The ruling of the International Court of Justice directing Uganda to pay the Democratic Republic of the Congo $325 million for damages attributed to its invasion and occupation of its neighbour’s Ituri province in the Second Congo War has come at a particularly awkward time as the two countries have started to warm up to each other.
After years of rather cool relations and during which the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been deeply suspicious of Kampala because of its past actions, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and his counterpart in DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, started talks and in 2019 agreed to jointly implement several strategic infrastructure projects, including the construction and upgrading of a 1,182km road network connecting the two countries.
This culminated in a meeting of the two leaders in June 2021 in the border town of Mpondwe to launch three major road projects, to cover 223 kilometres and cost about $330 million, connecting towns in Uganda and DRC. They include a 84km link between Mpondwe in Uganda and Beni in eastern DRC; a 54km road from Beni to Butembo; and 94kms from the Ugandan border post of Bunagana to the city of Goma, passing through Rutshuru.
This uptick in the development of infrastructure between the two countries, mainly fronted by Uganda, has been prompted by a sharp increase in trade between them. Uganda is also keen to expand the regional markets for its goods, especially since the cooling of relations with another one of its neighbours, Rwanda, which has since seen their common border closed.
This also includes Uganda’s plan to set up one-stop border posts at Mpondwe, Bunagana, and Paidha, the three leading exit border points for Uganda’s informal exports to DRC, to ease movement of goods and help increase trade volumes between the two countries.
Another area of cooperation has been in security, with DRC allowing Ugandan troops on its territory to help combat the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group in Ituri region. The militia, which is allied to the Islamic State, was founded in Uganda, but was pushed out in the early 2000s. It settled in eastern DRC and has been wreaking havoc in the area. It sent three suicide bombers to attack Kampala in November 2021. They killed four people.
This is the second time DRC has allowed Ugandan troops back to fight rebels on its soil. In December 2008, Uganda teamed up with DRC’s army and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, and with the technical support of the US, routed Joseph Kony’s rebel group, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which had continued to stage attacks on Ugandan villages from across the border. The joint force destroyed the LRA’s Swahili Camp and chased the rebels into the Central African Republic.
Obviously seeing the benefits of a rapprochement with its resource-rich neighbour, Uganda has been actively pushing for the DRC’s inclusion into the regional East African Community.
“We cannot talk about the East African Economic Community without talking about the Congo. Everything we see here has been part of East Africa since time immemorial,” said Museveni during the launching of the road projects.
Perhaps that is why the Ugandan government is not receptive to the ICJ’s decision on the question of reparations in the case concerning Armed Activities on the Territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC v. Uganda), even though the court’s award is considerably lower than the $11 billion the DRC had been asking for.
In a statement from its Foreign Ministry, Uganda accused the court of being insensitive, “unfair and wrong”, and interfering in the process of rebuilding relationships that the two countries are involved in.
“Uganda continues to discuss the matter with the DRC government for purposes of securing a lasting and mutually acceptable solution,” the statement said.
The ICJ awarded $225 million for damages to persons, including an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 deaths attributed to Uganda during the conflict but also for victims of rape or child soldiers. Property damage was awarded $40 million and $60 million was for the loss of natural resources, including diamonds and coltan mined in Ituri.
Uganda has always complained that it had been unfairly singled out to pay compensation in DRC’s suit although eight other countries (Angola, Chad, Libya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi) were involved in the armed conflict in the DRC during that period. Some sources estimate that the war and its aftermath of disease and starvation caused the death of 5.4 million people and displacement of millions of others in the 10 years since it started. Several million women and girls were raped as the parties fought on Congolese soil.
In June 1999, the DRC instituted proceedings against Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda “for acts of armed aggression committed in flagrant breach of the United Nations Charter and the Charter of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) [the predecessor of today’s African Union]”. The DRC sought reparation for acts of international destruction and looting, and the restitution of national property and resources appropriated for the benefit of the three states. However, it discontinued proceedings against Burundi and Rwanda in January 2001.
In December 2005, the ICJ ruled that Uganda was under obligation to make reparations to the DRC for violating international law by occupying parts of Ituri province and supporting armed militia groups in the area during the conflict that lasted between 1998 and 2003. Uganda was found guilty of violating the principles of non-use of force in international relations and non-intervention; its obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law; and other obligations owed to the DRC.
The court also ruled that DRC was under obligation to make reparations to Uganda for the damage it caused on the country’s embassy in Kinshasa, a violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. This constituted acts of aggression against Uganda; and attacks on Ugandan diplomatic premises and personnel in Kinshasa, and on Ugandan nationals. The court further ordered that the two countries negotiate mutual reparations.
The DRC returned the matter to the court in 2015, when the parties failed to agree on the final sum after it came down from an initial $23.5 billion to $11 billion.
In its ruling of February 9, 2022, the court ordered that Uganda pay the reparations in annual instalments of $65 million, due on September 1 of each year, from 2022 to 2026. Further if a payment is delayed, post-judgment interest at an annual rate of 6 per cent on each instalment will accrue on any overdue amount from the day which follows the day on which the instalment was due.
The ICJ deals with disputes between states and its rulings are final and cannot be appealed.