Despite a statement made earlier this week on Wednesday, officials from the Democratic Republic of the Congo confirmed their military cooperation with neighboring Uganda will include Ugandan troops in the DRC, despite the uneasy history between the two states. Reuters reported eye-witnesses claiming hundreds of Ugandan troops have crossed the border to assist the DRC with uprooting the Islamic-State-aligned Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), who have killed hundreds of civilians on both sides of the border.
Though officials on Monday insisted only military intelligence was being shared, Congolese army spokesperson Léon-Richard Kasongo confirmed Wednesday: “Congolese special forces supported by Ugandan special units will carry out search and control operations,” in the DRC. A spokesperson for the DRC’s government, Patrick Muyaya Katembwe, addressed Congolese dissatisfaction, saying, “we know it is an operation that some of our fellow citizens have doubts about for good reasons,” but that “both we and Uganda must act together.”
Ugandan State Minister for Foreign Affairs Henry Oryem Okello told Reuters, “we have a right to self defence, to hot pursuit. We can respond in self defence and enter DRC.” In another statement Oryem Okello acknowledged, “you cannot just rush into someone’s land,” and that “the last time Uganda went [to the DRC, it was] accused of plunder and the case is still in court. This time we don’t want to do things where they accuse us of such.” This is about a $4 billion reparation case the DRC filed in the International Court of Justice against Uganda for its army’s actions in the eastern DRC during the Congo Wars (1996-2003). This newest case follows years of disputes between the two nations over reparations and mutual violations of international law during the conflict, and one in a long chapter of grievances against one another.
The ADF is undoubtedly a dangerous group whose attacks on civilians are reprehensible. The DRC’s Catholic Church claims the ADF has killed about 6,000 civilians since 2013, while on November 15th the ADF was linked to a suicide bombing in Uganda’s capital of Kampala. But the military presence of Ugandan troops in the DRC is a thorny issue, as there is a long history of conflict between the two states that originates in the very region Ugandan troops are currently operating. As seen by the $4 billion reparations case, that conflict is not purely historical and given vocal Congolese opposition from key figures, like lawmaker Joel Ssenyonyi and Nobel Prize Winner Denis Mukwege, about Ugandan troops within their borders, this operation is far from universally favored. These tensions could prove dangerous, and extreme care should be taken by both states to ensure this history of violence isn’t repeated.
This week’s operation follows months of intense government concentration in the eastern DRC which has failed to stem the violence, largely against civilians, with internal Congolese investigations blaming poor planning, unclear objectives, and a lack of funding. But it also marks the latest incident in a decades-long crisis in the eastern DRC, where political instability, ethnic divisions, and constant cross-border migration have led to conflicts ranging from guerrilla groups to all-out war. In 1996, Rwanda and an alliance of states including Uganda invaded the DRC (then called Zaire) to dislodge perpetrators in the Rwandan genocide who fled to Zaire, which morphed into nearly a decade of horrendous war remembered as the Congo Wars, the scale of which cannot be understated. Millions died from fighting and famine across a dozen African countries with millions more displaced in a conflict that hasn’t entirely been resolved.
Given this history, this joint operation may be seen as either a thawing in relations between previously warring states, or a haphazard venture whose increasing tensions may bring more conflict. Few other states are more familiar with the consequences of this conflict than the DRC and Uganda. If the two wish to coordinate their militaries against a shared and demonstrably dangerous threat, this cooperation may prove necessary and fruitful. But this venture shouldn’t be taken lightly, and if both states aren’t in total agreement on the goals and parameters of this operation, the existing animosity between these two militaries may prove more disastrous than the threat they’re pursuing.
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