Uganda/DRC: Has the hunt for ADF rebel group been a success? 

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Thursday, 17 November 2022 11:58
An Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) soldier runs as others rest next to a road after Islamist rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) attacked area around Mukoko village
An Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) soldier runs as others rest 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

November 30th marks one year since Uganda soldiers entered eastern Democratic Republic of Congo territories hunting for Islamic state-linked Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels. The Uganda army tells The Africa Report it has been a success -- and that they are planning a new intervention in the DRC.

Christened ‘Operation Shujaa’, there is divided opinion regarding its impacts. Uganda says it has been an absolute success but researchers with an eye on the conflict in the region say the ADF continues to cause havoc.

Operation Shujaa will continue focusing on ADF rebels, Uganda army spokesperson Brig. Felix Kulayigye told The Africa Report.

And Uganda will make another deployment in DRC as part of the East Africa Community standby force, he revealed.

Uganda soldiers entered DRC on the night of 30 November accompanied by heavy artillery and fighter jets that bombed ADF targets.

Show of force

It was a massive show of force, coming weeks after twin bombings in Kampala that Uganda blamed on the rebels.

It is estimated that around 1,700 soldiers were deployed in an operation being conducted with the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC).

The operation launch was preceded by rumours in Kinshasa that president Felix Tshisekedi had authorised it, possibly giving rebels a window to escape from their traditional bases.

When it started, Uganda soldiers found the mountainous terrain of eastern Congo challenging and impassable roads delayed the quick movement of heavy military equipment.

Ugandan soldiers spent about a fortnight trying to open roads for the easy movement of trucks.

Much as Uganda touted the operation as a success from day one, it has not provided statistics backing its assertion.

Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba frequently tweeted about the operation and at one time said no less than 1,000 rebels had been killed.

Kulayigye tells The Africa Report that if the operation is assessed based on its objectives which were to destroy ADF, rescue the population that had been displaced and rescue children that were being held in captivity by rebels, it has been a success.

“ADF was not only ejected from the areas they had occupied in the entire Ituri province, but the population which had been displaced is also back in their villages,” he said. “As we speak, the civilians are able to harvest their cocoa and coffee which were being harvested by ADF. The schools are now open.”

After being kicked out of their traditional bases, Kulayigye said ADF attempted to regroup but Ugandan soldiers followed them and destroyed the new bases they had set up in the mountains of Rwenzori.

By scattering, ADF thought they would fail the operation but it hasn’t worked, he argues.

Prior to the operation, Kulayigye says  ADF had a command and control structure which is no more. “Once you destroy command and control infrastructure, the force can only coordinate by word of mouth. They can’t use telecommunication,” he says.

He adds, “The operation was intended to ensure the terrorists don’t have the freedom to plan. By attacking them in their bases, we destroyed their capability to plan any attack.”

Doubts emerge

However, researchers say the fact that ADF continues to wreak havoc in communities is an indication that the rebel group hasn’t been defeated. They warn that it will be hard to completely eradicate the rebels who have now been pushed to new territories.

Miviri Reagan, a conflict analyst at Kivu Security Tracker which curates data on violence in eastern DRC says ADF rebels have killed almost 1,000 Congolese since the launch of Operation Shujaa. In May this year, they killed 136 people, the highest count recorded in a year since Kivu Security Tracker started curating data in 2017.

The operation was intended to ensure the terrorists don’t have the freedom to plan. By attacking them in their bases, we destroyed their capability to plan any attack.”

Dr. Christopher Titeca also points to an incident in August when ADF rebels killed almost 50 people in two days.

“There are continued attacks against the Congolese civilian population, which allows us to conclude that the operation has failed to defeat the ADF,” he says.

Even after being pushed from their traditional bases, he says ADF has espoused the “ability to regroup, reestablish new strongholds and capacity to launch major attacks.” Miviri says out of their bases, they have expanded to a bigger territory.

“We now have three territories in North Kivu and Ituri affected by ADF attacks”. He adds that “the civilians have been subjected to reprisals from the dispersed ADF”.

These arguments could be augmented by a recent statement from Uganda president Yoweri Museveni who said Uganda soldiers had bombed camps that ADF had established in new territories outside their operation zones.

It is perhaps an indication that they still have the capacity to regroup.

There hasn’t been any information on how many ADFs were killed in the recent bombings. Museveni has promised “wherever they go, we shall reach them as long as the Congo government allows us to operate with them”.

For Uganda, the operation is a success because the Uganda army has been able to secure the Ugandan border and the Albertine rift, Miviri argues. And security is a prerequisite for Uganda’s oil production in the Albertine region, along Congo’s border.

Uganda is benefitting

A recent paper by the Congo Research Group argued that the protection of oil fields constituted an important reason for the military operation. Uganda hopes to start oil production in 2024.

The operation has gone on in tandem with the construction and upgrading of 1,182km of main road networks in DRC funded by the two countries.

The road construction will bolster trade between the two countries which is estimated to be $500m annually with Uganda reaping more than 90% of the trade-in export earnings.

No easy ways of eradicating ADF

Researchers say hunting down ADFs who move in small groups and employing guerrilla tactics has been the operation’s main challenge. Ticeta says there are questions as to whether heavy artillery and fighter jets are suitable for such a mobile group operating in a 700 square kilometres forest.

“To structurally defeat and weaken a highly mobile rebel group which knows its territory well is difficult. You need a massive amount of troops which seem not to be there,” he says.

Wherever they go, we shall reach them as long as the Congo government allows us to operate with them.”

There have been voices, especially from civil society in DRC, arguing that Uganda and Burundi need to negotiate with rebel groups of their citizens as DRC does the same with local rebel groups.

In Uganda, a former minister in the Museveni government recently launched an initiative in Rwenzori, where many of the ADF fighters originate from, to persuade them to stop fighting.

Asked for an opinion of voices saying Uganda should pursue dialogue, Kulayigye said, “You talk to a force that has an agenda. The agenda of ADF is islamisation. As you know, our country is secular and everybody knows it. Their ideology is intolerant of any other belief. What should we discuss with them? Talking is not our problem but what do you talk about?”

More DRC deployment

There are further deployments of Ugandan forces scheduled, in particular, to rejoin the East African Standby Force.

To critics who argue that Uganda is spending billions of money on the war in DRC, Kulayigye says: “If you think security is expensive, try the cost of insecurity. We are losing resources with the people running into our country as refugees. It’s a question of choice. What do you want.”

While Kenyan forces are already en route, Kulayigye says of Uganda’s deployment, “We are ready. The command structure is in place. Once we are told by our leaders to move in, we move’.

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