An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Friday, August 20, 2010

The recent offensive against the ADF-NALU

One of Uganda's most notorious rebel movements of recent years, the Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) are back in the public eye following a recent offensive against them by the Congolese army (FARDC). The offensive, called 'Operation Rwenzori', was launched in late June, and targeted the remnants of the ADF-NALU, who have been holed up in several villages in the Beni region of North Kivu since the late 1990s.

The operation appears to have been quite successful, and within a month of its launch, the FARDC had overrun all of the ADF-NALU's positions, had killed or arrested several dozen of their number (including several of their military leaders), and had put the remainder of the estimated 1,300-strong force to flight. However, the offensive also resulted in ADF-NALU reprisal attacks against civilian targets, and the displacement of 90,000 Congolese citizens.

A question remains as to why the FARDC offensive was launched at this particular point in time?

Formed in 1996, the organization that became the ADF-NALU is best known for a series of bomb blasts they carried out in Kampala in the late 1990s, and for an insurgency the group mounted in Western Uganda - especially in the Banyuruguru and Kasese regions - around the same period. The insurgency was never as large as that of other rebel groups, such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Nevertheless, it soon became notorious, especially follow a series of particularly violent attacks against civilian targets. In one such attack, on Kichwamba Technical Institute, on June 8th 1998, ADF-NALU fighters burned 49 students to death in the dormitory, and abducted 80 others.

Like many people working in Western Uganda during this period, I remember the insurgency well, not least because it required me to relocated my planned field site, for my doctoral fieldwork in anthropology, away from Banyuruguru, to a site further east (I have ended up working in the Rwampara Hills ever since). In addition, I later discovered that the brother of one of my closest friends in Uganda was amongst the 49 students killed in Kichwamba. He actually survived the initial fire in the dormitory, and was flown by military helicopter to Kampala, but later died from his injuries. However, in late 1999, the Ugandan army (UPDF) destroyed most of the group's bases in Eastern Congo, and either captured, or killed, most ADF-NALU fighters. Since 2001, the group has been more or less dormant (although they did resurface briefly in March 2007).

Thus, the recent FARDC operation against the group came as something of a surprise. In recent months, the UPDF have been making public statements that the ADF-NALU were again recruiting, and some media sources have since linked them to the July 11 bomb blasts in Kampala. However, there is little evidence that the group has been mobilizing again, and it has now been established that the recent bombings were almost certainly carried out by Somali militants.

Thus, the question remains as to why did the FARDC launch Operation Rwenzori at this time?

The real answer probably lies in President Kabila's current attempt to present himself - ahead of next year's Congolese presidential elections - as the best person to deliver security to the troubled Eastern regions, and as the key defender of Congolese 'sovereigneity'. In pursuit of this agenda, in recent months Kabila's government has been putting increasing pressure on the UN to have all international peacekeepers withdrawn from the country before next year's elections (which start in November 2011). In late May, the Security Council allowed the mandate of the existing UN Mission to the Congo (MONUC) to expire, but voted to create a new one-year mission, the UN Stabilization Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO), with only a minor drawdown in forces. In effect, the UN has given Kabila, and the FARDC, a new deadline by which to prove that they can manages the security situation in the east on their own. It is in this context, then, that the FARDC had been looking for an 'easy target', against which to prove their capabilities to international observers, and it appears that the remnants of a largely dormant Ugandan group simply best 'fit the bill' here.

However, routing the ADF-NALU is one thing. There remain much bigger, and much better organized, militias in Eastern Congo, and much bigger security challenges lie ahead. Thus, the FARDC still has much to do if it really is going to prove that it can achieve order in the East.