What Kampala needs to think about regarding our latest military adventure into the DRC
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Uganda has returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for military operations. Only this time we have some developmental agenda as well – to build some roads and electricity transmission lines. The roads will be important for giving our manufacturers access to the large Congolese market and, if built, will give a serious kick to our manufacturing sector. And that is if we develop a policy on how to support local manufacturers gain a foothold in that vast country. The transmission lines will allow Uganda to export excess electricity to DRC.
That is where the good news ends – on hopes. I am very skeptical about Uganda’s military adventures in Congo. They always lead to tears – because of the law of unintended consequences.
Our first military involvement in Congo was in 1965 and the harvest provided a foundation for political disaster. It led to the Gold Allegations motion in parliament, the overthrow of the independence constitution, abolition of kingdoms and laid the foundation for Idi Amin’s coup of 1971.
Our second military adventure in Congo was 1998 and it led to a war with our hitherto friends – Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola. Then in 1999 and in 2000, our Congolese adventure led to us to three ugly battles, this time with our erstwhile ally, Rwanda in Kisangani. The wounds have not healed.
This time Uganda has gone into Congo at the request of the government in Kinshasa. However, over the last seven months when this operation was being planned, Kinshasa has been flip-flopping and therefore proved an unreliable partner.
Secondly, ADF is not the only rebel group in DR Congo. Eastern Congo is a mess. There could be over 200 rebel groups in Eastern DRC, and over 40 in Ituri province alone, where we have deployed. Then there are conflicts between and among the different ethnic groups in the region: the Baleega fighting the Bahuma, the Lendu killing the Bagegere etc. It will be very hard for Uganda to avoid getting sucked into these local conflicts. I have talked to the different leaders; political and traditional. All want UPDF to protect them from ADF and other hostile ethnic neighbours or rebel groups. But its more complicated.
Eastern DRC is over 1,900km from Kinshasa. Elites in the Congolese capital are detached from the struggles of the people in this region. So, they grandstand and pontificate before international cameras over issues of sovereignty. They do this with little or no regard to the actual conditions obtaining on the ground in the east and the challenges of securing a stable political order that this entails. Kinshasa does not provide even the most basic public services in the east – like protecting the lives and property of its citizens. And there are no communication infrastructures between the capital and these provinces – be they roads, railways or functioning airports. So, the leadership in Kinshasa is cut off from the East by lack of emotional connection, ethnic affinity and physical access.
Then enter our “international partners” – Western governments, their associated human rights groups, moral posturing and hypocrisy to spice the soup. To secure a political order in that region requires the employment of carrots and sticks, bribes and force. How these tools are used is specific to circumstances and best handled by those closest to the action. Where force is used, miscalculations, miscommunications, misunderstandings and mistakes will be hard to avoid. So collateral damage will be inevitable, providing considerable grist to the human rights mujahedin mill. Small and big mistakes by the UPDF on civilian lives will be amplified. News organisations and their journalists hungry for the next tragedy to prove their prejudices about Africa will join the forces of condemnation.
Then there is Rwanda. Kigali believes that Kampala is plotting regime change there. Put yourself in their shoes: the entry of UPDF into DRC and the associated construction of roads, especially from Bunagana to Goma, will be seen as an attempt to out-flank them. Will they sit idly trusting in our “good intentions?” I do not think so. What will Kigali do? This will have powerful implications on the UPDF mission in DRC. I have argued to exhaustion that whatever our feelings and attitudes towards President Paul Kagame and his government, we need cooperation not confrontation. This calls for diplomatic reproachment. Yet Kampala believes, or wants to believe, that Kigali is of little or no consequence. I disagree.
Finally, there is the curse of Congolese riches – gold, coltan, cobalt, copper, diamonds, timber, etc. The longer the UPDF mission stays in Congo, the harder it will be for its officers to avoid getting entangled in the trade in these rich resources. There are multinational firms mining and trading in these minerals. Then there are local Congolese dealers and wheelers who make a fortune out of them. Finally, there is the government in Kinshasa and its local auxiliaries in the region who want a piece of the pie. There are inevitable conflicts between all these actors all of whom will seek UPDF support. It will be impossible for UPDF to avoid getting sucked into these conflicts, as an arbiter and later even to take sides.
The incentive of each of these actors will be to win UPDF officers to their side. The players will be keen to achieve this by exchange of material favours i.e., bribery. UPDF officers are not angels and it will not take long before they notice the opportunities before them to make money.
Perhaps UPDF is entering Congo with a clear goal of degrading the capacity of ADF to pose a threat to Uganda and Congolese. But strategy requires looking at the different challenges and obstacles that may thwart the mission. The challenges I have raised are among those that could define the mission.
If UPDF is to achieve even the most minimum objectives – to degrade, disorganise and disrupt ADF – then it must define the time, say six months, and get out of that country before it gets entangled into Congo’s conflicts and be corrupted by its riches.
Yet the mission cannot end before the completion of infrastructure development – the roads and powerlines. But these may take many years – six or more. All this is happening at a time when President Museveni is aging, yet he has personalised most of the decision making. The UN has been in Congo with troops for decades and achieved little or nothing. Uganda has been there with little success. That history should be a lesson for us to be skeptical, not exuberant.