Since its formation in eastern DR Congo 22 years ago, the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) terrorist organisation has laid waste to both Uganda as well as parts of DRC. Can this brutal organisation be curbed, let alone be eliminated?
President Yoweri Museveni has fought and successfully wiped out half a dozen armed rebel groups since he came to power in 1986, but the ongoing ability of the extremist Islamist Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) to wreak havoc on Uganda with impunity continues to haunt him.The apparent invincibility of the ADF does not lie in its military superiority or strategy but on its choice of haven, in the deep, impenetrable jungles of the neighbouring North Kivu province in eastern DRC, Africa’s equivalent of America’s Wild West.
In addition, the rebel hit-and-run mode of urban terrorism has always sent the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) on a wild goose chase in its efforts to track them down. In theory, the eastern Ituri forest region is under the jurisdiction of Kinshasa. But in practise, the region, far from from DRC’s capital, is beyond normal law and order. It is virtually impossible for the Ugandan army to track down and destroy ADF rebel bases there.
Although the ADF’s ultimate mission of overthrowing the government of President Museveni and replacing it with an Islamic republic appears to be a fantasy, the organisation is nevertheless giving Uganda’s security forces sleepless nights due to the nature of its vicious and unpredictable attacks. The rebels have succeeded in creating fear and panic, especially among the elite, who are often their target.
Alarm levels are so high that President Museveni has instructed the finance ministry to procure armoured escort vehicles for MPs and other senior government officials to protect them from rebel attacks. The government has also purchased and installed CCTV cameras around Kampala and other urban areas. Critics, however, cast doubts on the ability of the new plans to ward off attacks.
Long list of brutal attacks
The list of the ADF’s brutal attacks is long. The major ones include the burning alive in 1999 of 80 students at Kichwamba Technical College, in the western district of Kabarole. They also abducted another 100 students for conscription into their ranks. In 2010, the rebels, together with Somalia’s Al-Shabaab terrorist group, were blamed for a series of bombs that killed over 80 fans watching the finals of the FIFA World Cup on TV screens in pubs in Kampala city.
The rebels are also thought to be behind the motorbike assassins who have killed 14 top Muslim clerics countrywide. The rebels accuse their fellow Muslims of not backing their cause. They are accused of killing a number of high-profile officials. They reportedly gunned down, in 2015, Joan Namazzi Kagezi, the lead prosecutor of 13 ADF suspects indicted on charges of orchestrating the Kampala bombings in 2010.
The ADF rebels are suspected of being complicit in the murder in 2016 of Major Muhammad Kiggundu, a former ADF military officer who defected to the UPDF. Although the identity of the killers of Assistant Inspector General of Police, Andrew Felix Kaweesi, last year has raised controversy, President Museveni says the ADF are responsible. The murder in June this year of the MP for Arua Municipality, Col. Ibrahim Abiriga, a staunch supporter of the President, who was gunned down by motorbike hit-men, is also being attributed to the ADF.
ADF atrocities in DRC
Although President Museveni blames Kinshasa for not securing its borders to prevent ADF rebels from hiding in the country, in practice he knows that the ADF and other Congolese militias in DRC’s eastern region are a security conundrum to Kinshasa too. Last year, the ADF stunned the world when it attacked the UN base in Beni in the North Kivu region, killing 15 Tanzanian peacekeepers and six DRC soldiers. During the attack, which outraged the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who described it as a war crime, the rebels looted weapons, food, medicines and abducted the youth to conscript into their ranks.
Such attacks are carried out frequently on the Congolese army by the ADF, to acquire weapons and supplies. The rebels have frequently attacked Congolese villages, army positions and ambushed vehicles, killing dozens of people. In addition, the rebels have also engaged other militias in unending clashes for the control of natural resources in the region, which has led to refugees flooding into Uganda. The rebels control natural resources, including minerals, coffee and timber, whose proceeds finance their operations.
The UN estimates that up to 60,000 refugees have fled to Uganda since March this year. The volatile security situation in eastern DRC started soon after the toppling of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 by Laurent Kabila’s rebel forces, backed by neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda. But Kabila’s honeymoon with his two backers did not last long, with Kabila accusing Rwanda and Uganda of seeking to control his country’s mineral wealth and to dominate him politically.
Both Uganda and Rwanda then sought the removal from power of Kabila, the man they helped take power. The DRC conflict threatened to engulf the region until the 1999 Lusaka talks resolved that the belligerent countries should take over the peacekeeping role in the country. While Kabila was fighting to keep power in Kinshasa, the eastern part of the country neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda was disintegrating into mayhem, with various militias parcelling out mineral-rich areas for control.
During the same period, Uganda-Sudan relations were frosty, with each country backing rebels fighting the other. While Uganda backed the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), Khartoum backed the Lord’s Resistance Movement and the ADF. A senior UPDF commander in the region at the time told New African that they had captured six airfields where Russian-made military aircrafts delivered weapons and military supplies to the ADF.
Although the thawing of relations between Uganda and Sudan ended Sudanese support to the rebels in Uganda, the ADF could not be dislodged from the Ituri jungles. Instead, the rebels sought and found a new ally, the Al-Shabaab militants, who support the ADF to avenge Uganda’s involvement in the Somali conflict. Since 2007, up to 6,000 African Union (AU) forces out of a total of 10,000 deployed in Somalia, have come from Uganda. Al-Shabaab wants the AU forces out of Somalia. Indeed, ADF leader Jamil Mukulu was arrested in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, three years ago while reportedly on a mission to meet his Al-Shabaab contacts. He was extradited to Uganda where he is facing dozens of charges related to the atrocities blamed on the ADF.
As long as DRC’s eastern region continues be outside the effective jurisdiction of the Kinshasa authorities, the ADF’s threats to Uganda will not go away and the country will indefinitely suffer the consequences of being a neighbour of a country considered to be the blessing of Africa for its vast wealth and the curse of Africa for its unending political, social and economic turmoil.