In the Highlands of South Kivu, a Political Impasse and a Chain of Desertions

Un soldat des FARDC à Minembwe, en octobre 2020 (DR)

Since the start of the year, at least four senior FARDC officers have deserted to join an armed group in the highlands of South Kivu. Their lack of confidence in President Félix Tshisekedi, now alone at the head of the DRC, and his ability to solve the area’s problems appear to have been determining factors.

By Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker.

In 2020, the desertion of FARDC Colonel Michel Rukunda, aka Makanika, had been at the forefront of Congolese public opinion. Since the start of 2021, four senior officers have already left the ranks of the Congolese army according to Kivu Security Tracker (KST) sources. The most emblematic example is that of the desertion of Colonel Charles Sematama, commander of the 3411th Regiment of the FARDC in Kitchanga (Masisi territory, North Kivu), at the end of February (in French). However, other examples include Lieutenant-Colonel Mufoko Jolie Rungwe, Major Patrick Muco or Major Senanda.

Similar to Makanika, these four officers are from the Banyamulenge community and have all moved to the highlands of South Kivu and have joined the “self-defense” community militia Twigwaneho (“let’s defend ourselves” in Kinyamulenge).

Some of the desertions may have been motivated by personal concerns. Colonel Charles Semata, for example, in the latest interim report by the UN Group of Experts, was reported to have cooperated closely with armed group head Gilbert Bwira and was part of the group of officers called by Kinshasa for training. This may have played a part in him feeling threatened to be arrested.

However, the scale of these desertions suggests a deeper problem. According to a western diplomatic source, at least six officers and 20 soldiers are reputed to have left the FARDC in 2021 to join the Twigwaneho. Having emerged in recent years, this armed group was behind a “self-defense” movement comprised of Banyamulenge civilians from the area’s villages or the diaspora. Though largely decentralized, a more organized group has coalesced in Makanika in Kamombo (Fizi territory). The latter group has inflicted heavy losses on the Congolese army like at Tuwetuwe (where six FARDC soldiers died in July 2020).

Do such desertions presage the birth of a large-scale rebellion against Kinshasa’s hold on South Kivu?  For the time being, this rebellion seems highly unlikely. The arrival of officers from the army’s ranks might make it easier for the Twigwaneho to organize an uprising. However, at the same time, several Twigwaneho combatants have defected, including nine who surrendered to the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) in recent weeks according to one of KST’s UN sources. “Eight of them are Hutus from Kalehe territory (South Kivu), who were promised money for tending cows. But in the face of attacks by Mai-Mai groups, they were unable to defend themselves.” For the time being, the movement seems to have found it difficult to broaden recruitment beyond its community of origin. Moreover, Banyamulenge armed groups remain divided: the leadership embodied by Makanika is being contested by Shyaka Nyamusaraba, the head of a smaller group, the Ngumino (“let’s stay here” in Kinyamulenge). These two groups clashed in Rukuka in November 2020. Above all, the vast majority of Banyamulenge officers in the Congolese army, particularly the highest ranking, have remained faithful to the government in Kinshasa.

The hard-to-reach region of the highlands (peaking at over 3400 meters in altitude), however, remains a breeding ground for Banyamulenge (sing. Munyamulenge) armed groups. Since the emergence of the “Abagirye” (derived from guerrier, French for “warrior”) in the 1960s, the highlands have been the birthplace of successive armed movements, fueled by the minority’s feelings of exclusion, insecurity, and discrimination. Traditionally made up of cattle breeders, the Banyamulenge’s spoken language is very closely related to that of its neighbors, Rwanda and Burundi, which feeds the suspicion that they are in collusion with foreign powers. Moreover, contrary to other peoples in the area who consider themselves “indigenous” (the Bafuliru, Babembe, Banyindu, or Bavira), no Munyamulenge traditional chief has a chiefdom, grouping or sector (the local administrative entities governed by customary power). Also, as they are not in the majority in any electoral district, the Banyamulenge are rarely elected. For decades, all of this has fed the desire to create an administrative entity in which they would constitute a majority.

The situation considerably deteriorated in the 1990s. The integration of some young Banyamulenge into the ranks of Paul Kagame’s RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army) reinforced the perception that the community as a whole was serving foreign interests. In 1995, the transition parliament in Kinshasa and the authorities in Uvira territory officially excluded the Banyamulenge from the Zairian nation and called for their expulsion, which led to new acts of discrimination, looting, and further rallying to the APR.

Prior to the invasion of the country by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFLC) of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, which was supported by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, a vanguard comprising of Banyamulenge had been sent to take position in the highlands. The vanguard caused a terrible cycle of killings, retaliation, and discrimination. This trauma is still keenly felt to this day. Due to these events, every armed group made up of Banyamulenge is suspected of inciting a regional war. Others have gone so far as to accuse the Banyamulenge of the  “balkanization” of the Congo – a baseless theory that says there is an international conspiracy to divide the DRC into several autonomous states.

Some members of the Banyamulenge community have attained positions of power due to their AFDL membership and involvement in the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). The RCD was an uprising backed by Kigali which controlled a large part of Eastern Congo for a long time. This rise to power is exemplified in the case of Azarias Ruberwa, who was Secretary General of the RCD. After the Sun City Agreement, which put an end to the war in 2002, Ruberwa became Vice President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo then later a very close advisor to President Joseph Kabila. Many Banyamulenge combatants also became senior officers in the FARDC through this agreement and through successive integrations of rebels in its ranks.

Despite the Sun City Agreement, violence never really ceased in the highlands of South Kivu. Since 2016, and even more so in 2018, the violence has intensified. In addition to the main causes of the upsurge in violence, there are three other causes to consider. The first being the abuses committed by the Ngumino against civilians and the traditional chiefs of other communities (such as Chief Munyindu Kawaza Nyakwana who was killed). Second, the open-arms policy by these same groups of Rwandan rebels of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) of Kayumba Nyamwasa. And third, the 2018 decree confirming the creation of the rural commune of Minembwewhich did not fall under the authority of the South Basimunyaka grouping. These causes gave rise to powerful hate speech against the Banyamulenge and has reignited the rhetoric of “balkanization,” particularly taken up by the opposition politician Martin Favulu and several representatives of the Catholic Church.

On the ground, a significant coalition of armed groups has come together to fight the Ngumino. This coalition comprises of the Mai-Mai Yakutumba, Ebu-Ela Mtetezi or Biloze Bishambuke (from the “indigenous” communities), and Burundian rebels of the Résistance pour un Etat de droit (RED-Tabara) who are backed by Rwanda according to Burundian authorities. The coalition has committed several atrocities against the Banyamulenge by setting their villages on fire and looting their cattle (an essential asset in the highlands of South Kivu), thereby forcing them to live in a few enclaves such as that of Minembwe. On the Banyamulenge side, the “Twigwaneho” militias have become the main armed movement and have in turn committed just as many abuses against civilians of other communities present in the highlands, which has also led to population displacement. Last August, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office estimated that the total number of displaced (across all communities) in the area amounted to 110,000 (in French).

All the above however does not explain why this wave of desertions from within the FARDC only occurred in 2021. The arrival of the Mai-Mai Yakutumba (the most powerful armed group in South Kivu) in the highlands, whose presence has been confirmed since the start of the year, may have played a role, by increasing the perceived threat.

However, above all, it appears to coincide with the break-up of the national political coalition between the Heading for Change (Cap pour le changement in French (Cach)) of President Félix Tshisekedi and the Common Front for Congo (Front commun pour le Congo in French (FCC)) of his predecessor Joseph Kabila. The main Banyamulenge political leaders on the national political scene (the Minister of Decentralization, Azarias Ruberwa, and the MP Moïse Nyarugabo in particular), are part of Kabila’s FCC, and have not joined the Sacred Union of the Nation (USN) as the president had hoped after the break-up. “The president did not even invite us to national consultations,” said Moïse Nyarugabo when interviewed by KST.

Although the authority of Ruberwa and Nyarugabo is contested by part of their community, no new political leader of national stature has truly emerged. Of the 48 members of the Provincial Assembly of South Kivu there are no Banyamulenge members. “Ruberwa was contested, but we knew that he had Kabila’s ear,” explains a community leader who wishes to remain anonymous. “Since Kabila lost power, we have lost any political outlet.” This is especially the case since Azarias Ruberwa is currently out of the country receiving medical treatment in South Africa.

Many Banyamulenge also doubt Félix Tshisekedi’s sincerity and capacity to defend them. In an interview with BBC Gahuza, deserter Colonel Charles Sematama justified his decision by referring to the president’s broken promises to stabilize the country (in French).

Tshisekedi’s close ties with the Rwandan authorities also arouse deep mistrust. It is true that the community is divided and the regional alliances of all the factions are unknown. However, many Banyamulenge have tense relations with the Kigali government. This tension was clear when the March 23 Movement (M23) was created in 2012. Virtually no Munyamulenge soldier joined this new Kigali-supported uprising led by Tutsis of North Kivu. A significant number of Banyamulenge officers, such as General Jonas Padiri, had even been at the forefront of the FARDC fighting against the movement.

Nonetheless, security cooperation between the DRC and the Paul Kagame-led Rwanda is thriving more than ever since Tshisekedi broke off his alliance with Kabila. Rwandan military delegations traveled to Kinshasa (in French) on at least two occasions since the start of the year (the last time was on Monday March 15th when some ten delegates, mainly Rwandan senior officers, traveled to the DRC). Additionally, a Congolese delegation, led by the president’s security advisor, François Beya, traveled to Kigali in February (in French). “We are here to say that we are united and that there will never be conflict between us,” declared Beya at the time.

Similarly, Félix Tshisekedi’s personal involvement in the issue of the highlands has been criticized by the community. In a January 2020 speech in front of the Congolese diaspora in London, Tshisekedi courageously confirmed that the Banyamulenge were Congolese (in French). Booed by the public, he has not dared declare it again since.

Then, in October 2020, he became even more unpopular in the Banyamulenge community. Major controversy ensued after Ruberwa attended the official mayoral appointment ceremony in Minembwe because no other mayor of a newly created rural commune had ever received the same treatment. In the face of the national uproar caused by this ceremony, the president had suspended the process and announced the creation of a scientific commission designed to decide on its legitimacy and propose solutions.

“This premature appointment is undoubtedly a political error. But in the end, we have to admit that Kabila gave us the rural commune of Minembwe and that Tshisekedi has taken it away from us,” complained a Munyamulenge community leader.

Five months after this announcement, the scientific commission has still not been assembled, let alone made any proposals to end the current crisis. In the absence of political process, there is a real danger that more Banyamulenge soldiers choose the force of arms.

Divisions between Tshisekedists and Kabilists Paralyze the State in Eastern DRC

In Kanyaruchinya, near Goma, July 15, 2013. (Monusco Photo by Sylvain Liechti)

The division between President Felix Tshisekedi’s camp and that of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, prevents, for the time being, the adoption of a coherent strategy to stabilize eastern DRC.

By Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker.

2127 civilians killed, 1450 abducted, 938 kidnapped… The Kivu Security Tracker (KST) recorded record-high deaths, abductions, and kidnappings for ransom during the first twenty months of Félix Tshisekedi’s presidency. This toll is even heavier than that of the last 20 months of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila (1553 civilians killed).

The difference is due mainly to the resurgence of killings perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)– the very one that President Félix Tshisekedi had promised to “definitively exterminate” during a “final offensive” in October 2019.

In order to fulfill this promise, and, more broadly, to eliminate all foreign armed groups present in the Kivus, the Congolese president first attempted to set up a regional military coalition. He organized several meetings in Goma with neighboring countries’ armies’ chiefs of staff in September and October 2019.

Already at that time, Joseph Kabila’s political coalition, the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), opposed this project. And the deep divisions between Rwanda on the one hand, and Uganda and Burundi on the other, as well as the opposition of a large part of Congolese public opinion, finally killed the project.

But on October 31, 2019, the FARDC, most of whose generals were appointed during Kabila’s time, launched a unilateral offensive. MONUSCO, which had not been involved in the planning, did not participate.

One year later, results on the ground are sorely lacking. Despite the announced reconquest of certain ADF strongholds, the operation has largely failed to put this Islamist group out of action. In fact, the ADF has committed far greater massacres since the beginning of the offensive (more than 640 civilians killed in attacks attributed to the ADF in the past year, compared to 195 the year before). On the ground, the FARDC offensive is now largely at a standstill. The Congolese military seems to have become the target in this conflict: of the eight clashes between the FARDC and ADF recorded by the KST in August, for example, the ADF were the initiators in seven cases. “When the president wanted to launch this offensive, the generals accepted it because it allowed them to get the funding that went with it,” a senior FCC official commented to the KST “but they never really believed in it.”

This offensive against the ADF illustrates, among other things, the lack of a coherent, coordinated strategy among the various Congolese and international political leaders to stabilize eastern DRC. Félix Tshisekedi’s rise to power has not, for the moment, made it possible to remedy this.

In Kinshasa, a multitude of Congolese institutions play a role in the politics of the country’s east. However, these institutions are divided between the coalition of the president and that of his predecessor. The Minister of Defense, Aimé Ngoy Mukena, is close to Joseph Kabila. But the Deputy Minister of Defense, Sylvain Mutombo Kabinga, is a fierce supporter of Tshisekedi, as is the Minister of the Interior, Gilbert Kankonde. The National Monitoring Mechanism of the Addis Ababa Agreement (MNS), which is expected to publish a roadmap for stabilizing the country, is headed by Claude Ibalanky. Ibalanky, a close associate of Tshisekedi, comes from the diaspora and does not have extensive experience dealing with conflict dynamics in eastern DRC. “We do not know who is in control” a European diplomatic source revealed in an interview with the KST. In his speech to the nation on October 23, President Tshisekedi cited “issues relating to peace and national security” as the main reason why there are “differences that persist between parties” to the ruling coalition.

Indeed, not all personalities playing a role in the east are pulling in the same direction. This has been evident of late in the “hauts plateaux” (highlands) of South Kivu, where a conflict pitted several militias from the Fuliru, Bembe, Nyindu, and Vira communities against those from the Banyamulenge community. This conflict, which has gone through repeated cycles of violence for several decades, has resumed with renewed vigor since Tshisekedi’s presidency: the main belligerents (Mai-Mai René, Ebu Ela, Biloze Bishambuke, Twirwaneho, Gumino and Makanika) have killed at least 81 civilians in the past year, a sharp increase over the previous year (35 killed), according to KST figures.

In August, Tommy Thambwe Rudima, a former member of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) rebellion, traveled to the highlands to try to defuse the conflict. He is affiliated with the NGO Interpeace, and apparently also held a presidential mandate, which a source in the head of state’s office confirmed to the KST. However, at the MNS, a source interviewed by the KST said that he was unaware of this mission, and even went so far as to suggest that Thambwe Rudima was probably an imposter.

Then, in mid-September, Tshisekedist Deputy Minister of Defense Sylvain Mutombo traveled to Murhesa, near Bukavu, to participate in talks between armed groups organized by the NGOs Search for Common Ground (SFCG) and the Initiative for a Cohesive Leadership (ILC). This initiative was funded by the governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, but was criticized by other donors and many sources in MONUSCO as being premature. Among the participants were representatives of the main belligerents in the highlands who eventually signed a very fragile ceasefire on September 16.

During the following days, relative calm prevailed in the region. But on September 28, Defense Minister Aimé Ngoy Mukena and Decentralization Minister Azarias Ruberwa, both FCC members, traveled to Minembwe to participate in the official induction of Gad Mukiza, a Munyamulenge, as mayor of the rural commune. This ceremony, held at a time when other local entities in South Kivu were still waiting for their administrative status to be formalized, was perceived as a provocation by a large part of the Congolese public. As a result, Félix Tshisekedi himself visited Goma on  October 8, promising to “cancel what has been done” in Minembwe. Since October 19, violent clashes have resumed in the highlands.

The rivalry between Tshisekedi coalition’s Cap pour le changement (CACH) and the FCC is also evident – and deleterious – in the development of a new Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program. While many of the armed groups in eastern DRC justified their struggle as being against Joseph Kabila’s presidency, Felix Tshisekedi’s term in office has sparked a real wave of voluntary demobilizations since the beginning of the year. Most of these combatants found themselves in cantonment camps. However, due to a lack of resources allocated to these camps, particularly food, most of them fled and returned to the bush.

With bitter memories of previous DDR programs, which they considered to be ineffective and non-transparent, donors did not release the funding that was hoped for for “DDR 3.” “The state was not fulfilling its part of the contract, which was to feed the cantoned combatants,” explained a source close to the dossier.

Félix Tshisekedi has therefore promoted a new approach: so-called “community-based” DDR. This was initially launched by governors of South and North Kivu, as well as Ituri, and is coordinated by Clovis Munihire, under the acronym “CIAP-DDRRRC”: Commission interprovinciale d’appui au processus de désarmement, démobilisation, réinsertion, reintegration et réconciliations communautaires. Its promoters want to change DDR methods, for example by avoiding the problematic DDR stage of confinement in military camps. The idea would now be for them to remain in their communities of origin. This approach also rules out any collective reintegration of combatants into the FARDC.

After having raised a certain amount of skepticism among the DRC’s main donors and MONUSCO, the project now seems to have the consent of the majority from this group. Most western ambassadors supported the new approach after a meeting with the president on October 22, where no FCC minister was present.

In fact, the president’s camp is hampered by the presence of people close to Kabila in key positions. Until now, DDR programs have been coordinated by the Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for Eastern DRC (STAREC), the Congolese agency that is supposed to implement these programs with the international community. It is also this structure that controls the donor-funded Stabilization Coherence Fund (SCF).

STAREC is coordinated by Alain Kasindi, a man reputed to be close to Néhémie Mwilanya, the National Coordinator of the FCC, and is placed under the authority of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Planning, Elysée Munembwe, who is also from the FCC.

According to a source related to the case, the Tshisekedi camp sees STAREC as a tool to capture funds for the benefit of the FCC. According to a UN source, the president intends to create a new structure, attached to the presidency, which would allow him, among other things, to control STAREC. Thus, in Goma the president announced the forthcoming appointment of a National Coordinator for community DDR.

The issue of funding for these projects, however, remains unresolved. During his visit to Goma, the president announced that $50 million would be allocated to DDR. According to a source at the World Bank, however, this money was not intended to finance DDR-C, but the “Social Fund for the DRC” to support communities affected by violence. Faced with a fait accompli, however, the Bank finally announced “a dedicated stabilization project to support the governors’ initiative in the east,” the parameters of which have yet to be defined.

In addition, the DRC is eligible for new funding under the World Bank’s Prevention and Resilience (PRA) allocation. This funding, provided by European diplomatic sources, totals $700 million. However, the Congolese government must meet several conditions in order to release these funds, including the publication of a comprehensive strategy for stabilizing the country. To date, the World Bank believes that the Congolese government has not met this condition.

Why Violence in the South Kivu Highlands Is Not ‘Ethnic’ (And Other Misconceptions About the Crisis)

Students from a school near Minembwe, June 2007. (Photo Julien Harneis)

Judith Verweijen is a lecturer at the Department of Politics & International Relations at the University of Sheffield (UK). Her research looks at the interplay of armed mobilization, violence and conflicts around natural resources. Her main focus is on eastern DRC, where she has conducted extensive field research since 2010.

On August 10, 2020, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office in the Democratic Republic of Congo (UNJHRO) published a report on the unfolding crisis on the highlands (Hauts Plateaux) at the intersection of Fizi, Uvira, and Mwenga territories in South Kivu. Curiously, the report focuses on a limited area of the highlands only: it omits the Bijombo area, where fighting first escalated mid-2018, after three years of conflict. 

Despite this omission, the report gives an indication of the enormous toll that the crisis has taken: it documents the destruction of at least 95 villages, 128 deaths from summary and extrajudicial executions,  47 victims of sexual-related violence, and the looting and killing of thousands of cattle. This violence has led to a dire humanitarian situation, with over 110,000 people displaced. 

The UNJHRO report does not provide much analysis of the drivers of this violence. It acknowledges that the conflict and its origins stem from multiple factors at the national and sub-regional level, but is limited to the inter-community aspect. This is unfortunate, as it advertently gives off the impression that this is the most important factor. 

Similar to other conflicts in eastern DRC, the crisis on the Plateaux is characterized by profound complexity. It involves a range of different drivers of conflict and violence that play out at different levels–from the local to the sub-regional. Narratives emphasizing simple explanations provide only one piece of this complex puzzle. Here are three such narratives and why on their own they are incomplete, if not inaccurate. 

1. The violence on the Hauts Plateaux stems from “ethnic” or “inter-communal” conflict

Ethnic identity has featured prominently in explanations for the recent violence. From this perspective, it stems from animosities between the Banyamulenge on the one hand, and groups that label themselves “autochthonous”–including the Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliiru, and Bavira on the other. 

This narrative needs to be nuanced. There are certainly numerous conflicts on the Plateaux that pit Banyamulenge against other groups. These conflicts relate to contestations around local authority and control over land and resources, including the taxation and regulation of markets, mines, and cattle movements.

However, these conflicts do not always turn into armed violence. Violence is committed first and foremost by armed groups and “local defense” militias. True, these armed actors claim to defend particular ethnic communities and are often supported by members of these communities seeking protection. Yet most ordinary citizens are not involved in planning, organizing, directing, inciting, or committing violence. We therefore cannot ascribe such violence to “ethnic groups” writ large. More importantly, we must pinpoint and analyze when, why, and how conflicts turn violent. As an extensive body of research shows, violence labelled as “ethnic” is often driven by a range of other motives and objectives, including inter-personal conflict, economic and political competition and disputes about land and other property. 

Another problem with the “ethnic conflict” narrative is that it assumes there are two homogeneous blocks: the Banyamulenge and groups calling themselves “autochthonous.” Yet these groups themselves have numerous internal divisions, which are reflected in the plethora of armed groups linked to either side. 

There are at least three Banyamulenge armed groups: the Twirwaneho–a coalition of local militias, which are also developing a political branch; the Gumino, led by Shaka Nyamusharaba; and an armed group commanded by FARDC deserter Michel Rukunda, aka “Makanika,” which has numerous Banyamulenge youth from the regional diaspora (Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi) in its ranks. The armed groups linked to the Babembe, Bafuliiru, and Banyindu are even more numerous. They include the Mai-Mai of Ebuela Mtetezi–which encompasses Bembe commanders who previously had their own groups, such as Aoci and Ngyalabato; the Mai Mai Mulumba; the Mai Mai “Mupekenya” under the command of Kati Malisawa, and a range of mostly Fuliiru and Nyindu groups operating under the label “Biloze Bishambuke.” The latter include the groups of Ilunga, Kashomba, Mushombe, and in the Minembwe area, those led by Luhala Kasororo and Assani Malkiya. 

These armed groups operate in broad coalitions, but there are regularly tensions and occasionally even clashes between groups that are supposedly on the same side. For instance, on August 2, the Biloze Bishambuke under the command of Ilunga clashed with the troops of  Kati Malisawa near Maheta village, allegedly due to a dispute over stolen cattle. This indicates that certain armed group leaders, and the political actors that help mobilize and support them, also have different agendas than protecting their communities. They often aspire to enhancing their own political and economic clout and some have national political aspirations. This further undermines the argument that the violence is primarily driven by “ethnic conflict.” 

2. The violence on the Hauts Plateaux is related to the creation of the commune rurale of Minembwe 

Another popular explanation for the violence, which is closely linked to the ethnic conflict narrative, is that it stems from the creation of the “rural commune” of Minembwe– a non-customary decentralized local governance entity. The commune became operational at the start of 2019, following decrees issued in 2013 and 2018, and the nomination of its leaders in February 2019. 

The commune is undoubtedly a source of conflict. It is located in Fizi territory, on lands that members of the Babembe community consider to be theirs. They therefore see the creation of the commune as encroachment on or the occupation of their ancestral grounds. Some have also contested the designation of the mayor, who is  Munyamulenge. But most importantly, the creation of the commune is seen as the first step for the resurrection of the territoire (sub-provincial administrative entity) of Minembwe.

During the Second Congo War, the rebel administration of the Rwanda-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie (Congolese rally for Democracy or RCD) created  Minembwe territory, which encompassed large parts of the Hauts Plateaux and the adjacent Moyens Plateaux. The territory fulfilled a longstanding wish among the Banyamulenge, whom the colonial authorities had denied a chiefdom or groupement–local governance entities generally formed along ethnic lines. Consequently, they became subject to rule by customary chiefs from other communities. The territory, where they dominated the administration, resolved this. Moreover, anticipating future elections, the territory, which is an electoral district, would have allowed the Banyamulenge to increase their political representation in parliament. Being a minority in each of the three territories that comprise the Hauts Plateaux, they had struggled to get their candidates elected. Finally, the territory brought local administration closer to the people in this isolated region, allowing them to obtain birth certificates and other official documents there. 

The creation of the territory–which was formally abolished in 2007– was heavily contested by other groups, who perceived it to break up their ancestral lands. In addition, it appeared to confirm a conspiracy theory that the Banyamulenge were the vanguard of a foreign invasion attempting to expropriate and displace “autochthonous” groups, and usurp their local authority. Members of these groups therefore have bad memories of Minembwe territory. In addition, it has left a legacy of leadership conflicts. Numerous former appointees have continued to behave as de facto local authorities, even if they no longer hold an official position. 

For these reasons, Minembwe territory has a highly symbolic function, as a marker of division and violence. The commune rurale evokes similar strong feelings, being deeply inscribed in struggles around local authority and identity. It has also become a national political affair. While prominent Banyamulenge leaders––including Azarias Ruberwa, currently the minister of decentralization–– endorse the commune, many Bembe, Fuliiru and Nyindu politicians, such as Pardonne Kaliba, have denounced it. The commune has also stirred heated debate among Congolese in the diaspora. 

Yet the violence on the Hauts Plateaux, as well as the emergence of most of the armed groups involved in the current fighting, predates the creation of the commune. Violence on the Plateaux has been a regular occurrence since 1996. The current cycle started in 2016 and escalated mid-2018. This escalation first occurred in Bijombo groupement. This groupement is not included in the commune rurale, whose surface is many times smaller than the (abolished) territory of Minembwe. Bijombo also has distinct conflict dynamics. The latter revolve to a large extent around the position of the chef de groupement–for which there are multiple contenders linked to different ethnic groups. Another site of significant violence is the Itombwe area, which is equally not included in the commune. 

In sum, even though it is an important source of conflict and figures prominently in the belligerents’ discourses, the commune is only one of many factors in the current fighting. It does not explain why and when armed groups emerged on the Plateaux and who they target with their violence. 

3. The violence on the Hauts Plateaux is the result of foreign interference

As documented by, inter alia, the UN Group of Experts on the DRC and Radio France Internationale, the coalitions of belligerents fighting on the Plateaux include foreign armed groups, notably the Burundian groups Résistance pour un état de droit au Burundi (RED-Tabara) and Forces nationales de libération (FNL), as well as the Rwanda National Congress (RNC). They have occasionally also included soldiers linked to the governments of neighbouring countries, which have moreover hosted recruitment and supply networks. At the same time, eastern DRC has a history of wars kickstarted by foreign interference. The conclusion that the trouble on the Plateaux results from foreign meddling is therefore easily drawn. 

Yet this explanation glosses over the many conflicts around local authority mentioned above. It also overlooks the role of provincial, national and diaspora political actors in supporting armed mobilization and polarization. Moreover, the language of “foreign interference” is somewhat misleading. It suggests that all power resides on the side of foreign forces, who manipulate Congolese intermediaries as they see fit.

This reading obscures that Congolese armed group leaders and political actors have significant room for maneuver regarding what foreign forces they ally with. Occasional shifts in such alliances testify to this leeway. These shifts also demonstrate that such alliances are mutually beneficial. Through their foreign allies, Congolese groups gain in military capabilities, for instance, by acquiring heavy weaponry. This, in turn, allows these groups to better advance their position within conflicts around local authority and access to resources. As such, the involvement of foreign actors cannot be seen in isolation from local dynamics of conflict and violence; they are interwoven and mutually reinforcing. That said, foreign interference has clearly contributed to a significant escalation of the violence, even if it has not caused it. 

What, then, is at the root of this terrible violence? There are a number of interlocking mechanisms at work. First, the narrative of “ethnic violence” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: all types of conflicts and incidents of violence are seen primarily through an ethnic lens, even if there are also other factors at work. This activates a second mechanism, which is the attribution of collective responsibility for individual acts of violence. As a result, civilians are attacked in retaliation for violence committed by armed groups. This blurring of the boundaries between armed groups and civilians is an important driver of cycles of revenge violence. Widespread impunity has further aggravated this: as individual perpetrators are not held to account, the blame is shifted towards groups as a whole. 

Another key mechanism is militarization, or the tendency by local leaders and politico-military elites to resort to force in order to gain the day in disputes and power struggles. This does not only involve politicians, business people and military leaders in the DRC, but also governmental actors and other elites at the level of the Great Lakes Region. 

The emergence and persistence of armed groups, however, is not only the result of militarization: it also stems from local security dilemmas related to mutual distrust between communities. The presence of armed groups seen to defend particular ethnic communities prompts members from other communities to equally sustain armed groups. The same logic propels these armed groups to maintain a military balance of power, which motivates attacks to weaken the enemy. Local security dilemmas crucially hinge upon a generalized lack of trust in the state security forces, which are accused of partiality by all sides. It is also rooted in a history of violence dating back to the Congo Wars, which has instilled bitter feelings and deep distrust between different groups. 

These various mechanisms play out at different levels and become mutually reinforcing. For instance, the involvement of foreign armed actors is in part the result of the strategies of politicians and military leaders operating at the national level. Once present, these foreign forces exacerbate local security dilemmas and conflicts around local authority and resources. In this manner, dynamics of conflict and violence at different levels become entwined. Monocausal explanations, such as the lazy trope of “ethnic violence” do no justice to this complexity. In fact, they may exacerbate the situation. They further essentialize identities and legitimize attributing responsibility for armed group violence to civilian communities. When describing violence in eastern DRC we must therefore try harder to find an adequate analytical language. 

[Guest blog] The NDC-Rénové Kicks Out Guidon, Who Kicked Out Sheka

Guidon Shimiray’s stronghold was located in Walikale territory (photo). Monusco / Kevin Jordan

Christoph Vogel is a researcher and investigator specializing in DRC’s armed groups. A former member of the UN security council group of experts, he currently works with the Conflict research programme based at London School of Economics (UK) and Ghent University (Belgium)

 

On the night of July 8, near Pinga in one of its main headquarters, the NDC-Rénové announced the dismissal of its top commander, Guidon Shimiray Mwissa. In a communiqué signed by the movement’s spokesperson Désiré Ngabo, the NDC-R announced that Guidon’s deputies Gilbert Bwira and Mapenzi Likuhe are taking over the leadership of the group.

The communiqué’s wording is particularly striking: it reproduces nearly verbatim Guidon Shimiray’s own 2014 language when he took control of Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi’s former NDC rebellion in Walikale area of North Kivu.

A recent Congo Research Group report meticulously documented how the story of the NDC–R is in many ways a blueprint to understand conflict and armed mobilization in the eastern Congo. More often than not, the emergence, evolution and demise of belligerents in that region is guided by a combination of drivers and factors. In the NDC and NDC-R’s case, this has been the imbrication of politics, business, and social relations, as well as the broader geopolitical surroundings in which the movement was able to operate. While it is unclear at this point where the NDC-R is headed, and who will lead it, some interesting lessons can be drawn from the group’s trajectory and its (more or less) sudden split.

Big or small, most armed groups in eastern Congo’s highly fragmented (in)security landscape – recent counts suggest well over a hundred clearly identifiable belligerents – are sensitive to developments around them. These include local and provincial politics, the role and positioning of customary leaders and army commanders in their area, and many other dynamics. The case of the NDC and the NDC–R illustrates just how much the movement has, historically, reacted to external interference in the shaping of its own structure and strategy. Military, customary, and political elites were crucial in helping Guidon and Bwira to take over from Sheka, and for Mapenzi to leave Janvier Karairi’s APCLS and bring most of its troops into the NDC-R. Judging from this tradition, it would be highly unlikely that Bwira and Mapenzi would topple Guidon without similar backing.

One big question now is that of troop strength. Neither the Congo Research Group, nor Congolese analysts, nor the the UN Group of Experts have provided clear numbers, but it is probably safe to say that the NDC-R has somewhere between 1000 and 5000 elements. (Yes, this range is huge, but specific head counts tend to be incorrect, as many past examples show.) These include semi-autonomous allies such as the UPDI-Mazembe under Kitete Bushu. How many of these troops (and their respective stocks, positions etc.) will remain loyal to Guidon? Who will remain with Mapenzi and Bwira? Answering this question will surely take days.

As of now, less than 24 hours following the split, the only clear thing is that internecine fighting has emerged in a number of places, including Pinga, Mweso, Kashuga, and near JTN/Katsiru (although this list may not be exhaustive). In some places, the Congolese army – not known for taking a particularly tough stance on the NDC–R in the past – is engaging units of the group. In other places, the coalition linking Nyatura CMC with FDLR and APCLS is taking back positions recently lost to the NDC–R. As in other splits, it is likely that a high number of rank-and-file do not even necessarily know whom they will stick with, as it is often a coincidence and depends on who is posted where at the moment of the split. This was very much the case when the CNRD split from the FDLR in 2016. Nonetheless, given the long-standing rumors over internal falling out and an impending clash, some preparations might have been done by commanders on both sides.

In the meantime, populations across Walikale, Masisi, Rutshuru, and Lubero territories are as confused as one can be after having lived under fairly stable, army-like control for years. This period was characterized by the most efficient system of illegal taxation (the infamous “jeton” system) developed by any non-state actor in eastern Congo since the heyday of the FDLR. And its significance should not be underestimated: in a region where shifting control and governance patterns are legion, the NDC–R’s rule in many places represented some sort stability, notwithstanding the violence it brought. Some of the scenarios that may occur over the coming weeks are: (a) the atomization of armed control of the region if the NDC-R effectively breaks down (this will depend on how much Guidon’s presence has been an “integrating” factor for the movement), (b) a stand-off in which both factions contest and fight one another, or (c) a quick annihilation of one wing by the other. In all of these scenarios, neither the FARDC’s reaction (especially that of units that have been close to the NDC-R thus far) nor that of other powerful armed groups have been factored in—most notably the sort of alliance that brought the CMC/FDLR/APCLS coalition together with the FPP-AP, the Mazembe wing that is critical of the NDC-R and formerly allied with the FDLR.

If, in the past month, the fighting between the broader coalition around the NDC-R and that around the CMC and FDLR in Rutshuru and Lubero seemed like a return to the situation that prevailed throughout 2016, the NDC-R split could bring us into uncharted territory in terms of its immediate security implications. Finally, another question is the fate of Guidon Shimiray himself – will he end up being captured and facing military trial like his predecessor Sheka, or will he reinvent himself and his alliances on the ground? Wait and see.

This post was originally published on suluhu.org.

Towns in the Kivus Hit by a Spate of Armed Robberies

Joint patrol by the United Nations Police, Congolese National Police and Congolese Army in Goma on May 20, 2020. Photo Monusco / Kevin Jordan

The decision was not taken lightly. In the month of May 2020, the new coronavirus had been spreading through the DRC for several weeks, and the town of Beni, like the rest of the country, had been placed under a public health emergency outlawing any gatherings of more than 20 people (in French). However, there was a something of greater concern in the eyes of militants of the citizens’ movement, the Struggle for Change (LUCHA). “Drastic steps have been taken to fight this epidemic, yet no cases have been recorded here,” recalls Steward, one of the collective’s members. “However, Beni residents are suffering much more from insecurity, which doesn’t seem to worry anybody,” he recalls.

For years, this town in North Kivu has lived under the menace of armed groups and particularly of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan Islamist uprising, which regularly commits abuses against civilians and plagues the region. However, in recent weeks, a new phenomenon has made the already dire situation worse: over the course of the first three weeks of May, at least six armed robberies were committed in the town.

For LUCHA, it had become unbearable. So on May 20, the citizens’ movement wrote to the Beni municipality to inform it of its intention to organize “peaceful demonstrations” to denounce “the upsurge in insecurity and the wave of killings in Beni town.” The protests organized for the following day were severely repressed. One of the protesters, Freddy Marcus Kambale, a 19-year-old schoolboy, was shot by police and 21 of his classmates were arrested. The trial of the police officer suspected of this killing is still ongoing (in French).

Beni is far from being an isolated case. For several weeks, the exasperation of locals living in the large urban centers of the Kivus has been growing in the face of a perceived increase in crime. The police, sometimes suspected of complicity with the criminals, are finding it difficult to contain social unrest. In Butembo, on May 27, taxi drivers also took to the streets. The day before, one of them had been killed by armed men. Once again the protests degenerated: one of the protesters was shot and wounded by the police.

The rise in urban insecurity does not appear to be limited to the Kivus. In Lubumbashi, on May 19, Mgr Jean-Pierre Tafunga warned of the upswing in “indescribable” insecurity (in French). And the same day, National Assembly members of the Defense and Security Commission challenged the Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, Gilbert Kankonde, on the increase in insecurity in the country’s cities (in French). “We have received calls from nearly everywhere in our electoral districts alerting us to this phenomenon,” explained its rapporteur, National Assembly member for Walikale, Juvénal Munubo, to KST. The phenomenon has different names in different towns: “40 voleurs” in Goma, “Kasuku” in Butembo, “Kuluna” in Kinshasa… However, the general trend of a rise in urban violence is clear to see.”

It remains difficult to come up with a precise number for this increase due to an absence of statistics on insecurity in the DRC. The lengthy reply penned by the Vice-Primeand Minister of the Interior to National Assembly members provides no statistics, even though it acknowledges the issue.

Data collected by KST nevertheless appears to confirm this trend: an increase in the number of armed robberies was recorded from April in the towns of the Kivus (Beni, Butembo, Goma, Bukavu, Uvira, and Baraka). Twenty incidents of this kind were recorded in April and 24 in May, compared with a monthly average of 11.7. This is unprecedented since March 2018.

The town of Butembo was particularly impacted with 11 such incidents in May (compared with 1.7 in average). This is unprecedented since KST began logging such data in June 2017.

Why is there such a rise? According to Juvénal Munubo, the public health crisis COVID-19, the steps taken to contain it, and the economic crisis are all possible obvious candidates.

Elsewhere in the world, however, isolation measures have inversely caused crime to drop. But it is possible that the consequences of the pandemic are different in the DRC. Except for rare exceptions, such as the Gombe neighborhood in Kinshasa, and the Ibanda neighborhood in Bukavu, residents of Congolese towns have not been ordered to observe strict self-confinement. Most criminals have therefore been free to roam towns, like the rest of the population.

The economic crisis on the other hand has not left DRC cities unscathed and could partly explain this upswing in robberies. On international markets, the Congolese franc has lost approximately 11% of its value since March, dropping from 1700 francs for one dollar to nearly 1900 today, eating into the purchasing power of the Congolese paid in national currency.

In Kinshasa, deadly clashes took place between the police and protesters calling for the reopening of the large market located in the town of Gombe, where food is available at affordable prices (in French). In total, the Central Bank of Congo has revised its 2020 economic forecasts downwards to -2.4% (against -1.9% previously) and now estimates inflation at 9% against the planned 7% (in French). According to the Central Bank, the crisis is essentially due to the “both internal and external population isolation measures.”

Since March, towns in the Kivus have been particularly impacted by border closures with three neighboring countries (Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi) with which traditionally there is intensive trade.

Traffic between the towns of North Kivu (Goma, Butembo, and Beni) was also suspended for three weeks in April, as it was between Goma and Bukavu.

The fact that the town of Butembo, usually a thriving trade hub, has been the most impacted by an upsurge in armed robbery may also point to a link between the slowdown in trade and the increase in urban insecurity.

Why were the Virunga National Park Rangers Killed?

Two Virunga National Park Rangers gaze upon the lava of Nyiragongo crater. MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh

In the heart of the forest, Mikeno Lodge, and its spacious bungalows, is the most luxurious accommodation in the Virunga National Park, located in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fireside drinks of Champagne are served in the evening. During the day, visitors can meet orphan chimpanzees, brought up by the park rangers, and visit mountain gorillas in their natural environment. Virunga Park is one of the few in the world to host this critically endangered emblematic species.

On the morning of April 24, however, the lodge was empty due to the new coronavirus pandemic and tourism had been at a standstill for several weeks. But another scourge was about to strike.

Towards 11 o’clock, combat weapon shots suddenly tore through the forest calm. A few hundred meters from the bungalows, three vehicles, including two belonging to the rangers, had fallen into an ambush in Mahura. Half an hour of crossfire later, the death toll was horrific: 12 rangers, their driver and four civilians were dead. The Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) had never suffered such a heavy attack in Virunga Park.

Its rangers, however, were used to such danger. From Mount Rwenzori, which is often used to shelter the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF, a Uganda-based Islamist rebellion), to the Nyiragongo Volcano, overlooking the city of Goma, the 7,800 km2 Virunga National Park is regularly used by armed groups as their battlefield, smuggling route, or source of raw materials for looting.

This dangerous environment justified an arms race in the 2010s which led to the creation of the ICCN Quick Reaction Force (QRF), a paramilitary unit, sometimes deployed offensively, comprising 270 elite rangers (in French).  In this way, and as noble as their nature conservation mission may be, the rangers have in effect become actors caught up in the conflicts in the Kivus. The Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has recorded 28 clashes involving ICCN rangers since it started logging such incidents in 2017. This figure most likely only represents part of the true total.

The rangers often cooperate with the Congolese army in attacks which can cause collateral civilian damage, such as against the Mai-Mai Mazembe on May 23, 2019. “The park believes, rightly, that rangers are not legitimate targets under international humanitarian law, but the specific status of the QRF and the nature of their operations places them in a gray zone,” says Christoph Vogel, a researcher at the University of Ghent (Belgium) and former member of the UN Group of Experts on the DRC.

Furthermore, a long and complex conflict on the limits of the park’s boundaries has pitted them against some local communities. The park covers a quarter of the territories of Beni, Lubero, Masisi, Nyiragongo, and Rutshuru and deprives some farmers of access to land on which they are used to farming. This conflict is particularly acute in the region of Nyamilima, although the ICCN has recently authorized harvesting on a temporary basis from April 27 to July 26 to allow them to better cope with food scarcity caused by the pandemic (in French).

ICCN rangers therefore do not lack for enemies, especially its most feared unit, the QRF, which was decimated in the attack. On the same day, park authorities were able to publish several highly detailed statements on the circumstances surrounding the attack.

The first states that in fact it was a civilian vehicle which was targeted by the ambush. According to our information, this was a white Toyota Prado TX which was attacked with RPG rocket launchers and PKM machine guns. According to the statement, the assailants were reported to be none other than Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR-Foca).  More specifically, the assailants appeared to be approximately sixty combatants from the Maccabé group, formerly known as the Commando de recherche et d’action en profondeur (CRAP), an FDLR commando unit.

ICCN rangers, who happened to be passing by on the drive back to their headquarters in Rumangabo, were reported to be only the collateral damage of the ambush and only targeted because they tried to assist some civilians. The second version slightly amended the first statement, which only stated that a civilian vehicle in close proximity had been attacked before the arrival of the rangers.

So why would the FDLR possibly have carried out an attack on a civilian vehicle with combat weapons? Several diplomatic, university, and ICCN sources outlined the scenario to KST. According to them, the FDLR is reported to have received information that FARDC Colonel Claude Rusimbi, deputy commander of intelligence operations of the 3409th Regiment, was going to use that road, between Goma and Rutshuru, on the same morning. It may well be that the FDLR mistook the rangers for his escort.

The FDLR had cause to hold a personal grudge against Rusimbi. On April 13, one of their main strongholds in Kazahoro, a few kilometers from the attack, had been attacked in a major offensive by the Congolese army (in French). According to several military and diplomatic sources, Rwandan army (RDF) Special Forces had secretly participated in this attack. However, according to several military and university sources, Colonel Rusimbi is just one of the Congolese officers in charge of coordination with their Rwandan counterparts. The colonel was also aware that he was the target of the FDLR, according to a member of his entourage.

Whether it was targeted retaliation against Rusimbi or not, the responsibility of the FDLR seems highly probable. It fits with both the weapons used and the modus operandi of the armed group, as well as the area known for attacks by this group.

The attack against the Virunga Park Rangers (red star) is located in an area where the FDLR-Foca regularly carry out attacks (other colors: incidents in which they were implicated, since June 2017)

In addition to the ICCN, who holds the FDLR responsible for the ambush, President Paul Kagame also accused the armed group during a press conference on April 27 (37th minute).

The FDLR also had its own motivations for attacking the ICCN. These rebels regularly suspect the park rangers of collaborating with the Rwandan army to hunt them down. In addition, according to several reports by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, one of their main sources of funding is the sale and taxation of “makala,” or charcoal, produced by illegally burning trees from within the park. This effectively places them in conflict with the ICCN, including the QRF.

The FDLR have, however, put forward their own theory: according to them, the Rwandan army is responsible for the attack (in French). But this scenario appears convoluted: the ICCN is alleged to have knowingly lied, by wrongly accusing the FDLR so as to demonize them and justify, after the fact, the presence of the RDF on Congolese soil. Such a plot, involving several different actors, appears difficult to put together.

“The FDLR statement is totally disconnected from the reality of the facts,” claims an expert on this group. “It was only released to respond to the Rwandan authorities in the war they are waging in the media.”

“Members of the FDLR admit in private that they are behind this attack,” indicates Christoph Vogel. “According to them, this was a ‘mistake’ and they claim that their target was Rusimbi.”

How the Coronavirus Risks Further Weakening the Kivus

A MONUSCO Blue Helmet in Kibati (North-Kivu) in September 2012 (Monusco/Sylvain Liechti)

For the last 20 months, eastern Congo has been fighting the longest and most complex Ebola epidemic in DRC’s history. It has also been the most lethal, killing 2,276 people.

On top of this, a new communicable disease appeared in the Kivus in March: the coronavirus, or COVID-19. On March 29, the first two cases were confirmed in Bukavu. Since then, others were recorded in Goma and Beni.

This analysis is an attempt to anticipate the effects that this epidemic might have on peace and security in the Kivus, even if, due to its unprecedented nature, such an exercise is difficult. COVID-19 is the first coronavirus pandemic in history. It is currently still in its early stages around the world, and even more so on the African continent. Above all, it too has not hit a conflict zone before.

Although the Ebola epidemic can provide useful insights, the two situations are not the same. The Ebola epidemic only affected a limited area of the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri. While its death rate was very high (over half of those infected died), the disease was only transmittable after the dramatic and easily identifiable symptoms appeared and was therefore traceable. A vaccine was used to help control its contagion. The DRC also received support from the international community to cope with this epidemic totaling over 800 Million USD (in French). Health workers became targets (in French) and the capture of resources allocated by the international community became an objective, which seems to have escalated the conflicts.

Conversely, COVID-19 has shown no signs of stopping its geographical progression and nothing indicates that it will remain limited to certain areas in the east of DRC. Control strategies by means of tracking and confinement are extremely difficult with this virus, which can be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers. Only a handful of countries around the world (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan or Vietnam) have until now been able to implement them with any success. All were countries with strong states, and it is unclear whether the DRC has such capacity, particularly in the east. This is also a pandemic which is affecting every continent. Although China and the European Union (EU) have committed to assist the continent (the EU announced that it has pledged 15 billion euros in aid), this assistance, targeted in part to the whole of Africa, will necessarily be more diluted than that of the response to the Ebola epidemic.

In such conditions, any prospective analysis is necessarily speculative, and any trends identified can only be provisional at best.

Observable Consequences

The arrival of the virus in the region has, nevertheless, had observable consequences in the Kivus. All the surrounding states have closed their borders to travelers: this was the case for Burundi since March 15, followed by Rwanda since the 21st and Uganda since the 23rd. These decisions have cut transport routes regularly used by Kivutians, such as the Bukavu-Goma road via Kibuye in Rwanda, or the Bukavu-Uvira road via Rwanda and Burundi. Some of the traffic has therefore been diverted to roads in poorer condition or that are more dangerous, exposing travelers to more risks. A rise in insecurity was seen at the start of April in the Ruzizi Plain (in French), without direct proof that this is due to the closing of borders. Also, provincial authorities have decided to close access roads to the main urban centers of the region, namely Bukavu, Goma, Butembo, and Beni.

Such restrictions do not apply in principle to the transport of goods. However, reports obtained by KST indicate that these decisions have been interpreted overly strictly and have in effect slowed down trade. Most of the region’s trade, and specifically that of small traders who physically move with their goods, have been affected. Additionally, these borders – particularly between Goma and Gisenyi in Rwanda – see thousands of workers cross them daily under normal circumstances.

The crisis has therefore led to a loss of such economic activity as well as to a rise in the price of basic necessities, which has eroded the purchasing power of inhabitants. On March 26, shortly after the closing of the borders, inflation had already reached between 5 and 88% for basic necessities according to KST data in Goma.

However, the economic situation could deteriorate further if local authorities adopt strict confinement measures, such as those put in place in the municipality of Gombe in Kinshasa since April 6 (in French). These could have devastating consequences on employment and income in urban areas where wage labor is the exception, remote working rarely feasible and where the informal sector represents most of the work available (the urban informal sector represented 81.5% of jobs in 2012 in the DRC). If implemented, such measures could lead to tension by negatively impacting the basic interests of most of the population.

Furthermore, the international economic slowdown is also affecting the Kivus. Similarly to previous economic crises, transfers of remittances by the diaspora, overrepresented in the most vulnerable classes of industrial societies, could dry up. The price of raw materials on international markets has also fallen considerably. The impact is already visible including on tin prices whose ore, cassiterite, is mined in Walikale and Shabunda territories.

One-year gold price history in USD in tons (source: lme.com)

However, the value of other ores produced in the Kivus such as gold, considered a refuge currency, remained at a historically high level.

One-year gold price history in USD in ounces (source: lme.com)

The security implications of the global economic slowdown remain difficult to predict, however. The economic slump, particularly when it affects the young, could facilitate their recruitment by armed groups. The previous global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, however, did not have a direct impact on the scale of the conflicts. 2009 was even a year of relative calm, with the signing of the 23 March Agreements which put an end to the most powerful of uprisings of the time, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). These peace agreements, however, were the result of regional reconfigurations rather than the international financial crisis.

Preventative measures

Above all, the effects of the coronavirus epidemic are not confined to the economy but impact all human activity in different ways. The UN Mission to the DRC (MONUSCO) is, for example, unusually affected by this crisis. While there has not been any known case among its ranks to date (according to a spokesperson asked by KST), it has taken preventative measures to avoid becoming a vector of this epidemic.

It has urged its staff who are at risk to return to their home country. Its civilian staff who have remained in the DRC have to work remotely from home. The rotations of uniformed personnel have been suspended for an initial period of three months, which in the medium term could have a negative effect on troop morale. MONUSCO’s network of regular air links (the densest in the country) has been suspended, which poses logistical problems for many organizations who depend on it, including the FARDC.

Despite such precautions, hostile reactions from local communities towards UN staff could increase, as the coronavirus is, for the moment, largely seen as a problem that came from abroad. This kind of phenomenon has been seen by KST many times during the Ebola epidemic (in French). Moreover, hostile reactions to foreigners have also been seen in Kinshasa since the start of the coronavirus epidemic (in French).

Over the course of the coming months, MONUSCO donor states, who provide troops and finance, could focus their resources on their own countries, relegating the crisis in the Kivus to the back of their minds. Mediation and demobilization initiatives for armed groups, which require travel, meetings and other gatherings, risk becoming more difficult due to the measures aimed at fighting the health crisis. Some bases where combatants were gathered have been closed (such as in Mubambiro near Sake), with probable negative consequences for security.

It follows that MONUSCO’s effectiveness will likely suffer for several months. Its ability to maintain pressure on armed groups, already found lacking by many Congolese, will be further weakened.

Regional impact

Countries in the region, which are often more closely integrated with the international economy, are also likely to be severely affected by the crisis. In recent years, Rwanda in particular has heavily invested in the air transport, tourism, and conference industries (in French). The exceptionally severe impact of the coronavirus crisis on these sectors could result in a shock leading to a review of the country’s priorities.

Also, if the crisis there were to lead to political instability in neighboring countries, including among the elite, turning their focus abroad – and particularly to the DRC – could be a survival strategy for those in authority. Furthermore, this shock comes at a time when levels of distrust between Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are exceptionally high, despite the efforts of the DRC to bring them together.

The war by proxy being waged by these countries on Congolese soil, particularly in the highlands of the South-Kivu, could therefore continue or even escalate. Controlling smuggling routes, particularly for resources which have maintained their value such as gold, could become even more critical at regional level.

Further, Congolese security forces risk having to deal with mounting challenges. The imposition of social distancing measures could force them to deploy their very limited resources to urban areas. Additionally, in the Kivus, the maintenance of order frequently leads to abuses by the security services, which can degenerate into local conflicts. The Congolese state’s budget crisis, which is likely to worsen mainly due to the global economic slowdown, will make financing military operations harder. Even if MONUSCO were to seek to do everything possible to continue to support the FARDC in their fight against armed groups (in French) – particularly the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Beni territory – the weakening of both the FARDC and MONUSCO may have an adverse impact on such operations.

Armed groups and militias are also likely to be affected by the current crisis. Although it may be difficult to quantify, a large part of their income comes from taxes collected at roadblocks, where activity has already dropped, and in all probability for a prolonged period.

This could incite such groups to use other means, including violent ones, to make up their shortfall in income: cases of kidnappings for ransom, looting and abductions may rise. Also, the issue of controlling smuggling routes could become even more critical.

The growth of self-defense groups (Mai-Mai or Raia Mutomboki) has also historically been linked to perceived threats from abroad, such as the presence of neighboring countries’ armies in the 1990s or of uprisings backed by foreigners in the 2000s and 2010s. Even though the coronavirus pandemic is a different type of threat, armed groups could exploit the need for more security by carrying out checks on movements within communities, for example, since the virus is currently widely seen as a threat which came from abroad.

Lastly, the desire to appropriate part of the international aid allocated to fight the disease – regardless of whether it is financially significant – could add to continuing insecurity, as was the case during the Ebola epidemic.

A paralyzed international community, an escalation of regional conflicts, a weakening of the state… If confirmed, these trends may foster the emergence of new militias and armed groups, accelerating the fragmentation of the security landscape in the Kivus. Within a decade, the number of armed groups has increased from 30 to 130. Their numbers could rise further still in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.

Who’s Stealing the FARDC’s money?

On the afternoon of February 20, the green Congolese army jeep was speeding along National Road 2, between Goma and Rutshuru-center. In the jeep were seven FARDC soldiers and some precious cargo: the wages of the 3416th regiment. Over 100,000 USD in cash.

But as it approached the village of Rwaza, the convoy was brought to an abrupt halt. “The attackers had blocked the road and positioned themselves to stop the arrival of reinforcements,” explained a FARDC officer in his office at the 34th Military Region’s headquarters in Goma. “When the jeep arrived, any retreat was effectively blocked off. None of the passengers survived. It was the work of professionals.”

Is it conceivable that such an ambush could take place without collusion from within the army? An investigation has since been launched by the military prosecutor’s office. But the Sukola-2 operational sector spokesperson, Major Guillaume Ndjike, has already accused the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR-Foca). In his view, they are the main enemy forces operating in the area.

However, data analysis by the Kivu Security Tracker (KST) suggests that Rwaza has not been part of the area of operations of this group for at least six months. The areas surrounding the village have, however, been impacted by incidents involving the FARDC and the Nyatura FDP (Forces de défense du peuple) militia, who are allied with the FDLR.

The red star indicates where the ambush took place on February 20, and the colored dots show the incidents recorded by the KST over the previous six months.

Whatever the case may be, the attackers vanished into the Virunga National Park with their loot. All that remained was the soldiers’ resentment, deprived as they were of their meagre salary. This feeling of resentment was violently expressed in the hours and days that followed: FARDC soldiers retaliated indiscriminately, killing four civilians – all from the Hutu community – between February 20 and 23 according to information collected by the KST.

At the 34th Military Region, no one refutes that civilians were killed around the same time as the ambush. But, according to one officer, these were collateral victims of crossfire.

However, the incident is nevertheless a source of embarrassment. Especially as this is the second time in less than a month that soldiers have protested and called for what is rightfully theirs in Rutshuru territory (North Kivu). The last time, it was in Nyanzale on January 27, after soldiers of the 3407th regiment accused their commanding officer of misappropriating part of their food rations. Soldiers had “gone on strike,” shooting into the air and refusing to intervene during a kidnapping. This attitude so annoyed local inhabitants that a “ghost town” (ville morte) day was declared on January 28. Four people, suspected of being kidnappers, were lynched by the mob. However, the army also denies that there was any cause for concern there. “The commanding officer did not misappropriate anything,” explained Major Ndjike. “He simply took some welcome and practical steps: the frozen fish destined for soldiers was going to rot before it could be delivered to this remote area. He therefore decided to sell the fish in order to buy some meat in its place. Only one soldier complained and fired a shot at one of his friends. He was arrested.”

Such eye-opening events are in fact only the visible part of a much larger phenomenon: the chronic inability of the FARDC to pay a decent and regular wage to its soldiers. Often what is at stake are methods for misappropriation and fraud, where some of the cash destined to pay troops is misappropriated by commanders, or where commanders fraudulently claim troop numbers well in excess of reality, to embezzle the wages of fictional soldiers.

The use of such methods – and particularly inflating troop numbers – has been widespread since the FARDC was created in 2003. At the end of the Second Congo War, this army was created by bringing together the troops of several warring parties after the signing of the Sun City Agreement: the Congolese Armed Forces (FAC), the Congolese Rally for Democracy/Liberation Movement (RCD/ML) and National (RCD/N), the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) and the Mai-Mai groups (in French). Each party found it advantageous to artificially increase the number of its combatants, to exaggerate its troop numbers – and its capacity to misappropriate. An assessment carried out by South Africa in 2004 estimated that between 30% to 50% of the new FARDC troops were fictitious.

Despite efforts to improve the system, including by deploying a biometric census and separating the payment chain from the command chain with the support of the European Union (EUSEC) from 2005, problems have remained. Successive waves of integrating rebels, sometimes in haste, such as the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) in 2009, have added to the ongoing confusion and inflation of troop numbers. In 2011, the regimentation process (the restructuring of the Congolese army from brigades into regiments) which aimed to remove fictitious troops, again revealed the scale of the problem. For example, in the province of South-Kivu, the official recorded troop count of 35,000 was re-evaluated at less than 16,000.

In 2012, the government of Prime Minister Matata Ponyo attempted to put an end to the misappropriation of wages by using the banking system to pay soldiers’ wages directly into a bank account rather than through their commanding officers.

Although this system, still used today, did prevent some embezzlement and improved the timeliness of payments, other problems remain. First, not all regiments have access to this system. Those which were created recently, or those based in remote areas far from any bank branches, can still opt to be paid in cash. This is the case for the 3416th Regiment, which explains that their wages, physically transported, were able to be stolen in an ambush.

Second, commanders may be tempted to hide their losses to keep control of the wages of dead (“ghost”) soldiers or deserters. “Using the banking system to pay soldiers’ wages directly into their bank accounts, which in theory prevents this practice, is sometimes subverted because commanders can fabricate powers of attorney to withdraw the money,” explains a source who for many years worked for one the banks used by the FARDC. “Widows regularly complain that their deceased husbands’ wages have been withdrawn without them knowing who made the withdrawal.”

Lastly, only wages are paid directly into bank accounts. The various bonuses are still paid in cash. And they quickly add up: operational funds, funds for provisioning during operations, command responsibility bonus, special intelligence funds, funds for conducting operations, funds for healthcare and funerals, funds for provisioning… In her thesis, published in 2015, the researcher Judith Verweijen listed seven different types of bonuses, which provide as many opportunities to embezzle. In total, these funds represent a greater amount of money than the wages of soldiers themselves.

This issue is therefore vital for Félix Tshisekedi, who has set his sights on improving the living conditions of soldiers to increase his popularity within the army, with whom he had little contact before becoming president.

Also, the former head of military intelligence, Delphin Kahimbi, on January 9, during an operation against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), had warned that “dissatisfaction” was “insidiously growing” in the ranks of the FARDC, “due to non-payment of bonuses and other funds (FP, FHF, etc.) for nearly three months, exacerbating to some extent the precariousness of their living conditions” in a leaked letter (in French).

Is this evidence of a cause and effect relationship? An increase of ten USD per month came into effect in January 2020. According to a source at the Ministry of Finance of North Kivu, soldiers with the lowest incomes are now paid 156,000 Congolese Francs per month, or 92 USD.

However, for such measures to have an impact – and allow Félix Tshisekedi to gain an upper hand in his power struggle with Joseph Kabila (in French) – this money still needs to get to its recipients.

In this regard, steps have been taken since the last presidential elections. The 2020 Finance Law lists approximately 205,000 “base salaries of regular staff” for “military, police and security” compared with 221,000 the previous year, which suggests troop number lists have been cleaned up.

Also, military hearings have been conducted in recent years on the issue of misappropriation of funds. This was the case of General Fall Sikabwe, Commander of the 3rd FARDC Defense Zone (in French), who was called to Kinshasa to be questioned on suspicions of misappropriation of funds – a relatively rare event at this level of the military hierarchy.

President Félix Tshisekedi also appears to be pressured to take this approach by the United States, a “strategic partner for peace and prosperity” of the DR Congo. On February 27, the US Ambassador, Mike Hammer, tweeted: “As we have consistantly (sic) said, those who are corrupt, commit violations of human rights, or disrupt the democratic process should be held accountable,” in reaction to the news that General Delphin Kahimbi had been suspended as military intelligence chief (in French).

However, will these hearings and warnings suffice to remediate the way the FARDC handles its money? Judith Verweijen has misgivings. “The issue of embezzlement of wages is only a small part of a vast system of generating revenue within the army,” she explains. “Commanders generate considerably more income by means of trafficking or illicit taxation, at roadblocks or mining sites. And they have to give some of this income to the senior military staff who appointed them. This system is therefore deeply entrenched at all levels and I am not convinced that increasing soldiers’ wages is enough for it to stop”.

Photo: 401kcalculator.org

Congolese Army’s Optimism Undermined by New ADF Massacres

The town of Oïcha, located on the Beni-Eringeti trunk road, where several massacres have been committed since November (2019 World Bank/Vincent Tremeau)

It was January 10 of this year. After two and a half months of operations and massacres against civilians, the Congolese army (FARDC) announced that they had taken “Madina,” the headquarters of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Uganda-based Islamist group which has been killing Beni’s population for over six years. Better still, the FARDC announced that they had killed five of the ADF’s six heads. What followed was a period of relative calm and there was hope among the inhabitants of Beni territory that the killers had finally lost the war (in French).

However, since then, there has been a worrying upsurge in the number of massacres. 38 civilians were killed by stabbing in the villages of Manzingi and Mebundi on January 28, the deadliest day to date since the start of this recent wave of killings, which started in November 2019. In Beni territory, other significant massacres were committed on January 29, 30 and 31, and on February 11 and 17, with an additional 38 people killed in Ituri province, which had previously been spared such violence.

In total, more than 393 civilians have been killed since November in attacks attributed to the ADF in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, according to Kivu Security Tracker (KST) statistics. Such recent events contradict the optimism shown by the Congolese army, have caused turmoil within Beni’s population, and dealt a blow to Kinshasa’s credibility. In fact, President Félix Tshisekedi had announced his intention to “definitively exterminate” the ADF last October.

Yet this situation was sadly predictable. Doubts had already been raised on this blog, when we predicted that even if Madina were taken, this would not put an end to the conflict. One indicator in particular pointed to this: the relatively low number of ADF fighters and heads killed or arrested.

Since then, this number has barely risen. The Congolese army rarely communicates the results of its operations, and when it does, such as on January 11 (it had announced the death of 40 ADF combatants and 30 Congolese soldiers during its offensive against the “northern axis” towards Madina), its numbers are questioned by the vast majority of diplomatic and UN sources asked by KST. According to such sources, loss of life numbers are in fact reported to be lower for the ADF and much higher for the Congolese army. “The real numbers communicated to me are some 40 ADF killed, a dozen weapons recovered and nearly 300 deaths of our soldiers since the start of operations,” claimed a local Beni dignitary close to the Chiefs of Staff.

Whatever the case, ADF troop levels, estimated at between 790 and 1060 soldiers in 2019, probably remain high enough to continue to represent a long-term threat.

Moreover, KST was unable to verify the deaths of the five “generals” the FARDC claim to have killed. Contrary to custom when there is a death of a head of an armed group in eastern DRC, very few photos of the bodies of the ADF leaders have been shared on messaging platforms or social media networks. Photos of just one corpse, presented by the Congolese army as that of “Mwee wa Kazi,” appear to correspond to a known ADF head: Nasser Abdu Hamid Diiru, the deputy commander of one of their camps. However, this death has also not been confirmed by independent sources of the Congolese army.

Nasser Abdu Hamid Diiru is the only ADF head whose death has been confirmed by photographs (organigram from the Congo Research Group report “Inside the ADF” of November 2018)

“The offensive was very badly prepared,” said Muhindo Nzangi, an opposition politician from North Kivu. “The FARDC launched a classic operation, to retake ADF bases. But the ADF had anticipated this: they did not fight, except on two occasions, at Lahé and Madina, and only then to slow down the FARDC’s progress and to give their members time to leave. On their side, the ADF carried out deadly ambushes on our soldiers.”

“The hilly, densely-forested terrain is ideal to move around without being seen,” added the French General, Jean Baillaud, who was deputy commander of the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) from 2013 to 2016. “Against such adversaries, occupying static positions is not very useful. If they are weak, they are a target and can be attacked, in which case they become a supply of weapons and ammunition for the enemy. If they are strong, they can easily be bypassed.”

Should we therefore conclude that the operations to date – which have mobilized 22,000 men and 19 generals, according to a UN source – have proved ineffective? Not necessarily. Several signs suggest that the ADF has had to adapt its methods. First, since November 26, they have committed many fewer massacres in urban areas along the Beni-Eringeti trunk road and even less in more remote regional areas.

However, it is these urban attacks which have had the greatest impact. This was particularly visible on November 20, with the attack in Boikene neighborhood, in Beni town, which led to protests against MONUSCO. Google search statistics also show that the November massacres generated much more interest than those of January, even if these led to a similar death toll.

The number of civilians killed in massacres attributed to the ADF remained very high from November to January

But interest in this matter declined substantially (number of searches for the words “Beni Congo” on Google since October 1 – source: Google trends)

Second, there has been food pillaging during several recent massacres. For the ADF, this is rarely their modus operandi. This suggests that their supply lines have been disturbed by FARDC operations.

Finally, recent killings have occurred to the west of National Route 4, in an area located far away from FARDC operations. This gives rise to several, not necessarily mutually exclusive, assumptions. Either the ADF has allied itself with other armed groups in the area, to whom they have “outsourced” the killings. Or some of them, at least, have managed to bypass the enemy to then move around in this area, less covered by security forces. Until the beginning of February, the FARDC had only one platoon in the town of Mangina and MONUSCO had none: its closest base is in Biakato, in Ituri province.

Regardless, the FARDC have inferred that the relocation of the killings to the west of Beni territory is a diversionary attempt by the ADF. “They want to force us to send troops there so that we leave the triangle of death to allow them to retake their bases,” an officer told KST. Nonetheless, according to another military source, a FARDC company was sent to reinforce Mangina at the start of February.

Despite President Félix Tshisekedi’s commitment, the current FARDC offensive could, like its predecessors, fail to defeat the ADF. In January 2014, the FARDC had already launched a major attack against the ADF, with the support of MONUSCO. After four months, they announced that they had retaken “Madina.” Then, in October, large-scale civilian massacres had occurred: 345 people had been killed within a period of three months.

The FARDC ended up leaving the forest, and the ADF was more or less been able to retake their former positions. “With hindsight, I realize that we had an overly binary approach to the conflict,” admits Jean Baillaud today. “We thought that the ADF were a clearly identified enemy whom we could defeat in a military operation. In reality, and today it’s clear, it’s not only an armed group, it’s also a network which controls large swathes of the local economy and enjoys a lot of support.”

To defeat this enemy, there might well be a need to implement a more holistic strategy, which leverages the Congolese intelligence services, justice system and diplomatic corps, and which targets not only the ADF themselves but also their financing, recruitment, and support networks both in the DRC and the region. Failing that, purely military offensives appear to be doomed to fail.

“Balkanization,” Regional Tensions or State Weakness: the Real Threats to Stability in the Kivus

A FARDC (Congolese army) camp close to Kibumba (North Kivu) during the March 23 Movement (M23) crisis in 2012 (UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti)

The scene took place in Baraka, in South Kivu, on January 17. A young militant from the Congolese Lamuka opposition coalition, wearing a white headband, whipped up the crowd in a hate-filled frenzy. While giving the Banyamulenge 48 hours to leave the country, he ordered that those unwilling to do so be forced out and issued threats against all those who assist or give refuge to members of this Rwandophone Congolese minority.

Was this a random event? This outburst was the result of a national protest called by the opposition (in French) against the “balkanization” of the country. In DR Congo, this term refers to the fear that there is a plot by neighboring countries, in league with certain communities living in Congo, to annex its rich land in the country’s east. According to this theory, these states are alleged to have clandestinely sent their citizens to DR Congo to prepare this annexation. Often, it is the Tutsi communities of the region, and specifically those from Rwanda, who are labeled as conspirators.

This topic, regularly raised in Congolese public debate, was strengthened in the nineties and noughties, by the occupation of large parts of the Congo by rebels partly led by members of the Rwandophone Congolese community, who were backed by Uganda (RCD/K-ML) and Rwanda (RCD-Goma).

In recent weeks, it has become increasingly popular, particularly since a press briefing by Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo (in French), the highest ranking Catholic authority in the country, during a visit to Beni. In his speech, he claimed that the massacres committed in that territory since November had been “planned” with the “aim of balkanizing our country.” “This [can be] verified by the replacement of displaced populations by populations that are generally Rwandophone and Ugandophone (sic)” he added, denouncing the “discharge” of populations by neighboring countries into Congo, namely Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Despite the prelate’s careful language, which also confirmed the Congolese nationality of some Rwandophone communities, including the Banyamulenge, the dissemination of this argument could heighten mistrust of these communities. Several hateful messages, similar to those of Baraka, have circulated on social networks throughout the month of January.

These suspicions have also been increased by the awkward comments of Vital Kamerhe, the president’s chief of staff, who was recently in Rwanda to attend the wedding of the son of the former Rwandan Minister of Defense, James Kabarebe. He was said to have offered 30 cows to “strengthen relations”  between Rwanda and Kivu (in French), as though the eastern provinces of DR Congo were a separate entity to the rest of the country.

Martin Fayulu, the opposition politician and candidate in the last presidential elections who has been using the rhetoric of balkanization for several years (in French), took advantage of this situation to repeat his argument, even publicly accusing President Félix Tshisekedi and his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, of carrying out this project (in French). In private, he even claims that Félix Tshisekedi is seeking to complete the project of “balkanization” together with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

This argument, which offers a simple explanation to complex problems, has met with genuinely popular success. And the intense clashes, which have affected three areas in eastern Congo in recent months, have contributed to its increased popularity.

First, Mgr. Ambongo cited the clashes in Beni territory in support of his speech. There, 312 have been killed since November, mostly by the enigmatic Islamist uprising of Ugandan origin, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), according to the latest death toll by the Kivu Security Tracker (KST, in French). This modus operandi, which is particularly brutal and difficult to understand, has in fact led to the internal displacement of civilians fleeing the massacres.

The second area affected by intense clashes is the highlands of Fizi and Uvira. There, armed groups from local Banyindu, Babembe, and Bafuliru communities are disputing the creation of the rural commune of Minembwe, which is located in a Banyamulenge-majority area. Violent acts have been committed against civilians in addition to cattle theft. At the same time, Banyamulenge armed groups, claiming to defend their community, have also committed abuses against civilians. Many villages have been burned during this crisis, which has also led to population displacement. The defection from the Congolese army of Colonel Michel Rukunda, aka Makanika, himself a Munyamulenge, at the beginning of January, has fed into the idea that a vast Banyamulenge uprising is being created. This is “Banyamulenge expansionism,” a political leader from Bukavu told KST.

The third conflict feeding suspicions is that which was started at the end of November by the Congolese army to dislodge the Rwandan Hutu uprising of the National Congress of Resistance for Democracy (CNRD) in Kalehe territory. Similar to Rutshuru territory in recent months, many local sources contacted by KST have reported the presence of soldiers from the regular Rwandan army in Congolese uniforms. According to many of these sources, frightened inhabitants have, in turn, deserted the villages of Kigogo and Kasika.

However, these three situations in effect appear to obey different local realities, and it is difficult to see a coordinated plan on a regional level.

In Beni territory, the ADF arrived some 25 years ago with the aim of fighting against the influence of Kampala. They established relations with local communities and have taken advantage of their conflicts, according to research by the Congo Research Group (CRG). This group may, to a certain extent, have territorial ambitions, but it is difficult to imagine that they would one day obtain international recognition from an independent state or annexation to Uganda.

Yet, in his speech on January 3, Mgr. Ambongo stated that “Rwandan immigrants driven out of Tanzania some years ago” have been “dumped” in areas emptied of their inhabitants due to massacres. This is a reference to the migrations of Hutu populations who, in recent years, have left the Congolese territories of Masisi and Lubero to move to Ituri province, and who passed through Beni. The scale and current status of these migrations, however, remain difficult to evaluate. On the surface, they have had very little impact on the urban areas of Beni territory, where the bulk of recent massacres have taken place.

In the highlands of Fizi and Uvira, armed Banyamulenge groups appear weakened and divided, and are highly unlikely to have the means to act on any ambitions of political independence. The profile of the renegade colonel, Makanika, fits uneasily with the notion that armed Banyamulenge groups are associates of Rwanda. Makanika, on the contrary, took part in many uprisings against Kigali in the noughties, and was still described in 2013 as “strongly opposed to Rwanda” (in French). Several members of Banyamulenge civil society also express distrust towards Rwanda, in particular claiming that Mai-Mai uprisings and groups are supported by Kigali, which is reported to want to punish them for having given refuge to a Rwandan rebellion: the Rwanda National Congress (RNC).

Moreover, despite many rumors, few Congolese officers seem to have followed in the footsteps of Makanika, although it is the case that former soldiers from abroad have joined him, such as Gakunzi Masabo and Alexis Gasita, in his stronghold of Kajembwe. However, most Banyamulenge military leaders active in the Congolese army, such as Masunzu, Venant Bisogo, and Mustafa, are currently stationed very far from the front, in the west of the country. The former rebel chief, Richard Tawimbi, is also in the Congolese capital. And the other Banyamulenge officers are kept under close watch by their colleagues. Three Banyamulenge officers suspected of wanting to defect – Lieutenant-Colonel Joli Mufoko Rugwe, Major Sébastien Mugemani, and Sub-Lieutenant Aimable Rukuyana Nyamugume – are under arrest in the camp of Saïo in Bukavu, according to military and local civil society sources.

The last territory where the reality on the ground does not fit with the theory of balkanization is that of Kalehe. Several local customary authority, UN, diplomatic, and Congolese military sources have in fact confirmed to KST the presence of elements of the Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) during the offensive against the CNRD. Estimates of their numbers diverge considerably, from a handful of intelligence officers to several battalions. However, according to a Congolese military source, who claims to have witnessed the discreet arrival of a Rwandan battalion, these operations are one-offs and accepted by President Félix Tshisekedi. Their presence is alleged to only have been hidden due to fear of a hostile reaction by local inhabitants. Above all, rather than “dumping” Rwandophone populations in DR Congo, they have on the contrary led to a repatriation of some 2500 members of the rebel Rwandan CNRD (combatants and families) from DR Congo to Rwanda.

The theory of balkanization therefore inadequately describes the conflicts affecting the Kivus. Contrary to the situation between 2000-2013, no Rwandophone Congolese uprising appears in reality to be supported by Rwanda at this time.

This does not necessarily mean that the current situation is reassuring. Tens of thousands of eastern Congolese live in territories controlled by more than a hundred armed groups and which are, in fact, beyond Kinshasa’s control. Rather than a coordinated regional plan between neighboring states to carve up DR Congo, it is the tensions among these states, along with the weakness of the Congolese authorities, that appears to threaten stability in the Kivus.

Uganda and Burundi on the one hand, and Rwanda on the other, accuse one another of backing dissident groups in eastern Congo and waste no time in fighting them, either directly or by way of allied groups.

Kigali specifically accused Burundi and Uganda of supporting the RNC, which was partly confirmed by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC. The RNC has however been considerably weakened in mysterious circumstances in 2019: it has less than some fifty men near the village of Miti, according to sources from MONUSCO intelligence and civil society.

Several attacks originating on Congolese soil have also affected Burundi and Rwanda in recent months. This was the case of the attack on Kinigi in Rwanda on October 6 attributed by Kigali to the Rwandan Hutu uprising of the Rally for Unity and Democracy (RUD), which is reportedly supported by Uganda. Then there was the attack of October 22 in Musigati (Burundi), which was claimed by the RED-Tabara, a Burundian rebel group operating in South Kivu. Lastly, on November 16, Burundi suffered a new attack, in Mabayi, which the Burundian president blamed on Rwanda.

Additionally, several Burundian uprisings hostile to the Gitega government are present in South Kivu, such as the RED-Tabara, FRODEBU, or the FNL. According to a Congolese military source and a report by the UN Group of Experts, the RED-Tabara has in recent years been supported by Kigali. Also, the National Defense Force of Burundi and Imbonerakure militia (close to the Gitega government) regularly carry out incursions into DR Congo, according to reports by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC as well as security officials contacted by KST. Some members of the Burundian authorities are reported to support several Congolese armed groups, such as the Mai-Mai Mbulu, in the Ruzizi plain, probably to prevent possible attacks on their soil.

Were the Burundian presidential election, scheduled for May, to provoke violent protests comparable to the last one in 2015, South Kivu could rebecome a battlefield. This would not, however, mean that the “balkanization” of the country is underway.