Army denies allegations of US research group
A new report accuses UPDF of massive plunder of resources like diamonds and timber in the tiny and war-wracked Central African Republic (CAR) where the army is pursuing bands of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
The dossier, titled 'The Lord's Resistance Army in the Central African Republic' and authored by the New York-based Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in December 2011, alleges that some Ugandan soldiers operated a prostitution ring, raped and infected Congolese refugee girls in CAR, with the deadly HIV.
The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) is an independent, non-profit international organization founded in 1923. It nurtures new generations of social scientists, fosters innovative research, and mobilizes necessary knowledge on important public issues. However, army spokesman Col Felix Kulayigye, on Thursday described the report as the usual banter from self-seeking organisations attempting to account for money from donors.
"That report is unfortunate. It's from masqueraders who are trying to earn bread from our blood and sweat. The UPDF is one of the most disciplined forces in Africa and we are pro-people. Anyone can check our record", Kulayigye said.
In November 2011, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group also accused the UPDF of plundering timber, gold and diamond not only in CAR but also in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The report claims that government representatives in Bangui claimed that the UPDF "has allowed a culture of impunity, because those in charge were also involved in illicit activities in CAR, including illegal logging, looting of mineral resources and the sale of everything [one can] think of, from bicycles brought from Uganda on UPDF transport planes to AK 47s and bullets".
When the LRA began making incursions into CAR, President Museveni started courting the support of his counterpart, Gen Francois Bozizé. This culminated in a visit by Bozizé in August 2007, eventually sealing the deal for the UPDF to enter the country in pursuit of Joseph Kony, the elusive rebel leader. Since then, the hunt for Kony and his rebels has ensued. After escaping from the Garamba jungle pounded by helicopter gunships in a December 2008 operation, Kony has found sanctuary in French-speaking CAR. Kony and his acolytes have continued to plant a trail of bloodshed and despair in CAR, killing, abducting and looting property, especially in the towns of Obo and Djema.
This unending bloodshed persuaded the United States government to commit 100 elite soldiers to the anti-LRA effort last year. In his address to Congress on October 14, 2011, President Obama said: "I authorised a small number of combat-equipped US forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield. I believe that deploying these US Armed Forces furthers US national security interests and foreign policy and will be a significant contribution toward counter-LRA efforts in central Africa".
The latest string of allegations draws parallels with widespread accusations, including a UN report, that Ugandan soldiers were involved in looting DR Congo natural resources during an incursion between 1997 and 2003. As a result, the DRC sued Uganda at the International Court of Justice, and Uganda was ordered to pay $10bn in compensation. According to the latest report, in the first few months of UPDF's presence in CAR, government officials in Bangui were somewhat indifferent about the Ugandan army. This stance changed slightly in July 2010 when President Bozizé asked the UPDF to leave their base in Sam Ouandja and return to their initial base at Obo.
The report suggests that Bozize did that because he feared the UPDF were plundering diamonds.
"It is unclear why Bozizé asked the UPDF to stay only in Obo and Djema, but the proximity of Ugandan soldiers to the diamond mines of Sam Ouandja might have been a concern for the President", says the report. By December 2011, the report claims, dissatisfaction with the Ugandan army was barely concealed.
The minister of Commerce and resident of Haut Mbomou was quoted as saying that the UPDF were not welcome in CAR as they were more interested in looting resources than chasing the LRA, according to the report. The report adds that the minister showed the author a handwritten report from the highest local official in Obo, detailing the "destruction of the Obo forest by UPDF soldiers cutting timber and transporting it in army trucks towards Bambouti and South Sudan".
According to the minister, when UPDF commanders were confronted about the timber, they said they needed it to fix bridges and roads. While it is true that the roads in CAR which the UPDF relies on to move are in a very bad condition, the minister stated that: "it is not the job of the UPDF to fix roads; certainly not the roads of southern Sudan where most of the timber is going".
According to the report, allegations of illicit logging on the part of the UPDF are not new; similar claims were made against the Ugandan army in South Sudan in the past. The report claims that local discontent with the UPDF stems primarily from the fact that the Uganda armed forces have taken too long to end the LRA menace. At a local level, the report says, Ugandan soldiers stand accused of mistreatment of women.
A representative of an NGO with a presence in Haut Mbomou said UPDF soldiers, by bringing cash to impoverished areas, had created "a market for prostitution", fanning conflict in the local communities.
The report claims that another NGO worker said UPDF soldiers bring alcohol from Uganda and sell it or give it to young women, including underage girls. Allegations of sexual exploitation of children by UPDF elements were reported by various sources. A representative of a UN organisation said there were reports of several girls, some as young as 12, involved in prostitution with Ugandan soldiers. An internal report for a UN organisation based on investigations from field staff states that it is not "unusual to see girls and women sneak into the UPDF base at night, or find UPDF personnel embroiled in brawls over girls or women".
The report cites at least one very serious case of sexual violence by a Uganda soldier against a 16-year-old girl. Abducted at 14 by the LRA near the town of Obo, the young girl returned home at the beginning of 2011 and, in unclear circumstances, was raped by a UPDF soldier at the Ugandan army base in Obo in May 2011. According to the girl, who became pregnant as a result of the rape, the perpetrator eventually left for Uganda, leaving her "in the custody" of another soldier who continued to abuse her at least until August 2011 when she spoke to a UN worker.
The report points out that this case is similar to another incident reported in February 2011 by a Sudanese NGO worker. In September 2010, two Ugandan soldiers reportedly took a young Congolese girl of 15 named Marie to a clinic in Nzara, South Sudan. The girl had been "rescued" from the LRA by the Ugandan soldiers, who allegedly gang-raped and impregnated her, before taking her to the clinic "nearly dead".
As the army spokesman said, the UPDF does have a reputation of being relatively well behaved, compared to many armies in the world, but as American soldiers have demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, even the most disciplined armies have rogue elements.
Government officials in the Central Africa Republic have expressed what appears to be a commonly-held belief that the UPDF does not want to end the threat of the LRA, as this would end US aid to it for LRA operations. At both government and local levels, a worrying conviction seems to have been formed, which holds that chasing the LRA is a pretext for Uganda to maintain an invading force in CAR indefinitely. Such views have been fueled by claims that former LRA combatants are quickly integrated into UPDF units once captured, without proper demobilisation and reintegration processes.
In fact, the report claims that at least one third of the total UPDF force chasing LRA groups is composed of former LRA combatants. It is further claimed that former LRA combatants receive no payment for their efforts. The report says the fighters are deceived that their salaries are to be obtained once they are back in Uganda.
At the highest level, however, the relations between Kampala and Bangui remains cordial, says the report - a revelation that appears contradictory. President Bozizé and his son, Jean-Francis Bozizé, the defence minister, have not publicly criticised the Ugandans. A diplomat said that with the exception of the episode in 2010 when President Bozizé asked the Ugandan army to leave the diamond-rich area of Sam Ouandja, both father and son have refrained from publically discussing the Ugandan presence in CAR.
President Bozizé has responded well to Uganda's diplomatic demarches, and has visited Kampala regularly in the last four years, most recently in December 2011 when he attended the meeting of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region.