Ugandan Rebel Movement Re-emerges along the Oil Bearing Ugandan-Congolese Border

July 25, 2013

Andrew McGregor

The once moribund Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel movement now operating out of remote bases in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has returned to life by taking a series of small towns in the region near the border with Uganda before launching an assault on the larger center of Kamango that displaced over 60,000 people (Daily Monitor [Kampala], July 13). The sudden rebirth of the ADF is concurrent with the rapid decline in Ugandan-Sudanese relations since January, when Kampala hosted a conference of Sudan’s political opposition and armed rebel movements. Khartoum countered by claiming it is in contact with various Ugandan opposition groups, though it declined to name them. Conflict in the region is further complicated by the fact it is close to oil-bearing areas near the western border of Uganda that Kampala is eager to develop, potentially shipping its production east to Kenya’s Lamu Port by connecting to a planned new pipeline that will divert South Sudan’s oil production from Port Sudan with a concurrent loss to Khartoum of valuable and much needed oil transit fees.

UPDF Patrol along the DRC Border (AFP)

The ADF made an earlier and ill-fated attempt to destroy the new oil facilities in western Uganda in March 2007. The attackers were driven off with heavy losses (including senior commander Bosco Isiko) and in the following three months nine ADF commanders were killed by the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF), rendering the group largely leaderless and dormant until recently (Radio Uganda, April 3, 2007; Daily Monitor [Kampala], November 20, 2007).

The ADF is only one of ten major militant movements and a number of smaller armed groups active in North Kivu Province, a poorly developed region rich in various minerals such as gold and Coltan (a.k.a. Tantalite), an ore containing two elements widely used in modern electronic products. The region is currently the scene of heavy fighting using tanks and heavy artillery between the Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23) rebel movement (a.k.a. the Revolutionary Army of the Congo) and the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC, the DRC national army) that saw at least 130 people killed in mid-July (New Vision [Kampala], July 16; for the M23, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, July 26, 2012; Terrorism Monitor, November 30, 2012; Militant Leadership Monitor, August 31, 2012). The UPDF says it is supplying intelligence to FARDC regarding the activities of the ADF, which the Ugandan army claims is busy recruiting and training for new attacks on Uganda (Daily Monitor [Kampala], July 12).

After the clash at Kamango (which was retaken by the FARDC on July 12), the UPDF sent reinforcements to the border region to prevent ADF infiltrators from entering Uganda disguised as refugees. An estimated 60,000 refugees crossed from the DRC into Uganda’s remote Bundibugyo regon following the ADF seizure of Kamango, 15 kilometers from the border. The severely impoverished Bundibugyo region in western Uganda at the foot of the Rwenzori mountain range became the main theater of operations for the ADF in 1991 after the group was driven from the Muslim districts of Kampala and the towns of central Uganda.  In the wilderness of western Uganda, the ADF absorbed a number of poorly organized militant groups in the region with grievances against the Museveni regime, including the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), remnants of the shattered Rwenzori separatist movement and even former Idi Amin loyalists based in South Sudan.

With an estimated strength of 1,200 to 1,600 fighters operating from several bases in the DRC, the ADF continues to build its numbers through the abduction of young people and children as it has never established the popular appeal necessary to entice voluntary recruitment in significant numbers (Xinhua, July 15; Daily Monitor [Kampala], July 16). The result is that the DRC-based ADF, despite being described in Kampala as a Muslim extremist group, is in fact largely non-Muslim and to a significant degree, even non-Ugandan (for the development of the ADF, see Terrorism Monitor, December 20, 2007). Muslims are a minority in Uganda, forming about 15% of the total population. The UPDF has described the ADF as a “real threat” to Uganda with ties to Somalia’s extremist al-Shabaab movement (New Vision [Kampala], July 12). According to UPDF spokesman Paddy Ankunda, “The link to al-Shabaab could give [the] ADF new skills and explosives might sneak into the country. They have been opening up new camps in Bundibugyo and they are training; this might cause insecurity” (Observer [Kampala], July 14).

A recent Ugandan intelligence report indicates that the ADF headquarters is located in Makayoba, in the Eringeti District of North Kivu Province, with principal bases in Mwalika (Isale District) and Kikingi, close to the Rwenzori mountain range. The report says the group is largely armed with light infantry weapons suitable to use in the region, such as sub-machine guns, light and medium machine guns and mortars of the 60mm and 82mm varieties (Daily Monitor [Kampala], July 16).

ADF Leader Jamil Mukulu

The political and overall leader of the ADF is Jamil Mukulu, with military affairs coming under the command of Hood Lukwago, Amis Kashada and Muhammad Kayira. The rarely-seen Mukulu, a convert to Islam from Catholicism, was part of Osama bin Laden’s group in the Sudan in the 1990s and is believed to have obtained training in Pakistan and Afghanistan before launching his first attack on Uganda in 1996. Attempts to obtain Iraqi support for the ADF as the core of an “African mujahideen front” prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country appear to have been a failure (Christian Science Monitor, April 18, 2003; Daily Telegraph, April 17, 2003). Ugandan authorities have subsequently claimed that the ADF has been trained and financed both by al-Qaeda and Sudanese intelligence. Al-Qaeda’s involvement in the ADF remains unconfirmed by evidence and the description of Mukulu as “the African Bin Laden” seemed calculated to draw U.S. military and financial assistance, but there are stronger indications that Khartoum supported the group prior to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement with South Sudan that brought an end to the proxy war being carried out in the region by Khartoum and Kampala.

The UPDF leadership is currently in a state of flux since Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni made sweeping changes in the UPDF command in May after delivering a speech highly critical of many of his military commanders but heavy in praise of his son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, whose spectacular rise through the ranks and command of Uganda’s Special Forces has done little to alleviate Ugandan concerns that Museveni is preparing a dynastic succession. The Ugandan president used the opportunity to condemn criticism of his son: “To vilify, demonize, castigate, or harangue in a demented way against such an officer is sickness in a metaphorical sense. If you have no objectivity to see value, then your [own] leadership qualities are in question” (Independent [Kampala], June 21; for Muhoozi, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 2).

With a full understanding of the intractability of insurgencies in the lawless and inaccessible region where the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC meet, Kampala has indicated its willingness to keep the option of a negotiated settlement open: “The Government is ready to talk to anybody who has grievances, including the ADF. If there is any genuine political group that wants dialogue, we are ready to do so because war is not an option” (New Vision [Kampala], July 16). Some 50 ADF fighters, including Hassan Nyanzi, the son of the ADF leader, have taken advantage of an amnesty offered by the Ugandan government over the last five years.

A new UN Intervention Brigade formed mainly by troops drawn from Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa has been deployed to the North Kivu region but has not yet participated in the fighting (New Vision [Kampala], July 16). Rwanda has accused the UN Intervention Brigade of seeking to form an alliance with Hutu rebels of the Kivu-based Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) to combat the allegedly Rwandan-supported M23 rebels of the northern Kivu region (New Vision [Kampala], July 16). Otherwise, the UPDF has declared it will not cross the border to attack the ADF without permission from the DRC (New Vision [Kampala], July 12).

This article was first published in the July 25, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor