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Understanding the resurgence of ADF rebel group in Uganda, 22 years on

On Friday June 8, Arua Municipality MP Ibrahim Abiriga was gunned down near his home in Matugga, Wakiso district — a 10-15 minute-drive from Kampala City centre.

Though an enthusiastic supporter of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) whose yellow colour he wore top to bottom and even had his Volkswagen Beetle, tea cups and bed sheets in the same colour, Abiriga was described by many as a harmless, unscripted political comic.

He was not worth the 15 bullets pumped into his body with an assassin’s accuracy. He died together with his brother Saidi Butele who doubled as his body guard.

Government officials quickly added his murder to a growing list blamed on the rebel Allied Democratic Front (ADF) said to operate bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If indeed the murders are the work of the ADF, then the outfit has become the oldest and most active rebel group in the country’s history.

Friday also marked the 20th anniversary of the Kichwamba massacre where rebels burnt 80 students to death at the Uganda Technical College, Kabarole district.

Two years earlier the ADF attacked the Mpondwe border post at Bwera in Kasese district where they ransacked a police post, killed several people and reportedly retreated back into the jungles of eastern DR Congo.

President Yoweri Museveni famously walked over the border point into DR Congo with an AK-47 strung across his back and declared that the rebels would be pursued and neutralised.

However, in subsequent years the rebels only grew bolder wreaking havoc in western Uganda especially in the districts of Kasese, Bundibugyo, Kabarole, Kamwenge, Kyenjojo, parts of present day Rubirizi and Kagadi.
The Rwenzori Mountains provided food and cover and by 2001 the ADF was being accused of throwing bombs in Kampala following that year’s controversial elections.

This was followed by a lull with the government declaring that the ADF was finished as hundreds of former rebels benefitted from a new law enacted to grant them amnesty.
A government minister declared that ADF’s capacity had been significantly diminished and that the outfit had less than 500 fighters in the jungles of DR Congo.

ADF resurgence

However, the rebel group seems to have resurged in the past eight years. Speaking during the State of the Nation Address on June 5, President Museveni blamed the ADF for several assassinations from 2012.

The president said the ADF was responsible for the murders of at least seven Muslim clerics who were murdered in Kampala and in districts in Eastern Uganda between 2012 and 2015.

In the past three years, the ADF has been blamed for the murder of at least five prominent individuals. The five include former top prosecutor Joan Kagezi murdered on March 30, 2016.

On November 26, 2016, Major Mohammed Kiggundu, a former ADF commander, who was at the time working with the government, was gunned down as he went to a radio talkshow at 7:30am in Nansana. He was killed together with his body guard Sergeant Steven Mukasa.

On March 17, 2017, former assistant Inspector-General of Police Andrew Felix Kawesi was gunned down about 100 metres from his home in the Kulumabiro suburb of Kampala. He was killed together with his driver Godfrey Mambewa and bodyguard Kenneth Erau.

In February this year, Susan Magara, a daughter to wealthy businessman Fitzgerald Magara was murdered after she was kidnapped. Her family paid a ransom of $200,000 only to find her body dumped in a bush in Kajansi.

Three days after President Museveni’s state of the nation address MP Abiriga was gunned down near his home.

ADF leader Jamil Mukulu’s pre-trial at the international crimes division of the high court began two weeks ago after more than three years as a prisoner in Uganda.

Tanzania authorities arrested Mukulu in April 2015 and handed him over to Uganda. Curiously, some of the murdered Muslim clerics have a link to the ADF as do some of the suspects in police custody.

Suspects

Officially, there are reportedly over 90 suspects linked to the various murders — the number varying according to the prominence of the victim.

Former AIGP Kawesi alone accounts for nearly half of those detained while at least eight people are in jail over the murder of Susan Magara.

Hajji Hussein Kyanjo, a former MP and respected Muslim leader says the ADF phenomenon is complex. He said its continued relevance to the political discourse depends on who benefits from constant reference to it.

Nicholas Opiyo, a human-rights lawyer with Chapter Four suspects the survival of ADF is needed to explain away government failures and to justify Uganda’s continued presence in DR Congo.

“ADF is being presented as this sophisticated force with the capacity to pull off all these attacks in urban areas, but is it the ADF whose leader has been arrested and whose capacity has been so degraded that what remains is a bunch of bandits in DR Congo according to the government itself?” said Mr Opiyo.

But, government spokesperson and executive director at the Government Media Centre, Ofwono Opondo said a number of factors have facilitated the survival and resurgence of ADF.

“When the ADF were defeated in Uganda, they were able to retreat and rebuild in DR Congo, but despite repeated requests, we have not been given the necessary corporation to pursue them because the DR Congo government thinks we want to re-enter their territory,” said Mr Opondo.

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