of its 1,800 personnel in Iraq — referred to as a “private army” — from Uganda and Peru, on contracts worth $1.5 billion.