Uganda President Yoweri Museveni recently accused former Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) president Joseph Kabila of giving sanctuary to the Islamist rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Kabila’s team clapped back, accusing Museveni of being the region’s main destabiliser, giving a glimpse of the duo that never found genuine friendship.
“Kabila, supported by some regional and international actors, gave them [ADF] free tenancy in North Kivu and Ituri,” Museveni said in a 13 July security briefing.
Museveni said the ADF engaged in mining gold, selling timber, harvesting people’s cocoa, collecting taxes and extorting money from people. “They were modestly growing and with money,” he said.
In pointing fingers at the (2001-2019) Kabila administration, Museveni was comparing it unfavourably to that of Kabila’s successor, Félix Tshisekedi, who has given Uganda enough time and space to pursue ADF rebels who continue to cross into Uganda and carry out attacks.
In November 2021, Tshisekedi and Museveni signed a memorandum of understanding to conduct a joint military operation against the ADF called ‘Operation Shujaa’. Uganda deployed troops to the DRC to fight the rebels, now linked to the Islamist State.
Keeping these groups alive
Though security was top of the agenda in the Uganda-DRC relationship during Kabila’s tenure, the ADF never featured prominently in discussions because it was not a major threat at the time.
Researchers say both leaders played a role in allowing insecurity to proliferate in eastern DRC and, by extension, the survival of the ADF.
If you have M23 located in Uganda and [the] ADF in DRC, keeping these groups alive becomes part of regional politics
“If [the] ADF gained resilience through the exploitation of the rich mining and agricultural resources in the eastern part of DRC, where did they go?” says Nickson Kasola, executive director of Centre pour la Gouvernance, an NGO based in Kinshasa.
“He [Museveni] does not even say whether these resources are processed in DRC or in Uganda. They were exported to Uganda mostly,” he tells The Africa Report. “Somewhere [in all that], he accuses himself of contributing to this problem that is the ADF.”
According to Kasaija Phillip Apuuli, an international relations analyst and lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala, the rebels have played a complex role in regional politics.
“If you have M23 located in Uganda and [the] ADF in DRC, keeping these groups alive becomes part of regional politics,” he tells The Africa Report.
“There was no incentive for Kabila to get rid of [the] ADF. Why? Because at some point, he would use them. The same reason Museveni didn’t want to get rid of M23.”
Museveni stays away
Kabila and Museveni rarely met during the 18 years Kabila was in power, but when they found time for each other it was often on account of the security issues in the eastern DRC. There is no record of Museveni visiting Kinshasa during Kabila’s tenure. Kabila visited Kampala, but the visits were short, lasting only hours.
Museveni made his first visit to Kinshasa for many years in February 2022 to attend a regional heads of state meeting on bringing peace to the DRC. This was on President Félix Tshisekedi’s watch, who had succeeded Kabila in 2019.
Tshisekedi visited Kampala twice in the first year of his presidency, prompting his host to say: “I need to rectify the imbalance by visiting Kinshasa.”
Tshisekedi also returned to Kampala to attend Museveni’s swearing in ceremony in May 2021.
Back in 1997, Museveni made three visits to Kinshasa following the capture of power by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, Joseph’s father, whose rebel movement had been backed by Rwanda and Uganda.
Security, not personal relationship
Joseph Kabila assumed the presidency in January 2001, following the assassination of his father.
At the time, DRC and its eastern neighbours had fallen out. Both Uganda and Rwanda had deployed soldiers to the DRC and were backing various rebel groups fighting to overthrow the Kinshasa regime.
The first engagements between Museveni and the new DRC president were therefore to tackle security issues. Kabila first met Museveni in Tanzania in July 2001.
In September, 2002, the two leaders signed an agreement brokered by Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, in which Uganda agreed to withdraw thousands of its soldiers deployed to the eastern DRC.
The most detailed bilateral agreement Museveni and Kabila signed was in Tanzania in 2007. It covered defence and security, economic cooperation, and political and diplomatic cooperation. They spoke of potential joint projects to explore and exploit oil and gas along the border, establishing a joint gold refinery and improving trade.
However, none of these economic cooperation ventures were implemented because security remained the key question. In subsequent years, Museveni needed Kabila’s support to deploy troops in the eastern DRC to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), while Kabila needed Museveni to fight M23 threats in 2012-2013.
Enter the ADF
The ADF first featured on the agenda during the final meeting between two heads of state, held in 2016 on the Uganda-DRC border. During the meeting, Museveni expressed readiness to deploy the Ugandan army alongside the DRC army in the fight against the ADF, which had radicalised following the imprisonment of its leader Jamil Mukulu.
A year later, the DRC government permitted its army, together with Uganda soldiers, to launch an operation dubbed ‘Tuugo’, where they hunted down and killed hundreds of ADF rebels.
Though in the 13 July statement Museveni said Kabila was “not allowing us to assist them with the ADF”, Kabila’s supporters have argued that the DRC was fighting the ADF before it piqued Uganda’s interest.
“Joseph Kabila was the first head of state in the sub-region to denounce the allegiance of the ADF-NALU [a splinter group of ADF] to Islamic State and to qualify this armed group as terrorist,” says Kikaya Bin Karubi, a research associate at the Centre for African Diplomacy and Leadership at the University of Johannesburg and a former minister in the Kabila government.
Karubi says that under the Kabila regime the ADF lost the most ground in DRC and was gradually becoming weaker. “After neutralising the LRA, Kabila was in the process of putting an end to the main Ugandan insurrectionary movement,” he says.
However, data collected by Kivu security and The Bridgeway Foundation, which runs a programme on violent extremism at George Washington University, Washington DC, contradicts this argument.
The research shows that attacks by the ADF have been on rise since 2017. Researchers at Bridgeway said in a recent study that the ADF was responsible for a massacre of more than 5,000 since 2013, with most of the deaths taking place after 2019, months after Kabila left power.
Not time for DRC to rejoice
Centre pour la Gouvernance director Kasola says Museveni may be jubilant, having pushed the ADF far away from the border with Uganda, but for the DRC it’s not yet time to celebrate.
“The UPDF [Uganda People’s Defence Forces] thinks moving the ADF threat away from the borders of Uganda is good, but unfortunately, in the depths of DRC, especially in the almost inaccessible areas, the consequences are being experienced by the populations where the killings have spread,” he says.
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