School terror attack highlights Uganda’s security gaps

2023-07-04

On 16 June, militants stormed Mpondwe Lhubiriha Secondary School in western Uganda, near the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) border, killing at least 40 students, a guard and three civilians. Twenty girls were executed with machetes, and 17 boys were burnt to death when petrol bombs were thrown into their dormitory. Six more students were kidnapped and used to carry food back to the assailants’ base.

Security forces believe the attackers belonged to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) from the DRC. In 1998, the ADF attacked Kichwamba Technical College near the DRC border. Eighty students were burnt to death in their dormitory and over 100 were abducted. In 2021, ADF suicide bombers targeted Kampala, killing three and injuring over 30 civilians. The ADF, considered both a violent extremist and organised crime group, has been active in the DRC and Uganda for decades.

Government alone cannot curb violent extremism – local actors must be part of the solution

While anti-terrorism workers from local organisations and government have implemented various interventions over the years to prevent violent extremism at community level, more can be done to improve security, especially in the border regions.

Uganda’s vulnerable western border region

 Uganda’s vulnerable western border region

Source: ISS
(click on the map for the full size image)

Municipalities and districts near the country’s borders with the DRC are considered especially vulnerable to attacks and recruitment by terrorist groups. Muhsin Kaduyu, a Kampala-based terrorism prevention expert, told ISS Today that border areas faced unique challenges. The influx of DRC refugees, unregulated movement of people and goods, and high unemployment rates are exploited by groups such as the ADF. Communities near the DRC are easy targets as militants can swiftly retreat to their strongholds across the border.

Attacks on soft targets such as schools aim to attract publicity and global attention. Despina Namwembe, a specialist on preventing violent extremism based in Kampala, says an attack in which children die creates a local and global media frenzy, and the group gains workers by kidnapping youths.

Kaduyu says the 16 June attack could have been in response to Operation Shujaa – a joint campaign by the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to remove the ADF from eastern DRC. He believes the ADF suffered heavy losses during this operation and is resorting to guerrilla-style assaults on vulnerable targets. Deputy Mayor of Nakawa Division (Kampala), Gloria Mutoni, believes the attack aimed to recruit members and gain support in the insurgent community.

Recent ADF attacks have increased discrimination against Muslim communities in Uganda

Local experts say they are unaware of any support from Ugandan communities for terror groups. Individuals voluntarily joining the ADF and other groups usually do so for economic reasons. ‘Structural challenges that highlight a growing sense of social exclusion, marginalisation or injustice make communities more vulnerable to radicalisation,’ says Kaduyu. People therefore sometimes join the group voluntarily.

Geoffrey Ngiriker, Mayor of Nebbi Municipality in north-west Uganda, says many youngsters in his community and other border areas cross the border into DRC for advertised jobs or financial incentives. On arrival, they are coerced into joining the ADF.

According to Alok Jackob, a civil society organisation (CSO) worker in Lira City, north-central Uganda, when groups such as the ADF fail to get enough voluntary recruits, they use force to fill their ranks. The notorious Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army similarly used many child soldiers during its insurgency in the country’s north.

Attacks have widespread consequences for local communities. Jackob says besides the psychological effects and trauma, basic services and infrastructure are usually destroyed, limiting educational and employment opportunities.

Kaduyu says the ADF’s recent attacks have increased discrimination against Muslim communities, leading to a decline in interfaith and community relations. Uganda’s Internal Affairs Minister, Major General Kahinda Otafiire, visited a Kampala primary school for Eid al-Adha in June to raise awareness around Islamist extremism and dissuade communities from supporting violent extremist ideologies. He urged the police to stop profiling Muslim citizens as terrorists.

A stronger focus on youth capacity building and vocational training is needed to promote resilience

Following the killings at Mpondwe Lhubiriha school, peacebuilding practitioners hope Uganda’s government will increase safety measures, especially for at-risk communities. Youth for Peace and Development Uganda Director Edgar Buryahika believes government should study the causes of vulnerability and conflict and address these with an approach involving all of society. Practitioners say government alone cannot curb violent extremism – local actors must be part of the solution.

Several local government and civil society organisation representatives are working towards that goal, including hosting dialogue sessions and building community resilience. Kaduyu says Uganda’s national strategy to prevent and counter violent extremism involves state institutions, CSOs, academia, the private sector and the media.

Namwembe, who represents CSOs on Uganda’s national counter-terrorism committee, says the government’s collaborative approach has had some success, including gathering a wide variety of stakeholders. But experts believe a stronger focus on youth capacity building and vocational training is needed to promote resilience. Interfaith and intercultural dialogue is also important.

Ngiriker and Mutoni stress the need for confidence and trust building between security forces and local communities. Capacity-building is needed to improve the ability of law enforcement and government to deal with the drivers of violent extremism, they say.

Uganda is taking action to stabilise the situation but the government can do more. Information sharing must be improved, and financial and technical support could be offered to local programmes to alleviate the drivers of insecurity.

Local communities, especially those near borders, need to better understand and identify the security challenges they face. ‘The more aware they are, the more agency they have to be resilient against the threats,’ says Kaduyu.

Isel Ras, Research Consultant, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Stuart Tibaweswa/AFP

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