The Allied Democratic Forces: Moving beyond popular narratives

A rebel group that has existed in the Uganda-DRC borderland for close to two decades, continues to confound observers.

Congolese refugees displaced by fighting between the Congo army and rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) last week walk through Bukanga transit camp
The ADF is suspected of being behind attacks on Kamango on July 11, which led to more than 60,000 refugees fleeing to eastern Uganda [Reuters]

A little known rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), is suspected of being behind attacks on a town called Kamango in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on July 11 – attacks which have resulted in a humanitarian emergency as more than 60,000 refugees have streamed into eastern Uganda over the past week and a half.

Civilians being uprooted and forced to flee is of course not a rare occurrence in the DRC and wider Great Lakes region these days. What is more unusual in the case of events this past week and a half, however, is the astounding lack of information and understanding about both the attacks on Kamango, and the rebel group that stands accused of committing the violence. Media, regional governments, and international actors and observers, are unable to explain the motivations behind the attack – or even confirm that it is indeed the ADF that has caused the violence.

Such a dearth of information is a persistent pattern when it comes to the ADF. This is a trend that has resulted in descriptions of the group being riddled with inaccuracies, ultimately confusing any attempts of appropriately dealing with the rebels.

An Islamic, foreign armed group?

The United Nations Group of Experts on the DRC continually describes the ADF as a “Ugandan-led Islamist rebel group”. This is similar to how the majority of reports on the ADF characterise the group. There are two misleading assumptions showcased in such descriptions, however: the ADF is neither foreign to the DRC, nor is it necessarily a predominantly Islamic rebel group.

The ADF was created in 1996, and one of the original founding factions was a disaffected Ugandan Muslim group supported by Sudan, known as the Tabliqs. The Tabliqs were responsible for securing funds for the ADF from foreign Islamic charities and states. Although over the years they certainly proved important in terms of acquiring material support for the group, as well as a significant number of recruits, focusing on them alone leaves a large part of the story untold.

Congo town ravaged by rebel attack

Borderlands tend to be catchment areas for various disaffected actors. The Uganda-DRC borderland has certainly always been so, having attracted over time a multitude of militarised groups. With minimal prodding, a number of these forces came together to form the ADF. In addition to the Tabliqs, there were rebels from a formerly active western Ugandan group known as the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, guerrillas who had previously fought for the reinstatement of the “Rwenzururu Kingdom”, former Idi Amin fighters, and other disgruntled soldiers from previous Ugandan regimes.

The borderland environment not only shaped the ADF’s initial formation, but it also affected the group’s continued recruitment. Those on both sides of the border have been more susceptible to joining due to historic sentiments of marginalisation and discrimination. Both western Uganda and eastern Congo have remained underdeveloped, conflict-ridden (or in a state of “negative peace”, in western Uganda’s case), and relatively ignored areas by their respective central governments.

As such, the ADF’s promises of employment and education opportunities have resonated with borderlanders. In a region confronted with an abundance of former combatants, as well as a lack of formal work opportunities, the ADF’s provision of a salary (and a relatively good one at that, namely $100/month), has proven enticing for many.

While the ADF’s initial years were marked by brutality towards civilians, this changed when they were forced to relocate deeper into the DRC’s jungles and become more self-sustaining. They achieved a degree of embeddedness into the surrounding community: they intermarried and socially integrated into the wider society, they further developed their business interests, and they acquired some political influence in the area. While they first began with a majority of Ugandans, the number of Congolese members steadily rose until they constituted over 60 percent of the force.

In fact, the ADF’s increasing commercial achievements encouraged the rebels to uphold a better relationship with the surrounding public. The ADF were able to become a part of the local agricultural scene: they farmed a wide variety of products, used their produce to feed the ADF community, and traded their goods at local markets. They also became involved in gold mining, controlled timber forests, and set-up businesses in local urban centres. While funding from various outside Islamic national and regional actors such as Sudan played a part at times, this support was generally sporadic and minimal. What proved by far to be most sustainable and lucrative for them were their local economic endeavours in the borderland.

Congolese influx to Uganda reaches 60,000

Of course, all of this is not to say that the ADF hasn’t meted-out civilian abuses over the past ten years or so. Especially during times of stress (for example, during offensive attacks by the Congolese national army), the ADF-civilian relationship has drastically deteriorated. Nevertheless, there is far more complexity to the ADF than most narratives allow for.

Managing the ADF

Conflict management initiatives against the ADF, mainly undertaken by the UN’s peacekeeping force (known by its acronym as MONUSCO), have been in line with understandings of the group as “Islamic” and “foreign” – and consequently have not worked.

First, the diversity of the group has largely gone unnoticed by MONUSCO. In terms of recruitment, there has been little consideration of the role of borderland grievances, for example, and instead an almost exclusive focus on attempting to monitor and curb Islamic networks. Likewise with regards to the ADF’s acquisition of material resources: external Islamic sources of funding and supplies, and their transit routes into ADF territory, have received far greater attention than the ADF’s borderland material lifelines.

The idea of the ADF serving as a proxy force for Sudan (in the group’s earlier stages) and later for various extremist Islamic actors such as Al-Shabaab, has been influential. The situation is clearly shaped by the global discourse on terrorism, and has received further encouragement from the Ugandan government.

Kampala has always been keen to draw connections between the ADF and extremist Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab. Not only for Kampala, but Kinshasa as well, the ADF has often represented a politically convenient threat, as a report last year by the International Crisis Group discussed. In the end, the almost exclusive focus on the Islamic angle has meant that other important strands of the group have been side-lined in analyses, if not ignored altogether.

Second, the ADF’s connection with the Congo has been understood in territorial terms – the ADF represents just another “negative” (foreign) force on Congolese soil to be dissolved or expelled. Yet a group that has become so integrated into its surrounding environment, and one that has attained more Congolese than Ugandan members, is difficult to think of as “Ugandan” or “foreign”.

A purely military scenario that attempts the removal of the ADF from the borderland… will accomplish little. As the history of this region has shown, eventually another rebel group will fill the void.

Because of their socio-economic integration in the region, military action against them has largely been ineffective in the past. Their ties and networks in the borderland have been too strong to allow them to simply be thrown out of this area. Their ability to utilise the other side of the border in times of crisis has significantly helped them as well. Their borderland integration is also why the ADF’s responses to disarmament and demobilisation initiatives have generally been so lacklustre. For a large part of the force, returning ‘home’ to Uganda makes no sense, nor is it necessarily desirable.

A first step towards a more effective response to the ADF might be recognising the differences in origin, development, motives, and structure of the various rebel groups operating in the Great Lakes area, rather than lumping all so-called negative forces together. Indeed, the ADF bears little commonality to others such as the March 23 Movement, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or the Lord’s Resistance Army. The ADF is a borderland force, with particular methods of recruitment, acquiring material resources, and fighting. The ADF is in many ways a reflection of the political, social, and economic conditions of the borderland. While the rebels of course contribute to its further militarisation, they are also very much a product of the area’s ills.

As such, a purely military scenario that attempts the removal of the ADF from the borderland – yet with the structural problems of the space left unaddressed – will accomplish little. As the history of this region has shown, eventually another rebel group will fill the void. Furthermore, the military force left to ‘protect’ the population, the Congolese national army, will likely prove far less popular with the civilians than the rebel force itself.

Most fundamentally, however – and before any kind of response can even be formulated – there needs to be investigation and proper research conducted into this group. By no means does the ADF represent one of the DRC’s or Uganda’s most pressing concerns, but every few years it is associated with refugee flows in the tens of thousands. The easy route is to explain the rebel group and its actions in terms of grand global narratives like extremist Islam. The tougher – but much more needed – direction is to move beyond the bewilderment and confusion, and begin to understand the ADF in its local context. 

Lindsay Scorgie is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on rebel groups and borderlands in Central Africa.