East Africa: With Roads and Trade, Uganda Seeks to Build a Bridge Over DR Congo

DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni at the Mpondwe-Kasinndi border during the ground-breaking ceremony for construction of roads that will link the two countries.

Ugandan Peter Busomoke was possibly one of the few photojournalists to have covered every major conflict in the region in the past 30 years.

Visiting his archive on Getty Images is akin to taking a crash course on the history of conflict in the Great Lakes region over the past few decades - from Uganda's foray into the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s, to the long-running Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) conflict in northern Uganda, to Uganda's deployment into troubled Somalia in 2007, to South Sudan's fight for independence and, later, the young nation's descent into fratricidal conflict beginning in 2013.

Just pick a major conflict and Busomoke's lens will likely have covered it. Few images, however, capture the tremendous change Uganda's army - and by extension, the region - has undergone in the past two decades than the one taken in late September 2001.

It shows a column of Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF), clad in the staple military attire of the time - green khaki uniform and matching Wellington boots - with AK-47 rifles strapped across their chests. They are marching through the Congolese village of Mazizi on their way to the eastern Congolese town of Beni.

The battalion was one of the last to withdraw after the disastrous Second Congo War that saw Uganda and Rwanda turn their guns on their former ally, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, and later one another.

Long march

The soldiers had started their long trek months earlier from the northeastern Congolese town of Bafwasende, 700km from the Ugandan border. They had no choice but to march in the unforgiving Congolese jungle after their Rwandan "allies" prevented them from using the airport of Kisangani.

For the uninitiated, Uganda and Rwanda had earlier led a regional effort to topple Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of then Zaire, which later became the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), replacing him in 1997 with Kabila, a self-styled revolutionary from Katanga whose guerilla outfit had acquired a reputation for its smuggling operations across the Congolese and Tanzanian border.

Read: The long march of Museveni, the war president

He once made international headlines for the kidnapping of three American students in 1975.

Kabila's honeymoon with his new East African friends did not last long, however. Now accustomed to the presidential life in Kinshasa and keen to consolidate his local power base, Kabila threw out his Rwandan and Ugandan allies in July 1998, sparking the Second Congo War that lasted until 2003.

The price Uganda would pay for the adventurism in its giant neighbour's backyard would be a high one. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN's highest judicial body, in 2005 ruled that Uganda's 1998-2003 intervention violated international sovereignty rules and was, therefore, liable to pay DRC reparations.

Uganda is still in court, trying to get the DRC to reduce its claim of $11.4 billion, quite a climb down from its initial demand of $23.5 billion.

The decision made a further dent in the standing of President Yoweri Museveni, hitherto seen by the international community as a progressive statesman and stabilising figure in the troubled Great Lakes region.

Now, his generals were not only being directly implicated in the plunder of Congolese resources, the UPDF - a scion of the National Resistance Army (NRA) -- had, in its conduct of the Congolese affairs, shed its vaunted revolutionary image and acquired the character of a marauding mercenary force weighed down by corruption, infighting among its commanders, and intrigue.

Even the force's actual strength was a matter of contention after a three-man committee appointed by Museveni implicated then Army commander, and former commander of Ugandan troops in the DRC, Maj-Gen James Kazini, in overseeing the creation of ghost soldiers on the UPDF payroll and forming a semi-autonomous military unit (the 409 Brigade) in West Nile.

He was court-martialled and handed a three-year sentence, which he later challenged. By the time of his murder in 2009, Kazini was still battling the charges.

Reform or perish

The ICJ verdict came at a difficult time for Museveni. Domestically, he was about to face the most significant challenge to his presidency. Dr Kizza Besigye, a retired UPDF colonel and one-time personal doctor, had recently returned from exile in South Africa.

Even faced with a slew of treason and rape charges, he had decided to run for the presidency. Unlike his earlier attempt in 2001, Besigye now counted in his ranks a number of disgruntled NRM "historicals," among them Eriya Kategaya, Museveni's childhood friend and until then de facto number two in the NRM. He had fallen out with the party after Museveni's decision to seek a third term in office.

Although Museveni eventually won the contest, amid opposition claims of massive rigging, the writing on the wall seemed to be clear: Reform or perish.

Two years earlier, Museveni had decided to relieve the ebullient, if sometimes reckless, a veteran of the Congo wars, Maj -Gen Kazini, of his Army commander duties and replaced him with the reticent and studious Lt-Gen Aronda Nyakairima, a former intelligence officer in Museveni's praetorian guard, PPU, and later commander of the Armoured Brigade.

Aronda's task was to reform the UPDF, wean it off the bush war triumphalist hangover, and build it into a credible national institution.

For the next decade, the UPDF would undergo a series of changes that saw the old guard cede power to a new crop of commanders, almost all university educated and trained in some of the world's leading military academies.

By 2013, when Gen Aronda shed his military attire for the civilian docket of minister for Internal Affairs, the Ugandan army was a different animal from the one he had inherited.

Plus ça change...

Little, though, had changed about the terrain and remoteness of eastern Congo's jungles, and neither had its centrality in Kampala's security matrix. With the long-running LRA war in the north coming to an end in 2005, and South Sudan's independence edging closer, Kampala had at last established a security buffer between itself and the Khartoum regime of Omar al-Bashir.

Cut off from crucial Arab support, Joseph Kony's LRA was forced to nest in northeastern Congo's Garamba National Park, a 5,000km2 expanse of forest, two-and-a-half times the size of Mauritius.

It seemed the UPDF would have to go back to Congo in pursuit of yet another enemy.

In December 2008, a joint military strike, nicknamed Operation Lightning Thunder, by the UPDF, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), with technical and logistical support from the US Army's Africa Command, attacked and destroyed Joseph Kony's Camp Swahili.

Kony, however, escaped and, along with a small group of LRA forces, retreated into the Congolese hinterland, ending up in the troubled Central African Republic, where he continues to terrorise residents.

With Kony no longer a threat within Uganda's borders, Kampala's attention shifted to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a jihadist terror outfit that in 2019 declared itself part of the Islamic State's (Isis) "Central Africa Province" and has since the mid-1990s found refuge in eastern Congo.

Although the leader, Jamil Mukulu, was apprehended in Tanzania in 2015 and is currently on trial in Uganda, the group's links to Isis and renewed attacks on villages in the vast Ituri Province of eastern DR Congo continue to present a credible threat.

Having learnt lessons from past interventions, Uganda's security architects now seem determined to pursue a more enlightened approach to this threat across the Uganda-Congo border.

"The cost of establishing security at the border is very high," suggests Ugandan veteran journalist and analyst Angelo Izama.

In November 2019, for example, the UPDF announced the creation of a fully-fledged mountain division at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains in Kabarole, near its border with the Congo.

"ADF and other negative forces are still destabilising the eastern part of DRC and this creates a greater threat to our country. The formation of this division was long overdue," said then UPDF Chief of Defence Forces David Muhoozi, according to the Daily Monitor.

The division has forces trained by French instructors in mountain warfare.

A recent flare-up of tensions with neighbouring Rwanda and the closure of the common border at Katuna/Gatuna in February 2019 has also seen both countries shore up their security assets along their borders and an increase in their defence spending.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, military expenditure in Uganda increased to $948 million in 2020, from $648 million in 2019. By this account, Uganda's military spending has more than doubled since 2018.

Besides its military posture, the Museveni administration is also increasingly looking towards new regional markets -- especially DR Congo and Tanzania -- to cushion the impact of its lost trade with Rwanda, which at its peak raked in upwards of $200 million, and South Sudan, whose ongoing economic and political crisis continues to constrain growth prospects in Uganda's second-largest regional export market.

"What trade does is reduce your cost of security," argues Izama, who also sits on the Uganda Investment Authority board.

Busy Mpondwe

The Ugandan border town of Mpondwe, located 400km west of Kampala, is the busiest border crossing between Uganda and DR Congo. In 2019, the border town was the leading Ugandan exit point for informal exports, accounting for 36 percent of informal export value, according to Bank of Uganda. It was followed by Busia on the border with Kenya at 18 percent.

Veteran Ugandan journalist Asuman Bisiika, whose home is a stone's throw from the border crossing in the Mpondwe-Lhubiriha Town Council, attributes this to the contiguous nature of the border crossing.

"You will find a household in Beni (a town 90km away in eastern DRC) with everything made by Mukwano," he says, referring to Ugandan conglomerate, Mukwano Group, whose product range includes plastics to edible oils, detergents, and packaged drinking water.

John Bosco Nyundo, an informal trader who plies his trade between Mpondwe and Kasindi in DR Congo's North Kivu Province, agrees. Over the past five years he has seen tremendous growth in trade across the common border.

"The border crossing is always congested!" According to Nyundo, Congolese traders usually get food products, clothing, fish, shoes, alcohol, motorcycle parts, and cement from the Ugandan side while their Ugandan counterparts have access to raw materials -- mainly timber and minerals -- from Congo.

The business is not without risks, though. He decries extortion by Congolese revenue officials.

Recent trade figures from the Ugandan central bank indicate growing trade between Kampala and DRC. Although the country is still eclipsed by Uganda's other neighbours, Kenya and South Sudan, its share of Ugandan export trade has been growing steadily.

For example, Uganda's informal exports to DRC more than doubled from $140 million in 2014 to $330 million in 2019, while in the same period informal exports to Uganda's other regional market, Kenya, saw only a modest increase from $93 million in 2014 to a high of $150 million in 2018, before dropping to $95 million in 2019.

Indeed, three of the six leading exit borders for Uganda's informal exports are with the DR Congo. These are Mpondwe, Bunagana to the south, and Paidha to the north.

The Ugandan government, working with the World Bank and partners like TradeMark East Africa, plans to establish one-stop border posts (OSBPs) in each of these towns by the end of 2022.

"OSBPs ease movement of goods and contribute to increase in trade volumes between countries," said TradeMark East Africa programme manager for OSBPs Michael Ojatum.

'Security' roads?

This was the backdrop to the Mpondwe border meeting between presidents Felix Tshisekedi of DRC and Museveni in mid-June this year, when they launched joint road projects linking the two countries.

According to sources, the first road will be the 84km link between Mpondwe and Beni. The second runs from Beni to Butembo, a distance of 54km. The last section will stretch for 94km from the Ugandan border post of Bunagana to Goma, passing through Rutshuru.

Acknowledging that it was his Ugandan counterpart's idea to launch the road projects, President Tshisekedi, recently elected as the African Union's chairperson, impressed on his host the folly of "building walls".

"It is better to build bridges and this initiative is really an example of what we must multiply as exchanges between our countries and between our peoples," he said.

The project will be financed within the framework of a public-private partnership with Ugandan company DOTT Services, at 60 percent of the works. The remaining 40 percent will be shared equally by Kinshasa and Kampala.

The roads will be constructed in 24 months, according to Ugandan officials. DOTT Services, whose interests range from infrastructure and energy to mining, has undertaken similar projects in Uganda and Tanzania.

But, due to Uganda's history in the DRC, the country's involvement has aroused suspicion among sections of the Congolese population. Some regard it as part of the sub-regional integration of the DRC in the East African Community, but others are more sceptical because of the materialisation of the projects.

"Several promises were made previously by President Joseph Kabila to build these roads. He left power without executing this promise," said Innocent Mpoze, a researcher with the Goma-based Pole Institute, which specialises in conflict prevention and resolution.

The Congo road projects are legacy-defining for Museveni, who, now entering his fourth decade in power, must be realising the impending urgency of his exit from the stage.

Not a stranger to big-picture thinking -- in his 1996 election manifesto, for example, he called for a confederation of East and Central African states -- Museveni used the occasion of his swearing-in in May 2021 to call the attention of African leaders to the urgency of the integration of not only East Africa but eventually Africa.

"This is the moment Ugandans and the other Africans need to answer the question: 'Is this generation of the African leaders determined to build a Latin America in Africa or a United States of America in Africa?" he said.

A month later, at the launch of the Uganda-Congo roads project, Museveni said: "We cannot talk about the East African Economic Community without talking about the Congo. Everything we see here has been part of East Africa since time immemorial."

Whether Kinshasa will believe him this time round remains to be seen.

The sceptics

"There is little confidence in Uganda's involvement in the construction of Congolese roads. What are Uganda's interests in agreeing to sign this MoU? This is a neighbour who has been involved in the destabilisation of Congolese cross-border territories!" said Mpoze.

Asked if the projects present a new opportunity to improve diplomatic relations between the two neighbours, he is said: "For me it is proof of the failure of the government to take care of itself. We have a policy of reaching out in all sectors. Unfortunately, in this kind of agreement, what the government gives is always more than what the Congo will gain, and it is the people who will suffer."

Despite the misgivings, the Congolese and Ugandan governments have started work on other joint road projects. At the Mpondwe meeting in June, the heads of state directed that preparations for the construction of other roads, covering 294km, begin.

These include the Nebbi-Goli-Mahagi-Bunia road (190km), which will connect the northwestern Ugandan border district of Nebbi to Bunia, the capital of Congo's Ituri province. Although only 40km from the border, there is no road linking Bunia to any Ugandan town.

The Bunia-Bogoro-Kasenyi road (55km) will connect the Congolese port of Kasenyi, a growing hub for exports to eastern DR Congo over Lake Albert, to its Ugandan sister port of Ntoroko on the eastern shores.

Uganda has embarked on the construction of the Ntoroko port, which, according to Ojatum, is 47 percent complete. The Ntoroko OSBP and port will have a new jetty, a concrete deck wide enough for a five-tonne lorry with an integral mobile crane to unload directly into vessels, and a warehouse with the capacity to accommodate the contents of ten 40-foot containers.

The third one is the Rwebisengo-Budiba-Buguma-Njiyapada (49km), linking the Ugandan border town of Rwebisengo across Semliki River to eastern DR Congo's Ituri Province.

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