Earlier this month, Ugandan troops entered the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and commenced a joint military offensive with the Congolese army against the rebel Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The move follows last month’s bombings in Uganda’s capital Kampala as well as general growing insecurity, which the government attributes to the militants.
The ADF began as local rebel group in Uganda before relocating to eastern Congo, where it has wreaked havoc while also staging occasional attacks in Uganda. In 2019, it pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS). Though the extent of this association is contested, IS claimed responsibility for the most recent Kampala attacks.
Most analysis of the latest developments has tended to focus on the allegedly growing risk of militant Islamism in the region, the prospects of the new joint military offensive, and the need for stronger regional cooperation in intelligence. This impulse is understandable given the upsurge in ADF attacks and the purported connections with IS. A versatile and growing security threat that traverses borders does indeed require a strong, agile and collective response from regional players.
However, the pre-occupation with the security dimension of the problem has tended to obscure its political dimension, which is equally – if not more – significant. Looking at “terrorism” separately from its socio-political context has resulted in an excessive focus on security measures at the expense of discussing the wider political restructuring that would arguably be more meaningful in combatting the threat.
In this regard, Uganda is particularly illustrative. The violence, corruption, and incompetence typical of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) have created a growing divide between the state and its people while creating conditions conducive for insecurity to thrive. To many Ugandans, the recent ADF attacks were shocking, but not dissimilar to the brutality of state repression. For decades, the government has systematically persecuted its political opponents, and on a larger scale and at a greater intensity to rebel attacks. In November 2020, for instance, security forces killed several peaceful protesters. Following the January 2021 election, they engaged in the mass kidnap and torture of opposition activists.
Such crackdowns have fuelled a widespread suspicion of the government, so much that whenever violence occurs, the first suspect – in the public psyche – is the state itself. For instance, it is telling that despite IS claiming responsibility for the recent attacks, conspiracy theories about state involvement still abound.
This situation has not been helped by the government’s record of deception. In 2006, for example, opposition leader Kizza Besigye was hit with trumped up treason charges for alleged links to the shadowy People’s Redemption Army (PRA) rebel group before the case was quashed by the Constitutional Court. In 2018, new opposition leader Bobi Wine was charged with treason and the illegal possession of firearms. Prior to the 2021 elections, the government tried to discredit Wine’s People Power movement by framing it as a violent group despite its insistence on non-violent methods. And more recently, two opposition legislators from Wine’s party have been charged with treason in connection to a recent wave of machete attacks in central Uganda; again, many believe these charges are politically motivated.
Against this background, it is little wonder that the government’s version of stories is almost always greeted with public scepticism. In the past decade, virtually every major crime – from gun assassinations to machete attacks – has been blamed on the ADF, often with little or no evidence. Police spokesperson Fred Enanga has long been the subject of jokes for churning out claims with scant and laughable evidence and logic. With little public trust in the government, its calls for citizen vigilance and cooperation with security services is mocked or, at best, ignored.
The government’s alliances with violent vigilante groups further undermines its credibility in security matters. Since the rise of popular protest in the early 2010s, the NRM has increasingly relied on criminal gangs to maintain control. For instance, the police famously utilised the Boda Boda 2010 group to crush peaceful demonstrations that followed the 2011 elections. When reports surfaced of the gang’s frequent involvement in murder, robbery and other crimes, there was little the police could do to hold it accountable. Later, the government recruited so-called “Crime Preventers” around the 2016 election season. Though presented as a community policing outfit, the group served to increase state surveillance, curb popular protest, and intimidate opposition voters. And, most recently, the Local Defence Unit (LDU), a paramilitary outfit notorious for its ruthlessness in the early-2000s, has been revived. It has been widely deployed ostensibly to enforce COVID-19 rules and public security, but there are already multiple reports of its involvement in torture and extrajudicial killings.
Finally, many Ugandans still remember the costs of the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels from the late-1980s. The NRM exploited this conflict in the northern Uganda to win international sympathy and support, even as it perpetuated conditions that prolonged it. The government forced hundreds of thousands of people into camps where they experienced untold suffering while the state earned military, financial and political support from the West. Political opponents were also routinely discredited by being accused of connections to the LRA.
The government’s later deployment of troops to the international peacekeeping force in Somalia only served to cement its image as a regional peacekeeper, all while it continued to tighten the noose on political opponents at home. “Terrorism” became the state’s favourite charge against opposition leaders and supporters. And by projecting itself as a regional stabiliser, it continued to attract foreign dollars and guns, entrenching an oppressive system with almost zero accountability.
The lesson from all this is clear: security measures alone cannot fix the problem. Even if the current military offensive succeeds in crushing the ADF, it is likely that new security threats will emerge, precisely because their root causes endure. Regimes like Uganda’s NRM might appear like important bulwarks against regional insecurity, but their political dysfunction and the resultant popular discontent is the fodder on which violent armed groups feed. Ultimately, dealing with the threat of violence in the region will require not just military prowess but, more importantly, political change that ushers in democratic control of such states.