Kampala – Uganda has a right, and is ready, in “self-defence” to deploy its military to flush out subversive and terrorist groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a government minister said on Monday.
Foreign Affairs Minister Henry Okello-Oryem said Uganda People’s Defence Forces or UPDF, as the country’s military is formally called, have delayed to attack the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) inside the neighbouring country pending a green light by Kinshasa and the international community.
“You need legitimacy. You cannot just rush into someone’s land. However, we have the right to hot pursuit and self-defence. In order for Uganda to act in self-defence, it needs legitimacy,” he said, adding: “This is because the last time Uganda went there (invaded DRC), [it was] accused of plunder and the case is still in court. This time we don’t want to do things where they accuse us of such.”
Uganda’s more cautious approach, in the face of four deadly Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blasts in Kampala within a month that President Museveni and police blamed on ADF, signals a more delicate and polarised regional politics in which one country’s defensive action could be interpreted by another as a threat and an offensive.
Highly-placed diplomatic sources have told this newspaper that the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), where DR Congo is a member, is opposed to deployment of foreign forces including by Uganda, originally planned for May.
In addition, the United Nation’s highest court, the International Court of Justice, imposed on Uganda a $10b fine for plunder of DR Congo resources and grotesque violations of its citizens’ rights.
Uganda, alongside Rwanda, invaded DR Congo, then called Zaire, in 1997 as erstwhile allies backing Laurent-Désiré Kabila to topple President Mobutu Sese Seko before the occupying militaries turned guns on one another.
Some countries in southern African where DR Congo is a member of the regional Southern African Development Community (Sadc), joined the fighting and added superior air firepower on the side of DR Congo, forcing out Ugandan and Rwandan troops.
Following a formal withdrawal in 2003, two years after Kabila’s assassination and succession by his son Joseph Kabila, Uganda again deployed in DR Congo with Kinshasa’s authorisation under the African Union Regional Task Force to counter Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
A December 2008 Operation Lightning Thunder launched by UPDF dislodged Joseph Kony’s rebels from Garamba park, scattering them to the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad and the mineral-rich Kafia Kingi enclave at the Sudan-South Sudan-CAR frontier where Kony is reportedly hiding.
With LRA threat diminished, Uganda said the ADF, long reported beaten, regrouped and re-emerged stronger, prompting a surprise and targeted December 2017 air raid by Uganda People’s Defence Air Force on the latter’s lairs in eastern DR Congo.
However, despite these operations, the threat of subversive groups against Uganda, according to intelligence agencies, has continued to multiply in eastern DR Congo that President Museveni on Saturday evening said is “ungoverned”.
The latest rebel group reported to have been formed, and with bases in eastern DR Congo, to fight Mr Museveni’s government is Uganda Homeland Liberation Force, a dozen of whose alleged commanders, including Howard Openjuru, have been arrested from Zombo, Njeru, and Kampala.
As intelligence organs accelerated efforts to nip the nascent rebel group in the bud, they said ADF, long designated as a terrorist group and which in 2019 adopted the alternative name Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), having formally become an affiliate of the Islamic State, activated terror cells to launch the back-to-back attacks.
The attackers exploded IEDs at a pork eatery in Kampala’s Komamboga suburb, on a moving bus in Mpigi District and last Tuesday, at Central Police Station (CPS) Kampala and Parliament Avenue. Seven people, according to police including three suspected suicide bombers, were killed and dozens injured in last week’s explosions. Most of the victims were police officers attached to CPS where the first blast happened in the mid-morning hours.
In a televised national address on Saturday, President Museveni said the ADF rebels are hiding in the eastern DR Congo, which ironically is host to an 18,000-strong United Nations peace-keeping force, where they cut timber and mine gold undisturbed to get finances to bankroll their terrorist activities in Uganda.
“They may not want that situation (in the eastern DR Congo) to end because they are making money out of it, but we are discussing with the Congo government. We shall get them. [In the wake of last Tuesday’s bombings], presidents contacted me from all parts of Africa and I was telling them the situation. We are really going to solve this problem of ADF,” Mr Museveni said.
This is not the first time the President is referencing engagement with Kinshasa for a military offensive against ADF.
In May, he reportedly told the United States Ambassador to Uganda, Ms Natalie Brown, that eastern DR Congo harboured in excess of 300 rebel and militia groups, many cultivating openly, and said Washington’s support for Uganda’s planned military solution would be welcomed.
At another public function at Kololo Ceremonial Grounds, President Museveni, a retired military general, again said he was talking to his DR Congo counterpart Felix Tshisekedi so that UPDF could cross the border to flush out ADF.
On September 2, he met diplomats representing the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council at State House Entebbe over the ADF presence in eastern DR Congo.
In what appears a broadened lobby, he told American billionaires Howard G. Buffet, son of Warren Buffet, and Shannon Sedgewick Davis, the chief executive of Bridgeway Foundation, a philanthropic organisation dedicated to ending and preventing mass atrocities around the world, about a fortnight ago that Uganda was willing to work with DR Congo to end the ADF menace.
In yesterday’s interview, Minister Oryem said Uganda is still engaging the international community, European Union and United Nations about the security challenges the ADF’s stay in DR Congo poses to Uganda and the region.
“I want to put them (ADF) on notice that they shouldn’t think that our delay to attack them in DR Congo is that we are weak. We shall pursue them wherever they are,” he said, apparently echoing President Museveni’s vow that the group would be decimated because UPDF now has superior capabilities.