A Congolese army soldier in North Kivu in 2012. (MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti)

This blog post was updated on Monday, November 25, 2019, to reflect the killing of 8 more people in Beni, bringing the death count to 77.

“Are we next?” This is the dreaded question that haunts the sleepless nights of the inhabitants of Beni territory. Over the last two weeks, there has almost not been a night without civilian massacres, in the Grand Nord of North Kivu. Ten people killed in Kokola on November 5, 15 in Mbau the following week, 20 in Mavete and Beni on November 19… In all, Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has logged the deaths of 77 civilians in abuses carried out by Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Over such a short period, such numbers have been unheard of since the wave of killings at the end of 2014, in which 345 people were killed in three months in Beni territory.

All such abuses occurred on the road between Beni town and Eringeti, the most used trunk road in the region. From these towns, you can hear, at a distance, the heavy artillery shelling by the Congolese army of the Uganda-based Islamist rebellion’s positions. However, it is neighbors who are found dead in the early hours of the morning, in most cases killed by stabbing.

According to the Congolese army, however, the “large offensive” launched on October 30 against the ADF has all the hallmarks of success. In announcements largely taken up by Congolese media in the absence of alternative sources, it has reported significant progress in the “triangle of death,” between Eringeti, Mbau and Kamango. If credible, the ADF camps of Vemba, Kadou, Kididiwe, Karwamba, Mabeto, Mayangose, Bahari, Chochota, and Mapobu have been recaptured. 

KST has in fact been able to confirm that some of these have been captured, including Mapobu, one of the rebellion’s main bases (see the above map), in offensives that have cost the lives of 19 Congolese soldiers. Also credible is the death of one of the ADF’s leaders, named “Mzee wa Kazi” by the Congolese army. An analysis of the three different photos of his remains obtained by KST reveals that in reality this is Nasser Abdu Hamid Diiru, Deputy Mwalika Camp Commander

Organigram from the Congo Research Group report “Inside the ADF” of November 2018.

Are such advances the sign of a future military victory? One indicator in particular raises doubt about the effective weakening of the ADF: the number of combatants killed. KST has only been able to confirm the death of 7 ADF combatants. Some photos of the taking of Mapobu show  four additional bodies. The head of operations, General Jacques Nduru Chaligonza (in French), announced on November 8 that his men had killed 25 enemy combatants. However, since then the FARDC has refused to provide a complete list.     

Regardless of the source, the casualties reported by the ADF appear relatively small in number. In their last report, UN experts estimated that this rebellion had between 790 and 1060 soldiers at its disposal, spread over their various camps.

“The enemy is carrying out delaying combat actions: they engage a few combatants every time and seek only to slow down our progress to allow the core of their forces to flee,” admitted a Congolese army officer. 

According to this source, the purpose of the ADF attacks against civilians was to push back the FARDC towards urban areas and to divert it from its objectives. “However, we have understood their strategy,” the source stated. “That’s why we are continuing our advances towards the interior.” The target of the FARDC is the main ADF camp: the “Madina complex.”

Map from the UN Group of Experts on the DRC report of June 2019.

In the eventuality that this base is captured, would it mean the end of the ADF? In previous offensives, such as that of 2014, the FARDC had managed to capture it. However, the territory had not been occupied permanently and the rebels had managed to recapture their strongholds and rebuild their capacity. There is no evidence that things would be different this time. “Our strategy is different,” claimed the Congolese army officer. “Once we have conquered our targets, we’re going to build up our presence and occupy the area.”    

Will the FARDC be able to sustain such an effort in the long term? Some military sources have announced that substantial resources have been implemented, putting forward an unverifiable figure of 22,000 soldiers present on the front. This seems doubtful, however, given the reported casualties. In the past, several FARDC offensives ended due to a lack of funding. It is unclear whether the Congolese state can do better this time, based on public finances. At the end of September, only 3.3 billion dollars had been raised for the state budget, against 4.3 announced at the time (in French). And Kinshasa has other costly priorities, such as the rollout of free primary education (in French).     

In this context, accusations of complicity with the ADF are rife. In the past, authorities in Kinshasa have regularly accused local authorities of collusion with the rebellion. However, in the view of the former minister of Foreign Affairs, Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi, still influential in the region, the issue lies rather with the Congolese army’s senior commanders. “No offensive will succeed as long as these men, whose misdemeanors have been brought to light many times, are still in place,” he stated to KST. This opponent had aligned himself with President Félix Tshisekedi last May (in French) and called for the appointment of certain officers to operational command against the ADF, without success (in French). He has since distanced himself from the presidency: he indicated that he has not returned to the country since August.   

In any case, the toll in civilian lives has made the operation difficult to sustain in the long term. If there were to be further massacres, Congolese public opinion could cease to support the main offensive announced by Félix Tshisekedi in the east of the country. Sporadic demonstrations have occurred in Beni, Butembo, Oicha, and Kasindi. The citizen movement Lucha, who had assisted the FARDC on November 9 (in French), are now demonstrating to call for security measures in favor of the population, such as in Oicha on November 20. North Kivu deputies, who had called for this operation on November 4 (in French), now describe themselves as “deeply worried” by how the situation is evolving (in French)

“In fact, this operation had not been prepared,” complained one of them. “It was only launched to satisfy the president who had committed to bringing peace in the east of the country. Some military chiefs never really believed in it themselves.”

President Félix Tshisekedi had publicly announced, on October 10, the imminent start of the “last” offensive against the ADF that would “definitively exterminate them.” To do so, he tried to obtain foreign support, notably from Uganda. He even more broadly attempted to constitute a regional coalition against armed groups in the east, with the creation of an integrated Chiefs of Staff in Goma.

These efforts failed in the face of mistrust between Kigali and Kampala: on October 25, Uganda refused to associate itself with this initiative. Félix Tshisekedi did discuss this problem again with Yoweri Museveni on November 9 in Kampala. Officially, the two men agreed “to work together” against “the negative forces which hold sway in the east of the DRC.” “However, we are aware of no indications that, on the ground, Uganda is assisting the FARDC in this operation,” claimed a MONUSCO official.   

The FARDC are therefore alone on the front. Especially since MONUSCO has not joined in the offensive either. It has only provided occasional support in the form of reconnaissance flights and evacuation of the injured (in French) – some twenty FARDC soldiers have been evacuated to date, according to a UN source.

MONUSCO has also had difficulty in carrying out its mission to protect the civilian population, one of the two main priorities of its mandate (in French). “We’re trying to establish 24/7 patrols, as well as roadblocks to filter movements of people,” explained one of the officials. “But it’s very difficult to monitor individuals who move at night with cold weapons. It even seems that the ADF are using networks already established in towns.”   

The Islamist rebellion has in fact been present in the region since 1995 and has developed strong ties with some local communities. And in turn it seems to have carefully prepared for the FARDC offensive. In September and October, KST observed an upswing in ADF attacks against FARDC positions, with the possible aim of intimidating them and recovering their weapons.

“We have also noticed movements towards Tshabi in the province of Ituri, which would suggest that the ADF have put their wives and children out of harm’s way,” added a UN source. During some of their attacks, the rebels have also targeted specific communities, such as the pygmies, whose members are sometimes employed as trackers for the Congolese army. A prominent family in Oicha was also massacred.

At this price, the Congolese army will perhaps be able to conquer the last ADF strongholds. Maybe this is its objective. It would allow those in power to show some results. A complete victory over the ADF, on the other hand, seems doubtful without a change of strategy.

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