Oh No—Is This a New Rebellion in Uganda?
Alleged tribal clashes a worrying sign
Armed men launched coordinated attacks on security forces in western Uganda on July 5. Officials have confirmed 90 deaths—and that number could rise.
The Ugandan government was quick to label the attacks “tribal clashes.” But there are worrying signs that Uganda could face a new internal rebellion, dragging the country back into the 1990s, when insurrections in northern Uganda killed thousands of people.
Early reports, based mostly on comments by police and military spokespersons, described a group of around 60 assailants “with guns and spears” that targeted police stations and military barracks in Kasese, Ntoroko and Bundibugyo, three districts bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The government claimed its forces repelled the attacks, killing 41 of the assailants. A dozen civilians and soldiers died, officials said. Later, they raised the death toll to 90 … and said 80 attackers were in custody.
The border region has a history of communal strife and conflict over natural resources. But several aspects of the attack—as well as Uganda’s current political situation—could be evidence of a far more worrisome version of events.
Attacking security forces
It’s curious that the “tribal militia” supposedly responsible for the attacks chose to target an army barracks and police stations. In neighboring Kenya where inter-communal violence is disturbingly common in some areas, attacks usually directly target members of the opposing group, rather than representatives of the state.
In fact, the Ugandan government has conceded that the assailants seized more than 20 weapons from the barracks—and that the attacks appeared carefully synchronized. It seems the violence deliberately targeted the state.
“These are not tribal clashes,” Timothy Kalyegira, a columnist for the Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor and researcher on the Great Lakes Region, told War is Boring. “It is an armed group taking shape.”
Uganda has known relative peace since 2006, when the army pushed out the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. Any new rebellion could grow out of Ugandans’ frustrations regarding political developments in the country, Kalyegira said.
Uganda’s main political conflict is over the future of president Yoweri Museveni. The former rebel leader is currently serving his fourth term in office. In the 1990s, many observers hailed Museveni as a new breed of African leader, but lately his rule has taken on a decidedly authoritarian tone that many Ugandans resent.
Uganda will hold general elections in 2016 and many expect Museveni will either stand one more time or try to install his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba. A high-ranking army officer, Kainerugaba commands the Ugandan army’s special forces and exerts considerable influence over the country’s military.
While Museveni leans on the security forces to dominate national politics, the army also plays an important part in his effort to secure his rule from external intervention. Uganda is the main troop contributor to the peacekeeping force in Somalia and has also substantially intervened in South Sudan and Congo. For Uganda’s neighbors as well as the U.S., Museveni is an important ally.
But Museveni’s enduring grip on power and his military excursions have taking a toll. Several members of his government have sided with the opposition over the years, among them Gen. David Sejusa, a former coordinator of the Ugandan intelligence services.
Sejusa went into exile in London in 2013. Kalyegira said the general is one of the few people capable of organizing a coordinated attack on Kasese, Ntoroko and Bundibugyo. Since his exile, the former adviser to Museveni has indicated on numerous occasions that he might try to overthrow his former boss—although officially his struggle is purely political, not military.
Further evidence of Sejusa’s involvement—or the involvement of some other regime critic with a military background—is that most of the attackers in captivity are veterans of the Ugandan army. Museveni’s dangerous foreign interventions in South Sudan and Somalia, as well as his son’s quick rise through the ranks, have eroded military morale and inspired some high-profile desertions.
A new rebel group that attracts dissatisfied ex-soldiers could turn out to be a real problem for Uganda’s current government.