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A security response alone could not protect Mpondwe’s school children

East & Southern Africa Regional Hub
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— 7 minutes reading time

Relatives of the Mpondwe school children mourning outside of the mortuary where the victims’ bodies were taken. Luke Dray/EPA, via Shutterstock, published in the NY Times

On 17 June, suspected Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militants with links to the Islamic State raided Lhubiriha Secondary School in Mpondwe, Kasese District, located in southwest Uganda. Thirty-seven young students, studying for a brighter future, were among those killed, and more were abducted.

Mpondwe is close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been known to be an ADF haven for over a decade now. This latest attack not only underscores the threat facing the region but is a yet a further sobering reminder of the devastating human toll that extremist violence and terrorist atrocities are taking on local communities, especially in vulnerable border zones.

A week following the attack, at the United Nation’s third high-level conference of heads of counter-terrorism agencies in New York, discussions noted that half of the global fatalities from terrorism in 2022 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, with the threat growing “more complex and decentralised”.

Reinforcing this stark reality, the Mpondwe school attack will only embolden national governments to further enhance their security-oriented counter-terrorism measures and double down on cooperation to tackle militant activities across the continent. Cue more military cooperation via the African Union, joined by regional ventures coordinated by inter alia the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC), with a range of approaches from security and intelligence sharing to countering terrorist financing and arms trafficking.

For example, the EAC has invested in peace efforts with the deployment of an East Africa Regional Force to counter terrorism in the DRC, and dialogue continues to address the threats posed by ADF rebel groups and the March 23 Movement/Congolese Revolutionary Army (M23). International partners are playing their part too, stepping up assistance and pledging financial and other support for counter-terrorism efforts. As Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield recently noted, the United States has provided nearly USD8 billion in security sector assistance since 2019. In March 2023, President Biden submitted to Congress a 10-year plan to prevent conflict and promote stability in Coastal West Africa countries of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo, as well as Haiti, Libya, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea.

Yet, what the Mpondwe school attack again makes clear is that a regional security response can be only part of the solution.

The equally urgent and arguably longer-term need is support for local communities and strategies for prevention and how to respond in the wake of such violence. That need is even more acute in border townships and villages in some of the most vulnerable parts of the continent. Following the Mpondwe school attack, at the end of a preliminary briefing from the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism came a stark warning:

Cognizant of the fact that the terrorist[sic] spent two nights undetected while engaging local, indicates extreme lack of community awareness resulting from inadequate community engagement … Uganda needs to embark on a strategy of community engagement … as well as raising awareness and sensitizing the populace, particularly border communities, about the imminent threats posed by terrorist groups.

Uganda’s decentralised system provides a structure at the village level to take on the responsibility for security and public safety. This takes the form of Local Defence Units (LDUs). However, these LDUs currently lack the resources and equipment to be effective. There is also inadequate information sharing at and with the local level. During an April 2023 Strong Cities dialogue in Entebbe, Uganda, mayors and other local leaders, as well as representatives from Uganda’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, noted that mayors and other local leaders are often excluded from security committees. In fact, some local leaders choose to organise alternative security meetings through the existing structures of lower local councils to obtain necessary information and find ways of addressing local security threats. Rather than creating parallel structures, what is needed is an approach that integrates local authorities into the security and public safety apparatus meant to protect their communities is imperative.

Further work is also needed to connect efforts at the national and local levels, a focus of Strong Cities’ work with Uganda. While there have been efforts at the national level to engage local communities in P/CVE (e.g., in the drafting of Uganda’s national P/CVE and counter-terrorism strategy), the strategy itself remains largely unknown by the local leaders and communities and needs to be updated to integrate the contributions and opportunities presented by engaging local stakeholders.

Consider this in the light of the Mpondwe attack. An armed group formed in the 1990s as a Ugandan opposition movement, which has taken sanctuary in remote parts of DRC, spawns a new wing allegedly linked to the Islamic State. The group slips across a porous, rural border and into sparsely inhabited small villages, and reportedly stays in the area for two days before launching a school attack and retreating across the river Mpondwe. During this period, despite some intelligence reports of their presence, villages were unable to recognise the threat. There was no effective early warning system in place; no way to call in support.

Increased security assistance and awareness raising for border areas are clear needs, as is better coordination between the national security apparatus in capital cities and local leaders in more remote parts of the country. That tackling the flow of illicit activities across vulnerable borders, especially on the periphery of conflict-affected states, should be a renewed priority also goes without saying. But what about the longer-term prevention and resilience of communities? And how can African nations and international partners alike do more to enfranchise, empower and work with local communities on prevention and response, rather than just deploy additional security forces to them?

During the Strong Cities Entebbe event, a senior Ugandan national security official observed:

We see our country increasingly grappling with different forms of extremism and terrorism. There is no better time than now to gather like we are here to find a way forward and focus on prevention.

None of these questions has easy answers, but it must be an urgent priority to focus on a more bottom-up approach that recognises not just the vulnerability of such border areas but also their strengths and comparative advantages. They may be the hardest hit, and it may be their children who have fallen victim to this heinous attack, but the response must not be to view them as passive victims of attacks or powerless recipients of security assistance.

Local governments and communities know better than anyone else the nature of their specific vulnerabilities and how offers of assistance can be best directed. They have so much to share that can enlighten national governments and the international community on how borders are being exploited. Their knowledge and proximity should be marshalled to serve as an early-warning mechanism for heading off potential risks and threats before they lead to atrocities like Mpondwe. They need to be engaged, supported, empowered and advocated for if there is to be any enduring prevention-oriented strategy to deal with the instability, violence and terrorism in Africa’s border regions.

As Mr. Muhindi Bukombi Eliphaz, District Chairperson of Kasese, told the Strong Cities Network in the wake of the school attack in his district:

We need to facilitate the district disaster committee with a reliable transport and communication infrastructure and provide psychosocial support to bereaved families and affected community members as well as ensure security deployment along atrocity-prone areas.

Now more than ever we need to be listening and engaging communities as partners.

The Strong Cities Network, and its East and Southern Africa (ESA) Regional Hub (hosted by the East Africa Local Governments Association) is supporting Ugandan cities and local governments in their advocacy for greater engagement and involvement in national policy/decision-making processes, building a shared understanding of hate, extremism and polarisation, and drawing on and feeding into the 185+ member Strong Cities Network which works to enhance effective city-led prevention policies and programmes. In Uganda, the ESA Regional Hub is working closely with mayors and local governments, as well as Ministry of Internal Affairs, to ensure that the National P/CVE and Counter Terrorism Strategy is both informed by the needs and priorities of communities and implemented at the local level.

A security response alone will be insufficient to address these challenges and to protect those in the crosshairs. A key part of the solution must be to enhance early detection efforts that tap into the potential of local governments, galvanise local communities and catalyse the development of local prevention tailored to local dynamics.