DRC: Ugandan soldiers eye the exits with ISIS affiliate still entrenched

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Friday, 20 May 2022 11:15

An Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) soldier rests next to a road after Islamist rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) attacked area around Mukoko village, North Kivu province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

The joint operation between Ugandan and Congolese soldiers to root out rebel fighters from eastern DRC is slated to end this month, barring a last-minute extension. 

Though the two governments have praised it as a success, some analysts say Operation Shujaa (‘bravery’) hasn’t achieved much, apart from scattering the Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and pushing them out of bases they had occupied for decades.

In Kampala, President Yoweri Museveni’s government has been tight-lipped since the operation kicked off last fall, refusing to brief parliament as the constitution requires. When the defence ministry requested about $25m to fund the operation in January, members of parliament rejected it.

Museveni later told legislators from his ruling National Resistance Movement that the government could not inform them before reaching an agreement with the DRC.

On 17 May, Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the commander of Ugandan land forces (who also happens to be Museveni’s son) said the operation was supposed to last six months. However, he hastened to add that Museveni and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi could yet extend it for another six months.

The operation began on the morning of 30 November 2021 with artillery and aerial bombardments of ADF camps, followed by an attack by ground forces. Some 4,000 Ugandan soldiers are believed to be participating in the operation.

Muhoozi has repeatedly described the operation as successful. In February, he tweeted that 1,000 ADF rebels had been killed. That would mean that two-thirds of the group has been eliminated since estimates are that the ADF only numbers 1,200 to 1,500 fighters.

However, other official communications as well as comments by Ugandan Maj. Gen. Kayanja Muhanga (the operation commander), have been less clear in quantifying operation successes.

“We have succeeded in dislodging the enemy from their decade-long camp,” Muhanga said in a March interview. “We have killed a big number of these terrorists.”

He added that the aim of the operation wasn’t just to push ADF fighters out of their bases but to “neutralise and eradicate them”.

Nelleke van de Walle, the project director for the Great Lakes region at the International Crisis Group, says the operation has so far failed to achieve those objectives.

We have heard that the leadership of ADF remains untouched

“The main effect of the Uganda operation has been that the ADF has scattered a bit […] they fled [towards the] northern direction into Ituri province and north-westwards deeper into Congo,” she says. “We have heard that the leadership of ADF remains untouched.”

Miviri Reagan, a conflict analyst with the Kivu Security Tracker, a project that maps violence in eastern DRC, tells The Africa Report that ADF remains as lethal as it was before the launch of the operation. He says their data shows that ADF rebels have killed 380 Congolese civilians since the operation began.

Rough start

The operation has run into several difficulties, Reagan says.

First, Uganda had hoped to catch the ADF rebels by surprise and target them en masse. However, news that President Tshisekedi had authorised the entry of Ugandan troops into DRC was leaked three days before the operation started, giving rebels an opportunity to escape from their bases.

Second, the poor road network in eastern DRC prevented the quick movement of Ugandan soldiers to pursue the rebels after the aerial bombardments. The ground operation was delayed by about two weeks to allow Ugandan army engineers to work on the roads.

Third, Muhanga notes that ADF rebels adopted a strategy of not engaging with the Ugandan and Congolese forces. “When we approach their location, they run away for fear of our superior power,” he said.

Regional force

The decision on whether to extend the operation duration will likely be informed by the pace of progress of a regional force that’s supposed to be formed by member states of the East African Community (EAC) and deployed to eastern DRC.  Tshisekedi has been pushing for such a force for the past year.

Nevertheless, the bad blood between Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Museveni has dealt a big blow to the initiative. Tshisekedi’s initial proposal had been for Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi to send troops that would have operated under the command of DRC forces. All three countries share borders with DRC and are threatened by rebel groups operating in the country.

After Tshisekedi’s proposal hit a snag, he decided to discuss individual bilateral security arrangements with the three countries. That’s how Uganda troops ended up in DRC last November.

In January, there were claims that Burundian troops had also entered the DRC through South Kivu, but there is little information about their activities. Meanwhile, Kigali reportedly agreed to a joint intelligence operation in December, but rumours of a Rwandan police deployment triggered protests in Goma and the operation did not go forward.

It should have been a regional force in the first place

With the DRC’s admission into the EAC last month, Tshisekedi is once again pushing for a regional force to be deployed to eastern DRC. A head of state conclave held in Nairobi, Kenya at the end of April concluded that “the establishment of the regional force to fight the negative forces should commence immediately under the leadership of the DRC”.

From the meeting in Nairobi, it was clear that DRC has yet to gain support from every EAC member. For instance, Kagame was not in attendance (Rwanda was represented by Foreign Affairs Minister Vincent Biruta), while Tanzania and South Sudan did not attend.

Still, Tshisekedi continues to court countries to embrace his initiative. In the second week of May, he visited Juba for bilateral talks with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, with security high on the agenda. According to a statement released by South Sudan after the meeting, the two leaders “discussed approaches to strengthen the security, especially at the borders, and they agreed to make peace and security in the two countries […] a top priority”.

Kagame also discussed the regional deployment with Museveni when the Ugandan president invited his Rwandan counterpart to his son Kainerugaba’s birthday last month. Kagame, who previously expressed concerns that the DRC agreement with Uganda left Rwanda in the cold, used the occasion to tell Museveni that DRC officials “need to talk without leaving anyone behind”.

Solomon Asiimwe Muchwa, international relations and security lecturer at Nkumba University in Kampala, tells The Africa Report that the regional force being discussed can perform better than deployments from individual countries, which are expensive and inefficient.

“It should have been a regional force in the first place,” he says.

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