In Ituri Province, the FARDC are Unable to Distinguish CODECO Militias from Civilians
By Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker.
For four years, Djugu territory, in Ituri province, has been the site of a violent insurrection by the “CODECO” militia who the FARDC are unable to tell apart from civilians. Despite this, the authorities followed a nearly exclusively military strategy, further strengthened by the state of siege, at the risk of unwillingly bolstering their enemies.
The Union des révolutionnaires pour la défense du Peuple Congolais (URDPC) is without doubt less well-known than other active armed groups in eastern DRC. And yet, this faction of the Cooperative for Development of the Congo (CODECO), which operates in Ituri province, is the most active armed group in all of eastern DRC. It has been implicated in at least 182 violent incidents since April, the month from when the Kivu Security Tracker (KST) started collecting data on this province.
During this period, it is true that the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) have killed more civilians – at least 600. However, the killings carried out by the URDPC are far from insignificant: at least 180 people have been killed by these militia members, which rank them as the second most deadly group for civilians.
The introduction of the state of siege on May 6 this year has not improved the situation. Even the DRC Armed Forces (FARDC) is frequently in difficulty. Between October 10 and 12, 28 soldiers were killed in violent clashes with the URDPC in the villages of Lipri, Ngangarai and Ngongo. On the 29th, CODECO militia members again killed 14 civilians in Gina.
So, how did we get here?
The Scars of History
CODECO is essentially active in Djugu, a territory of Ituri province long-scarred by community-based violence and tensions, effectively between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. This can be traced back to colonial times: steeped in racialist theories, the Belgian authorities supported the Hema community, whom they considered to be superior at the time, and who were mostly comprised of farmers (see the report “Violence and Instability in Ituri” by the GIC network), often to the detriment of the Lendu community, which is one of the largest of the province (just over 25% according to some estimates).
This heritage has shaped inequalities, particularly with regarding to land allocation and political power, and continues to have profound effects to this day. Djugu territory has four Hema “chiefdoms” (a type of collectivity with relative autonomy and hereditary power) whereas there are three Lendu “sectors” (bodies with less autonomy, with chiefs currently appointed by the state). The boundaries of these bodies are highly fragmented and isolate many of the Hema chiefdoms (below in orange) within Lendu sectors (in green).
Map taken from the “Administrative Organization Atlas of the Democratic Republic of Congo” by Léon de Saint-Moulin and Jean-Luc Kalombo Tshibanda, Centre for Social Action Studies, Kinshasa.
The racialist stereotypes developed under colonialism remain ingrained in the imagination of some of the current Congolese authorities. During an interview with the KST, a Congolese security forces officer stationed in Bunia described the Lendu in the following words: “they really are barbarians, bad guys, uncivilized Bantu. They are angry, they are there to get revenge, it’s in their blood. Even the Belgians said as much.”
After independence, the economic and political marginalization of the Lendu community continued, particularly during “Zairianization,” a process by which the Mobutu regime redistributed assets belonging to foreigners in the seventies. In Djugu, this included farms, given to influential Hema.
After the collapse of the Mobutu regime, and during the Second Congo War (1998-2003), Djugu territory escaped Kinshasa’s control, and became the site of extreme deadly conflict between community-based armed groups. Among them, of note were the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI, essentially comprisred of Lendu) and the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC). Rwanda and Uganda, countries in conflict with one another, also contributed to feeding the conflict by supporting opposing armed groups.
The European Union’s operation “Artémis,” those of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), as well as the dwindling influence of neighboring countries led to a considerable drop in the level of violence.
It is true that some armed groups remained active, such as the Patriotic Resistance Front of Ituri (FRPI) mainly composed of Ngiti (one of the constituent groups of the Lendu community). However, these were mainly based in the neighboring territory of Irumu and eventually signed a peace accord in February 2020 (in French).
“An Army, a Church, a Company”
As from 2018, a new wave of violence started in Djugu territory. Its origin is difficult to pinpoint, and the perpetrators have long remained unknown. However, some key events seem to have played their role, such as the death in unexplained circumstances of the Lendu priest, Florent Dunji, in July 2017, followed by protests by his community’s youth.
A first wave of violence occurred between the end of 2017 and March 2018, essentially against Hema villages, and a second, from September 2017, mainly against the FARDC. It was only in 2018 that the name CODECO, a reference to a former farming cooperative, emerged, as well as that of its leader, Mukwake Mambo, who was soon succeeded by Justin Ngudjolo – a cousin of the deceased priest.
According to Floribert Njabu, the moral authority of the FNI, who was able to enter into dialogue with the CODECO militia in 2020, members of CODECO present their movement as “an army, a church, and a company” all at the same time.
Specific beliefs and rites appear to have played a significant role in their mobilization. According to several sources, CODECO keeps specific days of rest – including Monday in particular. Data collected by KST partly confirms this tendency: out of 133 incidents started by the CODECO-URDPC logged between April 1 and October 13, only nine took place on a Monday, a number clearly lower than the average.
Number of incidents caused by the CODECO-URDPC since April, by day of the week
CODECO militia members do not clearly articulate their political demands, apart from their right to fight against the “harassment” by the FARDC who they accuse of having been “infiltrated” by foreigners, according to Floribert Njabu. Incidents caused by CODECO are not limited, however, to attacks against the FARDC: they have also committed many killings, particularly of Hema civilians.
Crucially, the authorities seem to be unable to discriminate between CODECO militia members and civilians from the community: four high-ranking officers whom KST interviewed for this blog post stated that both live side-by-side, inseparably in their view. A member of the former provincial government even described the ongoing conflict as a fight between the state and the Lendu community as a whole.
While there is certainly complicity between CODECO and some civilians, this assimilation is nevertheless refuted by many Lendu. Also, there are conflicts opposing different factions of CODECO, and militia members tax and commit abuses against Lendu civilians. The leader of the Bon Temple de Dieu (BTD, one of the CODECO factions), Thuwo, accused of committing abuse against his own community, was killed by members of the CODECO-URDPC on May 10.
Also, while there are armed groups comprising members of other communities in Djugu – particularly the Zaïre-Front Populaire d’Autodéfense en Ituri (FPAC, essentially Hema), they are relatively marginal in the conflict at this stage: they have only been identified as being implicated in four incidents in Djugu territory since April. “I have done all I can to stop the Hema from taking up arms,” explains Jean Bamanisa, himself from the Hema community on his mother’s side, and who was governor of Ituri until his removal in April 2021. “At the same time, this led the community to question their confidence in me because it was taking a long time to impose peace and stimulate development efforts.”
The Use of Force
In essence, the conflict can be summed up therefore as a confrontation between CODECO and the FARDC, with serious consequences for the territory’s civilians. The trend to criminalize the Lendu community in carries, in particular, the risk of promoting FARDC abuses against civilians. This is all the more significant that the Kinshasa government adopted a heavily militarized approach to this issue since Félix Tshisekedi arrived in power. This was initially the case with the launch of a military operation, “Zaruba ya Ituri” (“Ituri Storm”) following a visit by the president to Bunia in June 2019. The leader of CODECO, Justin Ngudjolo, was killed by the FARDC nine months’ later, in March 2020. However, this basically led to CODECO splitting into several factions with different strategies, which made any hope for dialogue much more complex. Apart from the URDPC, which is by far the most active faction and the above-mentioned BTD, there is also the Defense Force against the Balkanization of Congo (FDBC) or the Alliance for the Liberation of the Congo (ALC).
The operation was unsuccessful in bringing lasting stabilization to the situation. Faced with such a stalemate, the Kinshasa government appeared to have changed tactics by calling on former heads of Lendu groups, including Germain Katanga and Floribert Ndjabu, to try to enter into dialogue with CODECO militia members. This led to the signing of a unilateral deed of commitment by the URDPC (in French) and to a temporary drop in violence.
Nevertheless, in the absence of lasting dialogue and the disarmament program, the situation again deteriorated. In April 2021, Djugu became the most dangerous territory for civilians in all of eastern DRC, with 66 civilians killed, including 44 in incidents implicating CODECO-URDPC.
The introduction of the state of siege in Ituri and in North Kivu on May 6, 2021, again bolstered the military approach to the issue. FARDC activity has since increased markedly in Djugu, with highly publicized operations along National Road 27 (RN27) to dismantle the CODECO-held roadblocks.
Number of clashes implicating the FARDC in Djugu territory between April and October 2021
These operations, and the psychological effect of the state of siege, have managed to reduce violence in the weeks following its announcement. However, CODECO, which has not been dismantled, has retreated deeper into the territory. Many reports also mention a strengthening of their arsenal, including with PKM machine guns. After the respite of May, the number of civilians killed rose once again, attaining a level similar similar to that of April.
Number of civilians killed in Djugu territory, between April and October 2021
Despite its adoption in July, the new Disarmament, Demobilization, Community Reintegration and Stabilization Program (P-DDRCS) is not really seen as a credible strategy for Djugu. On the one hand, it does not seem able to implement concrete actions in the short term, particularly due to disagreements with the funders. On the other, several observers (Floribert Ndjabu, as well as MONUSCO intelligence sources) doubt that militia members can be persuaded by this program, which can offer neither amnesty, nor collective integration into the FARDC, nor have other specific requests entertained, due to its principles.
Once again, it is with an escalation in the use of force that the FARDC retaliated against an upsurge in attacks by the CODECO. Since July, they have used bombings by helicopter – a tactic which makes it particularly difficult to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Among the victims are several villages and civilians, such as in Kobu (7 civilians killed on August 18).
This attitude of widespread repression, which impacts the Lendu population, is partly accepted by some FARDC leaders (“People only are attracted to [those who are] the strongest. Therefore, we need to show that we are the strongest” explained a senior military officer to KST). Yet it has also led to the deaths of many FARDC (119 soldiers have been killed in Ituri between June and mid-September according to an internal document obtained by KST) and several officers recognize that currently the Congolese army has fewer troops than its enemies.
To mitigate for such losses and lack of troops, a contingent of the Republican Guard (GR) of approximately 1,200 men was deployed on September 10 in Bunia under the command of Brigadier general Jérôme Chico Tshitambwe. According to two officers when asked, it answers directly to the president’s office, which may cause difficulties in the chain of command, and deny them the field experience of soldiers who have been fighting for longer in the area.
The military approach to dealing with CODECO seems, in any case, to have also been adopted by the GR. On October 2, it launched an offensive in Lipri, which caused the deaths of eight soldiers and 21 civilians. The following day, the mother of the Yalala groupement chief, Live Malosi, was killed by the GR, who accused her of spying in the village of Kamba.
Has the FARDC changed its analysis of the conflict since then? Do they no longer have the means to pursue this offensive strategy? In any case, they appear to have again changed their approach, sending a delegation representing Chief of Staff Célestin Mbala to meet with the URDPC in Linga on Saturday, November 6. According to Radio Okapi, they were to propose to CODECO the “cessation of hostilities and [its integration into] the peace process.”