Uganda has long been active in the Congo. Between 1996 and 2003, Uganda twice intervened directly in the Congo, and it has supported a wide assortment of rebel groups there over the years. Kampala's interests in the eastern Congo are twofold. First, there are lingering security concerns about anti-Uganda rebels across the border. Less than 10 years ago, northern and western Uganda were under constant attack, but the threat today is not nearly as pressing. Second, Uganda profits off the Congo's extensive mineral wealth in various ways. For example, it allows pro-Uganda militant groups to smuggle Congolese natural resources into Uganda for export.
A number of armed groups with a presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have attacked Ugandan cities and citizens over the past few decades. The Lord's Resistance Army, an Acholi rebel group, attacked northern Uganda heavily in the mid-2000s but has hardly been a threat since. During the 1990s, other groups, such as the West Bank Nile Front, did the same. Between 1998 and 2004, the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamic rebel group, conducted numerous attacks in the central Rwenzori Mountains before being largely driven out of Uganda by the Ugandan military. Lastly, the tri-border region between the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda has been a hotbed of Hutu militant activity since the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. (However, it should be noted that the Hutu rebels are mostly focused on Rwanda.)Uganda's two-part strategy to counter these rebels has been to push them out of Uganda and into the Congo or beyond and to support opposing rebel groups and the Ugandan military, especially against the Lord's Resistance Army. This strategy has been relatively successful, pushing the Lord's Resistance Army well into the Congo and the Central African Republic.
Still, the threat from the rebel groups has not completely subsided. There have been recent rumors that the Allied Democratic Forces have been rebounding over the last year or two. Kampala has even claimed that the Islamic group has attacked police, churches and schools in western Uganda in 2012, though these claims may be false. In the Congo, there is much more evidence of the Allied Democratic Forces' apparent recovery. In October 2012, for example, three priests were kidnapped, allegedly by the Allied Democratic Forces, in the Rwenzori Mountains region in Beni, the Congo.
Since the M23 rebel group emerged in April 2012, countries in the African Great Lakes region have conducted a series of conferences on the instability in the eastern Congo and the possibility of intervening. M23 is the successor to the National Congress for the Defense of the People, a group of mostly Tutsi fighters who were purportedly backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Uganda's concern about the Allied Democratic Forces has been central to shaping its approach to these meetings. Indeed, as a possible illustration of Kampala's concern, since mid-2012, a number of Muslim clerics in Kampala suspected of having links to the Islamic group have been assassinated by unknown assailants.
Despite the possible re-emergence of the Allied Democratic Forces, Uganda's lingering concern about the security along its border is not immediate. However, Kampala also has economic interests in the region.
First, Uganda possesses about 2.5 billion barrels of known oil reserves, all located around the shores of Lake Albert. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has begun militarizing — or, in some areas, already has militarized — western Uganda in order to protect these interests. Uganda's first oil production is expected to begin by 2015 or 2016, but any threat to the development of the country's oil infrastructure could delay that. The Allied Democratic Forces' threat to Uganda's oil industry is pretty minimal at this time, but the oil reserves are sandwiched between Uganda's historically most unstable regions.
Aside from the Allied Democratic Forces, there are a few rebel groups across the border that could jeopardize Uganda's infrastructure development. However, the more credible threat could be from the Congo itself. Kinshasa wants to develop its own side of Lake Albert — though reserves there have been found to be much less significant than on the Ugandan side — and demarcation of Lake Albert is not without contest between the two countries. Ultimately, though, militarizing the region has just as much to do with consolidating oil revenue under Museveni's patronage-based regime as it does protecting the industry from rebels based in the Congo or the Congolese government should it ever become coherent.
There are other economic reasons for Uganda's support of groups that are hostile to anti-Uganda militants. In the early 2000s, Uganda and Rwanda both supported various rebel groups in the Congo's Ituri province in an attempt to gain control of the province's extensive gold and other natural resources. The fighting has largely stopped since then, and gold, timber and other resources are now smuggled to Kampala before being sold to consumers, but the militias are still present.
Militias control this entire lucrative smuggling scheme. M23 (and before it the National Congress for the Defense of the People) taxes and profits from the charcoal trade; the Congo's national army taxes and overlooks illegal fishing permits; Hutu rebel groups smuggle and trade palm oil; Mai Mai militia groups control minerals and tax mining production; and the Allied Democratic Forces profit from the trade of gold and other resources. With the exception of the Lord's Resistance Army, every rebel group in the region is involved in racketeering.
Kampala knows the Congolese army is not only unable to control the region but also takes part in the illicit economy. In this underground economy where everyone controls something, no one controls everything. In order to protect its varied interests, Uganda has thus decided to operate through rebel groups. At the same time, if Kinshasa could ever stabilize the eastern Congo through its military, it would probably attempt to consolidate control of the lucrative industry under itself, threating Uganda's interests.
Uganda's southern neighbor Rwanda came under fire earlier in 2012 for supporting M23 and destabilizing the eastern Congo. Kigali saw cuts to its economic aid and harsh rhetoric but little more, and in October it was actually selected to be Africa's representative on the U.N. Security Council beginning in January 2013. Uganda's links to M23 are not as clearly defined as Rwanda's and even now the full extent is unknown. The international community's treatment of Rwanda for similar actions and Uganda's multifaceted reasons for supporting certain rebel groups in the Congo suggest that Uganda is unlikely to change its strategy in the region.