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Uganda's heart of darkness

The Congolese army defeated the M23 fighters but their next target, Ugandan group ADF-NALU is a different challenge.

Last updated: 24 Dec 2013 07:03
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The ADF set up camp in the Rwenzori mountains after being chased into the Congo in the 1990s [Getty Images]

Deep in the forested gullies of the Rwenzori mountains that run along the Congolese border with Uganda, the Congo-based Ugandan rebel group, ADF-NALU, a coalition of the Allied Democratic Forces and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, have built a fighting force that is obscured by a culture of secrecy and multiple layers.

The Allied Democratic Forces originated in Uganda and was shaped by an alliance of disparate groups, marginalised after the fall of Idi Amin. 

Their common thread was a desire to overthrow Uganda's President Museveni that was wrapped up in a complex mix of Tablighi ideology, and political struggles within the borderland kingdoms of Rwenzori and Toro. 

Chased into the Congo by the Ugandan army in the 1990s at a time when Mobutu's 30 year dictatorship was crumbling into war, they set-up camps in the Rwenzori mountains.

Sudanese Intelligence officers introduced the ADF to the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, another anti-Museveni group that shared kinship with the local Nande community in Beni where they were based. This gave the ADF both local legitimacy and political connections.

The political connections included Enoch Nyamwisi, a Nande politician, who was a major player in the business community famous for its transnational reach. According to local sources, he introduced ADF-NALU to Mobutu and with the aid of Bwambale Kakolele as an intermediary, Mobutu hired the rebels to run a campaign of destabilisation along the Ugandan border.

Enoch, one of the first to introduce an armed youth wing (Mayi-Mayi) to his political repertoire, was murdered in Butembo in 1993 but the strategies and alliances he formed left a legacy inherited by other family members including his younger brother Mbusa Nyamwisi.

Analysts insist that until recently the ADF-NALU were largely a spent force although a local community activist claims this is an outsider's view. "They have never been inactive they just didn't cause any problems, they came into town, you would see them all the time. They did their business and left."

Like a mafia don

In Beni, a white-suited statue of Enoch Nyamwisi looks down the main street which is named after the Nyamwisi family, leaving no doubt about who really holds power.

Mbusa Nyamwisi, the younger brother of Enoch, is the leader of a political party that, in common with most political parties in Congo, developed out of a rebel group.

DRC army seeks to crush M23 rebels

During the Congo war Mbusa's Ugandan-backed rebels, the RCD-KML, controlled territory from Kisangani across Beni and Lubero to Ituri. This ultimately bought him a place at the negotiating table in Sun City where a transitional peace agreement was thrashed out with International support. 

The rebranding of RCD-KML gunmen as Forces of Renewal politicians via a coalition agreement enabled some of the Beni contingent to consolidate their positions as gatekeepers of cross-boarder trade.

Ever the opportunist Nyamwisi finally sided with Joseph Kabila and became a government minister until running against Kabila and losing in the 2011 elections.  He fled to Johannesburg after being accused of conspiring with the M23 rebels, but he still presides over his former fiefdom like a mafia don.

Mbusa's brother, Edward Nyamwisi, was the customary chief in the village of Matwanga in Rwenzori until he was arrested in late 2012. He controlled immigration and customs at the Kasindi border and continued his brother's patronage of ADF-NALU.  Their cousin Francois is known locally for highly lucrative poaching in the Virunga National Park.

A UN official recalls that when he trekked through the Virunga Park in 2004 to offer ADF-NALU fighters an entry to a demobilisation programme they listened with interest then responded, "We have to ask Mbusa (Nyamwisi)."

A 2013 UN report estimates that 98 percent of the gold in Congo was smuggled and most was sold in Uganda.  The Enough Project found evidence of gold smuggling by a Beni-based militia headed by ex-FARDC Major Hilaire Kombi who deserted the army with assistance from Mbusa Nyamwisi. Some of the gold that Kombi trafficked was stored in the house of a relative of Bwambale Kakolele in Kasese on the Ugandan side of the border with Beni.

The protection business

In 2013, more than 15 armed groups were identified in Beni Territory with more in nearby Lubero.  Attacks and abductions have escalated to the extent that in 2013 over 500 kidnappings have been carefully documented by local organisations.

While it is not always easy to identify the perpetrators the majority of abductions in Beni Territory have been attributed to ADF-NALU.

Major Mbala, a police commander in Mbau said, "Mayi-Mayi and ADF collude with each other and have support in some communities."

A Congolese army officer who did not want to be named told Al Jazeera that local people often see armed groups as a place of safety: "I am a soldier but I still need armed guards and protection but what about civilians? They don't have this so they support Mayi-Mayi groups to feel safe."

This sense that protection comes with a gun has long been extended in the Grand North where Nande traders formed alliances with armed groups in order to continue their business and to enable a degree of community stability during the Congo war.

A series of operations against the rebels first by the Ugandan army, then by the Congolese army, FARDC, in conjunction with UN forces appeared to have diminished the rebels appetite for fighting. 

For local people the fallout from the operations was huge with thousands forced from their homes, villages abandoned and crops left to rot in fields.  The villagers were often caught between the two sides with each accusing them of collaboration with the other.

Yet throughout this time the ADF were known for their business dealings in minerals and logging and local networks of car and motorcycle taxis, all of which continue. Some of them married local women and repeated offers of amnesty and demobilisation had little effect.

"You need to understand that they employed people and paid their way, they only killed when someone either crossed them in business or was thought to be a collaborator," said a Congolese army commander with long experience in the region. "Now something has changed, there is something different in their thinking."

Political Islam

The Ugandan government has alleged links between the ADF rebels and al-Shabab, a position that critics say is either an excuse to enter Congo or an attempt to tap in to American anti-terrorism funding. 

A 2012 UN report alleges that the ADF trained groups of young people for several months before sending them off to Somalia. 

[The ADF] have massively improved their fighting ability, something has changed in the last two years, without any doubt. They have a lot of money, more so than most .

- Darren Olivier, African Defence Review,

The majority of Muslims in Congo and Uganda are not politicised but the ADF leadership who are located in the UK, Congo, Kenya and Sudan are adherents of a particularly radicalised Tablighi Islamic ideology that caused them to clash with other Tablighis in Kampala.

Stig Jarle Hansen, a leading expert on al-Shabab and political Islam in Africa said, "What happened in Somalia in the 90s was that Tablighi was a vessel for more radicals. As I understand it, Tablighi is ecclectic."

A Ugandan army spokesman, Lt Colonel Paddy Ankunda, claims that one source of ADF funding is groups in the Middle East but that Sudan may be involved. "Sudan were the initial backers and funders, it's not clear that they stopped," Ankunda said.

Jamil Mukulu, the leader of the ADF, lived in Khartoum in the 1990s at the same time as Osama bin Laden. David Shinn, the former US ambassador to Ethiopia, claims that Osama bin Laden supported the ADF leader. While there is evidence of outside support for the ADF, there is no evidence so far of any links to al-Shabab.

These claims of external backers for ADF-NALU are echoed by people in Beni who have escaped from ADF camps after being abducted. In various interviews with abductees the same descriptions are repeated of burqa-clad women and faces among the group that are "neither black nor white - not African." One woman told Al Jazeera, "they looked like white people (wazungu) with brown skin."

Two women who escaped after two weeks in an ADF camp claimed on local radio in Butembo that while in captivity they saw a location in the Virunga National Park where "the rebels are supplied by helicopter. It's like a runway."

Mercenaries

Darren Olivier, a journalist with the African Defence Review, says it appears the ADF, "have massively improved their fighting ability...something has changed in the last two years, without any doubt, they have a lot of money, more so than most...and have been able to implement training and get their troops up to a proper standard".

In 2003 the UK Daily Telegraph reported that they found documents in the Iraqi Intelligence Services headquarters that had been forwarded to Baghdad by the Iraqi charge d'affaires in Nairobi in which a senior ADF operative outlined his group's efforts to set up an "international mujahideen team".

While these documents do not demonstrate a direct link to violent activities, what they do show are attempts to market ADF troops as an international mercenary group - a 'jihadi Blackwater'.  In many ways this is exactly how they have functioned in the Congo.

A 2005 study by The Refugee Law Project at Makere University put forward the idea that high profile and extremely violent attacks by the ADF arose from the financier-insurgent relationship. "Civilians were victimized in order that the ADF could keep their outside funding," the study said.

All this poses a huge problem for any attempt by the UN's Force Intervention Brigade to tackle the ADF-NALU who, unlike the M23 rebels, have the weapons and skills but do not operate like a traditional army.

According to a recent intelligence report, the ADF have around 15 camps in different locations across the east of Beni Territory and west of Oicha. These camps are highly organised with different bases for training, logistics and command and control. They also have anti-aircraft weapons.

In the last month, the ADF have moved some fighters and dependents westwards which means they are further spread out, and they have both forest and mountain terrain on their side. While MONUSCO, the UN force in Congo, has recently acquired aerial surveillance capabilities in the form of drones with cameras, they cannot penetrate forest canopies.

With their strong community and foreign connections, warlord-backing and alliances to other militias in the region, Darren Olivier suggests a clear counterinsurgency strategy will be vital. "The question is how do you get this population on your side,"  Olivier said.

Without extending the full range of the state into the area to provide security, a military solution is hopeless. "Too many militaries, especially the FARDC, will come in, handle fighting, declare their victory and go home. At this point the rebels move back in again... and the villagers are punished as a whole," Olivier said.

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Al Jazeera
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