In late October and again in November, Uganda was the target of terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo and linked to the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In response, Uganda has deployed a significant number of troops to eastern Congo. The counterterrorism operation is characterized by uncertain timelines and metrics of success. None of this bodes well for Uganda or the region.
Of course, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his government cannot remain passive in the face of suicide bombings outside of parliament. Security is a prerequisite for achieving all of Uganda’s development goals, and in a region with a rich and recent history of destabilizing cross-border insurgencies and devastating consequences for civilians, simply hoping for the best is a bad bet. But an effective response to the ADF has eluded Uganda in the past. The country has an ugly history of worsening conditions in eastern Congo, prompting Congolese Nobel Prize winner Denis Mukwege to describe Ugandan troops as “arsonist-firefighters.”
Moreover, the broader political context in Uganda in the wake of January’s spectacularly unjust elections lends itself to security overreach. President Museveni and his allies have long placed their monopoly on the use of force at the heart of their political legitimacy and, in doing so, conflated threats to their political survival with threats to the state. Conditions that encourage an even heavier hand are likely to lead to even more political violence and impunity.
Those same conditions also distract from Uganda’s real and urgent needs. As one of the youngest countries in the world—over 46 percent of the population is under the age of fifteen—Uganda has massive health, education, and job-creation challenges in front of it. Afrobarometer polling from earlier this year indicates [PDF] that Ugandans want the government to focus on providing better healthcare, infrastructure, and education; only 6 percent of respondents called for crime and security to be the priority. But Ugandan schools have been closed for eighty-three weeks due to COVID-19, the longest such closure in the world, disadvantaging young people in their quest for opportunity. A security distraction, and another excuse to empower unaccountable security elites, is highly unlikely to serve the interests of Uganda’s youth.