Enhancing Regional Security Cooperation in the African Great Lakes Region

DRC soldiers on patrol. Photo Credit: Reuters.

The African Great Lakes region requires a more comprehensive regional security framework and strategy to manage the threat of transnational militias. The Great Lakes region in Africa comprises the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. There are numerous transnational militias operating in the region, taking advantage of states’ porous borders, conflicts (particularly in the DRC), and the political grievances of local communities to evade authorities and gain local economic and political support.

In early June of this year, military leaders and intelligence officials from the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania agreed to coordinate action against militias that are causing instability throughout the region. While the possibility for joint operations remains unclear, the agreement includes intelligence sharing and joint planning between the four states. The agreement also establishes a working group to enhance strategy and coordinate analysis to combat these militias.[i]

One of the most deadly and destabilizing militias in the region is the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which operates around the Rwenzori Mountains on the border between the DRC and Uganda.[ii] According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, from 2014-2018 the ADF was responsible for nearly 2,000 reported fatalities, and the majority of its attacks targeted domestic government forces.[iii] According to France 24 Observers, at least 700 of those deaths occurred in the Beni region of the DRC.[iv] In addition to this violence, the ADF is an elusive organization with socioeconomic and political ties in both the DRC and Uganda, making it a difficult group to combat.

The ADF was created in September 1995 as an alliance between Ugandan rebels. Adherents to Tablighi Jamaat — a movement of Islamic fundamentalists that engages in proselytizing missions around the world[v] — merged with remnants of the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) to resist Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni.[vi][vii] In the years prior to the merger, crackdowns forced NALU leaders to flee to eastern Congo.[viii] The ADF was thus able to establish cross-border economic and political ties in the DRC and Uganda, providing the group with flexibility to craft effective local narratives and appeal to a diverse range of people in both states. As a result, developing a strategy that directly targets the ADF’s networks and narratives is particularly challenging, and intelligence gaps are a significant impediment to effectively countering the group.[ix]

Recent reports indicate potential ties between the ADF and the Islamic State. The Islamic State took credit for a 16 April ADF attack on an army base in northeast DRC, signifying the first instance of the Islamic State claiming responsibility for an ADF attack.[x] The leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also named a new “Central African Province,” in a video released on 29 April.[xi] In the years leading up to Baghdadi’s announcement, analysis of videos and communications pointed toward a potential relationship.[xii] However, the ADF has not made a statement regarding recognition or alleged ties. It is unknown precisely how a genuine relationship and designation might impact the ADF, but access to other Islamic State affiliates on the continent could provide the group with arms, funding, training, and recruits.

The issue of alleged ties to the Islamic State demonstrates how intelligence gaps make crafting an effective strategy to combat the group difficult. Without clear knowledge of the ADF’s true identity, strategy, and relationships, managing the threat it poses is extremely difficult. As a result, efforts to counter the ADF have been mixed. A series of military offensives conducted by Ugandan, Congolese, and UN forces from 2011-2016 captured territory and reduced the group’s ranks.[xiii] For its part, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has operated in the DRC since 2010.[xiv] To better combat the numerous militias in eastern DRC, including the ADF, the United Nations created the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in March 2013.[xv] The FIB has a more aggressive mandate than MONUSCO, and in 2014 launched joint operations with the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo against the ADF.[xvi] Campaigns launched by the FIB, MONUSCO, and regional states took territory from and severely weakened the ADF, but the ADF has since increased its violent activity.[xvii] The ADF’s resilience can be traced to its transnational character, its unique blend of local identities, and cross-border economic networks, among other factors.

The security agreement between the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania will certainly help fill the intelligence gaps required to more effectively counter the ADF. However, this is not the only cooperative attempt to combat regional militias. In 2007, for example, Uganda and the DRC signed a bilateral cooperation agreement termed the Arusha pact. While this agreement contained items on refugees, repatriation, economic cooperation, and diplomacy, its first article called for greater efforts to “eliminate” multiple regional militias, including the ADF and Lord’s Resistance Army.[xviii]  This effort did not result in any tangible progress, however.[xix]

To establish sounder and more robust security policy, these states could look toward West Africa and the G5 Sahel Joint Force as a model. The G5 Sahel, consisting of Burkina Faso, Mali Mauritania, Niger, and Chad, provides a framework to promote regional development and security cooperation.[xx] As the threat from Salafi-jihadist groups and traffickers increased in West Africa, the G5 Sahel created the Joint Force to patrol the states’ borders and disrupt these groups’ cross-border networks.[xxi] Adopting a similar initiative in the Great Lakes region could lead to more secure borders and a greater capacity to disrupt the ADF’s cross-border economic networks. However, obtaining consistent funding from both regional and international actors for such a force would be a significant challenge. 

The new agreement is a constructive step toward disrupting existing ADF logistical and economic networks but will simply force the organization to adapt, which it has done effectively in the past. Given its complex mixture of identities and narratives, sustaining progress against the group will require a regional strategy that seeks to settle a wide range of economic, social, and political grievances.


[i] “Four African nations plan joint response to militia in DR Congo,” The Peninsula, June 07, 2019, https://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/07/06/2019/Four-African-nations-plan-joint-response-to-militia-in-DR-Congo.

[ii] Paul Nantulya, “The Ever-Adaptive Allied Democratic Forces Insurgency,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, February 8, 2019, https://africacenter.org/spotlight/the-ever-adaptive-allied-democratic-forces-insurgency/.

[iii] Hilary Matfess, “Understanding the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Central Africa,” The Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project, April 29, 2019, https://www.acleddata.com/2019/04/29/understanding-the-allied-democratic-forces-adf-in-central-africa/.

[iv] Chloé Lauvergnier, “Deadly attacks in DR Congo: ‘The army always comes too late’,” The Observers, September 27, 2018, https://observers.france24.com/en/20180927-deadly-attack-congo-army-beni-kivu.

[v] Nicholas Howenstein, “Islamist Networks: The Case of Tablighi Jamaat,” United States Institute of Peace, October 12, 2006, https://www.usip.org/publications/2006/10/islamist-networks-case-tablighi-jamaat.

[vi] Sunguta West, “The Rise of ADF-NALU in Central Africa and Its Connections with al-Shabaab,” Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 13:1, January 9, 2015, https://jamestown.org/program/the-rise-of-adf-nalu-in-central-africa-and-its-connections-with-al-shabaab/#.VTk5J5NHaJc.

[vii] Kristof Titeca and Koen Vlassenroot, “Rebels without borders in the Rwenzori borderland? A biography of the Allied Democratic Forces,” Journal for Eastern African Studies 6, no. 1, 158-59.

[viii] Titeca and Vlassenroot, “Rebels without borders,” 157.

[ix] International Crisis Group, Eastern Congo: The ADF-NALU’s Lost Rebellion, (Nairobi/Brussels: December 19, 2012), 1.

[x] David Bruckmeier, “The eastern DRC’s most active rebel group just got a bit more dangerous,” African Arguments, July 31, 2019, https://africanarguments.org/2019/07/31/eastern-drc-most-active-rebel-group-just-got-a-little-more-dangerous-adf/.

[xi] Robert Postings, “Islamic State recognizes new Central Africa Province, deepening ties with DR Congo militants,” The Defense Post, April 30, 2019, https://thedefensepost.com/2019/04/30/islamic-state-new-central-africa-province/.

[xii] Robert Postings, “The tentative ties between the Allied Democratic Forces and ISIS,” The Defense Post, December 4, 2018, https://thedefensepost.com/2018/12/04/tentative-ties-allied-democratic-forces-isis-dr-congo/.

[xiii] Nantulya, “The Ever-Adaptive.”

[xiv] “Mandate,” About, United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo, accessed July 15, 2019, https://monusco.unmissions.org/en/mandate.

[xv] United Nations Security Council, Security Council Resolution 2098 (2013), 28 March 2013, S/RES/2098 (2013).

[xvi] Jay Benson, The UN Intervention Brigade: Extinguishing Conflict or Adding Fuel to the Flames?, One Earth Future Research, June 2016, 4-5.

[xvii] Nantulya, “The Ever-Adaptive.”

[xviii] “The Arusha pact between Uganda and Congo on security, oil,” The New Vision, September 12, 2007, https://www.newvision.co.ug/new_vision/news/1219761/arusha-pact-uganda-congo-security-oil.

[xix] Titeca and Vlassenroot, “Rebels without borders,” 161.

[xx] “G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Sahel Alliance,” France Diplomatie, 2019, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/french-foreign-policy/security-disarmament-and-non-proliferation/crises-and-conflicts/g5-sahel-joint-force-and-the-sahel-alliance/.

[xxi] Jennifer G. Cooke, “Understanding the G5 Sahel Joint Force: Fighting Terror, Building Regional Security?” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 15, 2017, https://www.csis.org/analysis/understanding-g5-sahel-joint-force-fighting-terror-building-regional-security.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.