Laying down arms one day to take them up again the next: why the disarmament of rebels is at a standstill

Former Rwandan combatants voluntarily surrendering at Kamina Camp in 2002. (UN Photo/Yasmina Bouziane)

“Our fight will be to bring you peace. A definitive peace, a peace necessary for the stability of our country. And [for] that peace, believe me, I’m willing to die.” In Bukavu on Monday October 7, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi made an ambitious commitment.   

His election, it is true, provoked a wave of armed groups surrendering and the hope that peace would finally return to the Kivus. However, in Kalehe territory, some twenty kilometers away, local residents are unsure as to whether this is the best way forward. A few days before the president’s speech, the process almost seemed to be in reverse: Butachibera, the head of a Raia Mutomboki militia, who had recently surrendered to the Congolese army, decided in the end to return to the bush to take up arms again.

In this case, as in many others, the main reason for the failure of demobilization appears to be the lack of preparedness by Congolese authorities. “In reception centers, militia members who have gone there have no access to mattresses, beverages, not even food,” complained a Congolese army officer on duty in the area. We have to ask the local population for help. If we had the capacity to accommodate them, all armed groups would have already surrendered!” 

The failed surrender of Butachibera is far from an isolated case. Last March, Ngubito, the head of the Raia Mutomboki Kabishula, surrendered with 400 men before returning to the forest. “Colonel” Mayani, of the Union des patriotes pour la libération du Congo (UPLC), had also laid down arms but most of his 500 men went into hiding at the end of September. In Fizi territory, in South Kivu in February, hundreds of combatants from the Mai-Mai Reunion group also took up arms again after having been stationed nearby. In March, it was the Congolese army that attacked the men of Mai-Mai “General” Ebu Ela, who were regrouping precisely in order to surrender. Since then they have gone into hiding and are taking part in the community-based conflict ravaging the Minembwe area. A similar scenario occurred in Kasai in February: in Kamako, the poorly organized surrender of a group of Kamuina Nsapu militia members ended in shooting, and the deaths of 19 of these militia members at the hands of the Congolese army, as indicated in a report by the Congo Research Group (CRG). The upshot of this: their brothers-in-arms have since taken up arms again.

The issue of adequately providing for ex-combatants is not new. In 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed that 100 demobilized former combatants or members of their family had died of hunger and disease due to failings on the part of the Congolese government. In 2015, a budget of 85 million dollars was approved for the Implementation Unit of the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Program (UEPNDDR). However, it never received any funds.

Failing any genuine change in this area, there are credible fears that the wave of surrenders initiated by the election of Felix Tshisekedi will come to nothing and that an historic opportunity will have been wasted.

The president however did ask in February that the head of MONUSCO, Leila Zerrougui, provide him with assistance on this dossier. But setting up the program took several months. According to a MONUSCO official, its implementation was reported to have suffered from disagreement within the UN mission. “Some of us wanted the government to start by putting its multiple structures in charge of this dossier in order: the UEPNDDR was not restarted by Tshisekedi’s team. There is also a unit is in charge of this in the army. And Tshisekedi has asked his advisor Claude Ibalanky to deal with these issues: he has appointed him as coordinator of the National Oversight Mechanism of the Addis Ababa Agreement. Others believed that we should launch an ad hoc program as soon as possible.”      

“There have been delays, it’s true, but it’s not MONUSCO’s fault”, claims Florence Marchal, Head of Mission Leila Zerrougui’s spokesperson. 

Whatever the case, this program is finally being rolled out. Following the meeting between Felix Tshisekedi and the provincial governors of Ituri, Maniema, North and South Kivu, and Tanganyika in Bukavu on October 9, the President confirmed that a “clear DDR plan should be submitted as soon as possible.” The UN Peacebuilding Fund released a first installment of 6 million dollars to finance it on Friday October 4. However, these funds are only for the demobilization of militia in the Kasais and Tanganyika. “In these provinces, the situation is simpler than in the the Kivus,” explained Florence Marchal. “Firstly, all the armed groups based there are national. Secondly, they generally don’t have any political demands. Our position on this issue is no impunity – those that surrender and have committed abuses should face justice – and reintegration back into civilian life, not in the armed forces.”

As things stand, previous waves of demobilization and reintegration in the Kivus have only met with limited success and are regularly accused of inciting the creation of rebel groups that profit from these programs. “We’re surely not going to give them money for arms, which by the way they only ever hand over in dribs and drabs,” railed another UN source some months ago, in the heat of internal discussions.

Nonetheless, as far as the armed groups in the Kivus are concerned, there are no plans to implement any programs. By default, the main option for them appears to be military defeat. At the UN General Assembly, Felix Tshisekedi advocated for MONUSCO, but for a mission that is “nimble, well equipped, strong, and with a properly adjusted mandate, similar to the Rapid Intervention Brigade, which once defeated the M23 Movement.” In Beni, on October 10, he announced a final attack against the islamist insurgency of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). And he had admitted to “information sharing” with neighboring countries that wished to stamp out hostile insurgencies in DRC.   

The commander of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Sylvestre Mudacumura, was killed on September 18, in an operation in which Rwandan special forces took part. However, the effectiveness of this type of targeted operation is questionable. The death of the head of an armed group can sometimes deprive negotiators of an interlocutor, and jeopardize the chances of troops surrendering. The death of Mudacumura, however, did not protect Rwanda from the deadliest cross-border attack originating from DRC in recent years on October 4. In any case, approximately 130 armed groups are operating solely within the Kivu region, which suggests a systemic problem. It remains highly unlikely that arms alone can provide a solution.    

“For Ms. Zerrougui, there cannot be a purely military solution,”stated Florence Marchal. “The aim of these operations can only be to foster political dialogue and attack the root causes of conflicts.” In New York, where she was based at the end of September, the head of MONUSCO stepped up advocacy in front of the World Bank and donor countries that traditionally support DRC to finally pave the way for more ambitious demobilization programs.   

“There is a clear expression of support for such efforts on their part,” stated Florence Marchal. “These 6 million dollars are important because they allow for a quick start and encourage other donors. But this sum is only a small fraction of the amount that we want to raise.” When such new programs are finally rolled out, will the Kivu rebel groups still be willing to put down their arms?

[Guest blog] General Mudacumura: the death of a most-wanted

Christoph Vogel is a researcher and investigator specialising on 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 and Ghent University (Belgium).

This morning, around 5am, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda’s (FDLR) long-standing overall military commander Lt.-Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura (also known by his noms de guerre Bernard Mupenzi and Pharaon) has been killed in a raid near Bwito-Monument, a small locality in southern Bwito chieftaincy roughly situated between Bukombo and Bambu.

Mudacumura has been one of the most-wanted armed group leaders and war criminals in the past 25 years. Indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed by the FDLR and its predecessors (ALiR I/II, RDR, ex-FAR/interahamwe) in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mudacumura was also one of the few known Rwandan génocidaires still at large. Born in today’s Rubavu area of Rwanda in 1954, the young Mudacumura made a fulminant military career in the Rwanda of the 1980s. Interrupted by military training in Germany specialising on transmissions (journalist Simone Schlindwein, in her book, recounts how much later he would still greet his troops in German), Mudacumura made it into former Rwandan president Habyarimana’s presidential guard, temporarily serving as a personal bodyguard. During the 1994 genocide, Mudacumura is suspected to have played a commanding role in several killing operations.

As the RPF was progressing and pushing back the then-Rwandan army and the interahamwe, he managed to flee and cross the border into then-Zaire. Ever since, he has risen the ranks of the Rwandan rebel groups formed out of the génocidaires, effectively becoming the military commander of the FDLR in the mid-2000s, as his predecessor Paul Rwarakabije demobilized and returned to Rwanda. A few years later, in 2009, joint Rwando-Congolese military operations dubbed Umoja Wetu inflicted serious losses to the group which hitherto controlled vast parts of eastern Congo’s Kivu provinces. In 2012, the ICC issued an international arrest warrant against Mudacumura. He also figures – alongside 8 other key genocide suspects – on a US-issued most-wanted list. On the ground, this coincided roughly with a further blow to the FDLR, as the nascent Raia Mutomboki militia in Walikale, Shabunda and Kalehe areas were able to further weaken the Rwandan group. Ever since, the FDLR has been mainly based out of northern Masisi and western Rutshuru areas, including with key strongholds in the Virunga National Park.

While the FDLR has been feared for large-scale massacres throughout most of the 2000s, the group changed strategy in the face of growing military pressure. In the current decade, it has mainly tried to stand away from military confrontation and limit attacks and human rights abuses so as to diminish international justice and media interest, but also to avoid further losses in effectives and ammunition. Economically, the FDLR has lost most of its mining operations throughout Umoja Wetu and the subsequent Raia Mutomboki mobilisation. Ever since, it has focused revenue generation on a fine-grained system they internally refer to as ‘logistique non-conventionelle’ (LNC). It includes legal business such as agriculture, herding and local retail trade as well as systems of forced taxation, trade in cannabis, charcoal and woods – often in collaboration with Congolese armed groups, army units and local traders. LNC has permitted the FDLR to maintain purchases of ammunition in an era of shrinking revenue and as outside support (such as through diaspora organisations) has become more difficult due to scrutiny over financial transactions. However, increasing economic pressure also led the FDLR to carry out kidnappings, mostly notably in mid-2018, when their abduction of two British tourists led to the temporary closure of Virunga National Park. By the mid 2010’s, the FDLR possibly had around 2000-3000 combatants, more weapons than soldiers in many of its units but severely lacked supply in ammunition which they would mostly gather in small quantities from individual Congolese army officers.

In the past couple of years, the FDLR’s position kept weakening for a couple of converging reasons. After the demise of the M23 rebellion, Kinshasa, regional governments and the UN agreed on putting the FDLR top of the list of armed groups that needed to be forcefully disarmed for the sake of local and regional stabilisation. Yet, UN-backed operations of the Congolese army (FARDC) began against the Ugandan-originating ADF in Beni area and subsequently planned FDLR operations fell apart in a row between UN peacekeeping forces and the FARDC. Nonetheless, the Congolese army began unilateral operations in late 2014, known as Sukola II. In parallel, newly emerging Congolese armed groups – in particular a splinter faction of Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi led by Guidon Shimiray as well as the various Mazembe militia in Lubero area – began tracking down FDLR units on their side. Having lost key headquarters in Mumo and Ihula by 2016, the FDLR kept control over parts of northern Masisi and western Rutshuru. At this point, deeply entrenched internal divisions – reflecting both the regionalist split between northern and southern Rwandans in the leadership as well as diverging attitudes to repatriation of civilian Rwandan refugees which the FDLR claims to represent – led to a major split (previous defections had happened in the 2000s, prompting the FDLR-Soki and the RUD-Uranana factions) and the creation of the CNRD, which took the whole of the FDLR’s Mwenga-based South Kivu wing and significant parts of its North Kivu wing, especially those based out of Masisi.

Ever since, the FDLR and its armed wing FOCA (Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi) became limited to a triangle between Nyanzale, Kitchanga and Rutshuru town. Mostly situated inside Virunga National Park, this area had been a home turf to the group for many years – helping the FDLR’s hide-and-run strategy when facing military pressure. Several operations to catch Mudacumura or other senior leaders between 2014 and 2018 failed due to the FDLR’s superior knowledge of the terrain but also in sequence to leaks out of the Congolese army and the UN. Bolstering their stamina in western and southern Rutshuru, the FDLR also tied an efficient web of Congolese Hutu militia – often collectively referred to as Nyatura (‘hit hard’/’hard sticks’) – especially the CMC coalition including Dominique Ndaruhutse and the late John Love. Using its infrastructure (especially what remains from the FDLR’s training wing called ‘Groupement des Ecoles’), the FDLR formed hundreds of Nyatura recruits who in turn would form a cordon sanitaire around the FDLR’s positions and taking the bulk of fighting against FARDC, NDC–R, Mazembe and other enemy forces. Yet, pressure on the FDLR/CMC alliance mounted in 2017 and 2018 as Guidon Shimiray’s NDC–R flamboyantly progressed to take control over most of southern Lubero and eastern Walikale. In early 2019, the NDC–R further expanded into northern Masisi, dislodging first the FDLR’s former CNRD brothers-in-arms as well as the Nyatura groups of Kavumbi, Jean-Marie and Nzayi (part of which were incorporated into Guidon’s troops). Throughout the Sukola II era, the FARDC focused increasingly on capturing individual FDLR top brass (including Vainqueur, Mudacumura’s former personal guard chief, intelligence chief Sophonie Mucebo, General Leopold Mujyambere or most recently the FDLR’s spokesperson Laforge Fils Bazeye). With the FDLR cut in half and under strong pressure since 2016, these losses have further weakened the organisational and military capacity of the group, whose only serious combat force to date is the Maccabe unit composed of its special forces. Occasional joint operations between Congolese and Rwandan army units have happened as well, but were mostly not officially declared – such as most recently throughout the first half of 2019 in Rutshuru area.

Throughout the past months, clashes circled in around Kitchanga and Mweso, two major towns located just west of the FDLR’s and CMC’s strongholds. Finally, just two days ago, a major NDC–R troop movement was reported from Mweso/Kashuga area (Masisi) into Bukombo (Rutshuru). At the same time, other movements were reported into Bukombo area from units wearing FARDC uniforms. Today at 5am, Mudacumura was killed in Bwito-Monument. The event took place in presence of several other high-ranking FDLR commanders, two of which have been killed according to FARDC sources, while others may be on the run as combats have continued throughout the zone during the day. Media and observers have been in disagreement over whom has taken out Mudacumura. While some point at Guidon’s NDC–R, others have mentioned FARDC commando troops in a joint operation with Rwandan special forces. Given that the area is highly inaccessible, early affirmation are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Looking at historical operational dynamics in the area, however, it would not be surprising if all of this is true to a certain extent and various belligerents be involved either directly or indirectly in Mudacumura’s killing. It is not known, however, whether Mudacumura has been killed because he resisted arrest or whether this was the actual objective of the raid.

A couple of points are particularly striking: in dozens of attempts, this is the first successful not only in getting to Mudacumura but actually eliminating him. Secondly, if it weren’t for official confirmation and a few well-placed local sources, it may be impossible to authenticate Mudacumura’s killing – pictures used for his arrest warrant are all 20+ years old and he has been particularly successful not only in escaping arrest but also in camouflaging himself and his whereabouts. Third, he was wearing a Rwandan army uniform while killed, indicating that in its last unsuccessful raids into Rwanda, FDLR special forces may at least have pillaged a small army warehouse. Fourth, UN troops seem not to be involved in the operation.

In sum, whoever of all potentially participating forces carried out the actual killing, this represents another major blow to the FDLR. While subsequent military operations and pressure from Congolese armed groups have diminished the FDLR in size, territory and capabilities, the loss of key leaders – including convicted Ignace Murwanashyaka who died in a German prison earlier in 2019 – is not to be underestimated considering the group’s emphasis on bureaucratic and hierarchical structures (even after 20+ years based in Congolese forest, the FDLR keeps meticulous records on stockpiles, units, activities and internal commands). Mudacumura has been, until the end and despite his advanced age, the groups undisputed military leader even as younger commanders such as Pacifique Ntawunguka or Gaby Ruhinda had become more relevant in operational military affairs. Moreover, he has been a key ideological pillar inside the group, especially after the CNRD split that left the FDLR increasingly dominated by Mudacumura and interim president Victor Byiringiro.

Whether or not this is the end of the FDLR is difficult to tell. Relying on internal cohesion and ideology, the group has often managed to rebound and survive after previous blows. However, the loss of its evergreen leader certainly is a big piece to chew for the remaining leadership. Moreover, it is unlikely that self-declared FDLR enemies such as the NDC–R will suddenly stop their military campaign. On the other hand, the FDLR’s and CMC’s entrenched versatility in southern Bwito could also lead to a lengthy and protracted stand-off in the coming months.

Movements of Rwandan rebels in South Kivu raise fears

In recent months, combatants from the National Council for Renewal and Democracy (CNRD), a dissident wing of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebellion, and their dependents have migrated in large numbers to the Kalehe highlands in South Kivu province. The Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has spoken to numerous sources – members of civil society, three Congolese army officers and a UN official – who speak of some 5,000 people, including men and women, and even children who have arrived in two waves.

The first group came between the end of December 2018 and January 2019. Pursued in North Kivu by the Nduma defense of Congo-Renovated (NDC-R), led by Guidon Shimiray Mwissa, they fled to South Kivu from Masisi, Rutshuru and Walikale territories. They headed to the high altitude forests overlooking Lake Kivu, where Tutsi and Hutu communities have been settled for decades. Then, around the end of April, a second group of CNRD left from Fizi, Uvira and Mwenga territories, crossing through Walungu and Kabare territories to Kalehe. They mixed in with the native Rwandophone population in the villages of Zirhalo, Numbi, Shange, Lumbishi and Kavumu, according to the same local sources, building makeshift shelters, farming fields and taxing local mining sites. Since then, the two groups appear to have merged and moved slightly northward toward the Masisi-Kalehe border.

Wilson Irategeka, President of the CNRD

Their presence, confirmed by the United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of Congo (Monusco), has stirred concern among locals who fear clashes between elements of the CNRD and other armed groups. “Since the end of March, we have been monitoring this situation and have increased our dissuasive presence. Peacekeepers have set up a temporary operational base at Bibatama, north-east of Bunyakiri, to monitor possible movements of armed groups including the CNRD,” a UN military source told us.

As for the Congolese army, military officials in South Kivu and Kinshasa told the KST, that they take “very seriously this threat to security”, fearing possible clashes on Congolese territory between these CNRD fighters and Rwandan troops who could be tempted to cross the border. At the end of May, Major General Delphin Kahimbi, head of Congolese military intelligence, visited Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, to inquire into the situation. Before his return to the capital, the officer asked his officers to conduct further research into the situation in the Kalehe highlands. The Congolese government and its foreign partners are especially worried that these CNRD rebels may be joining forces with anti-Kigali armed groups in Uvira territory, thus contributing to a renewed cross-border conflagration.

The first official results of the military investigation are alarming and are related to broader regional tensions. In the immediate aftermath of the failed 2015 coup in Bujumbura, a proxy war was launched between Rwanda and Burundi through affiliated armed groups in the highlands of Uvira. While these dynamics dropped off significantly in 2016 and 2017, since the end of 2018 the situation has deteriorated dramatically. Security sources in the Congo accuse Rwandan soldiers of positioning themselves in Mibande, a Congolese village near Bijojo, after passing through Rurambo, in the Uvira highlands. In the same area, the Congolese military report the presence of Gumino, a militia that recruits in the Banyamulenge community and led by Colonel Alexi Shaka Nyamusaraba. This armed group allegedly benefits from military support from Bujumbura, receiving ammunition on several occasions in 2018, according a report by the UN panel of experts that leaked in early January.

According to the same Congolese security sources, Nyamusaraba’s fighters are in collusion with General Kayumba Nyamwasa, the former Rwandan army chief of staff exiled in South Africa, and is supported by the Burundian Imbonerakure, the armed and political militia of President Pierre Nkurunziza. On the other side of the battle field is a coalition of Red-Tabara––a group linked to a Burundian opposition party––and Congolese Mai-Mai groups based in the Fizi, Uvira and Mwenga highlands. In any case, the scene seems to be set up for an escalation of tensions between Kigali and Bujumbura. Although President Felix Tshisekedi visited Kigali on March 25th and hosted the the Chief of theStaff of the Rwandan army in Kinshasa on May 10th, and then visited President Pierre Nkurunziza in Bujumbura on June 14th, there has not been any official declaration that the Congolese government has a strategy for defusing this regional conflict.


What is behind the rise of crime in the Congo’s cities?

Since the beginning of the year, crime has risen in several cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo––a wave of kidnappings, grenade attacks, robberies, and murders. What is behind this?

Every month, the NGO Synergie des associations des jeunes pour l’éducation civique, électorale et la promotion des droits de l’homme au Sud-Kivu (SAJECEK) publishes a newsletter on the security situation in South Kivu. “Nine people killed, 46 houses attacked by armed bandits, 6 vehicles robbed, 14 kidnapping cases and 5 cases of popular justice” read their April report.

Robert Ndjangala, the coordinator of SAJECEK, says these statistics points to “a surge in crime in Bukavu.” Last month, in the capital of South Kivu alone his association recorded six burglaries, four kidnappings and one murder, on top of many other killings in Bukavu in recent months. In addition, citizens have lamented a trend of dead bodies appearing on streets and alleyways in the morning.

Via WhatsApp, Maschack Bilubi, Bukavu’s mayor, gave his explanation to the Congo Research Group (CRG). “These bodies often smell of alcohol. That makes us believe that the deaths are linked to heavy consumption of alcohol by street youth.” But the does not deny “the proliferation of targeted killings” and “the rise of banditry” which can be explained, according to him, by “the illegal circulation of small arms.” SAJECEK suggests that it is possible to purchase a small weapon in the city for $20 or $25.

Bukavu is part of the Congo that has been under the sway of national and foreign armed groups (Burundians, Rwandans and Ugandans) for more than two decades. “Some armed groups are reported in the outskirts of the city and their fighters do not hesitate to enter Bukavu to restock and look for money,” says Robert Ndjangala, who refers to “cases of grenade attacks and robbery of currency dealers in the middle of the day by masked armed men.” According to information collected by his NGO, other militiamen also rent out their services and “are recruited to perform dirty work, among other things, the settling of scores.”

In recent years, there have been several demobilization campaigns targeting these fighters. They have, however, never produced the desired results: the security of people and property and the pacification of this part of the country remain a distant objective. Since the inauguration of President Felix Tshisekedi, several armed groups have decided to surrender, but there is still no operational demobilization program. As a result, crime is being exported to major Congolese towns. “This is also the result of all the ex-combatants’ reintegration processes that have failed. As a result, abandoned to their fate, young people who have learned nothing other than the handling of weapons find themselves unemployed and do not hesitate today to resort to these criminal activities in the city,” explains Bilubi. Armed robberies, robberies, targeted attacks, murders, kidnappings are now part of the daily life in Bukavu.

This uptick in crime is noticeable in several other cities in the Kivus, including Goma (a parliamentary mission visited at the end of March to investigate crime here), Butembo and Beni. Since the beginning of the year, the Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has documented 42 people killed and 27 abducted in the cities of Bukavu, Butembo and Goma. Lubumbashi in the south of the country and Kananga in the center have also been affected. In Kisangani, the capital of Tshopo province, “the deterioration of the security situation in the city is mainly due to population movements,” according to Dismas Kitenge, president of Groupe Lotus, a local human rights NGO. “Young people, mostly from South Kivu, are working as motorcyle drivers in the city and are often cited as the perpetrators of robberies at night, even armed robberies and rapes,” he said.

More generally, Kitenge thinks the political and electoral context may play a role in this trend. In Kisangani as elsewhere, “young people were instrumentalized by politicians during the election campaign: candidates often used the big arms to secure their meetings, but also to disrupt the activities of political opponents. This has often exacerbated political tensions and led to attacks between rival groups,” he says.

Several other human rights defenders and civil society actors contacted also noted that local authorities are not perceived as legitimate. This questioning of local power could also, according to them, explain the rise of violence in cities. Add to this social discontent and grumblings within the army and police, who live are underpaid and live in poor conditions, thus becoming themselves sources of insecurity for civilians. “When they are deployed at night for patrols, many tell us that they take the opportunity to harass the population so they can support their wives and children the next day,” said Ndjangala who also deplores the lack of political will from the government.

In other countries, similar factors – thousands of ex-combatants, a weak state, and an abundance of weapons and ammunition – have created extraordinary waves of urban crime. In El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, decades of civil war have given way to the worst urban insecurity in the world. At the end of these wars, a large pool of demobilized and unemployed men with easy access to weapons have fueled organized criminal groups, particularly in El Salvador, which has the highest homicide rate in the world. In Guatemala, mafia groups have formed state intelligence and military forces.

In the Kivus, local city halls have started tackling the problem with their own means, as they wait for a more comprehensive approach from the national government. In Bukavu, for example, an urban security council is held every Wednesday of the week to assess the situation and adjust their security approach. “Nocturnal patrols are organized, random checkpoints are set up to search for thugs, a campaign to get rid of the kiosks and abandoned vehicles––possible hiding places for bandits––was launched and sensitization of local officials in neighborhoods are underway to identify newcomers,” saus Bukavu’s mayor.

However, these measures are not new. In early 2018, the government of South Kivu launched operations “Tujikinge” against insecurity in urban areas, but without being able to end the criminal gangs operating there.

Is the era of armed groups over?

During his trip to Goma on April 15 and in Beni on April 16, 2019, President Félix Tshisekedi, promised to do everything to ensure peace and security return to North Kivu, saying that the era of armed groups was over.

He announced several decisions, included to rotate out the troops who had been serving in the Kivus for many years; however, the dismantling of armed groups is likely to remain an uphill battle.

On the one hand, in the wake the December 30th elections, the list of armed groups willing to lay down their arms has grown longer. Following the surrender or capture of several armed group commanders in January and February, the leader of the Raia Mutomboki Kabishula (aka Ngubito), active in Ziralo grouping in Kalehe territory, surrendered with more than 400 combatants in Nyamunyunyu on March 5th; the Raia Mutomboki Safari, active in the Kalonge groupement, Kalehe territory, surrendered on March 26th; and Nyatura Kavumbi’s commander surrendered to the FARDC on April 2nd in Kirumbu, Masisi territory.

Talks are also underway for the surrender of other armed groups: with the Nyatura Kalume Matthias in Lumbishi, Kalehe territory, since mid-April; and with the Raia Mutomboki Maheshe on April 20th, in Nzibira  Walungu territory. The Nyatura Ngwiti are also reportedly en route to Muheto to surrender to the FARDC.

Still other commanders have been captured or killed: on January 3rd, the FARDC killed Lance Muteya in Nduma, Shabunda territory; the important Mai-Mai commanders Charles Bokande and Jackson Muhukambutho were both killed in attacks (by unidentified assailants) at Kamuhororo on February 3rd and Ishasha on April 21st, respectively, both in northeastern Rutshuru territory. The commanders of the Raia Mutomboki Kokodikoko and Raia Mutomboki Vunja Vikwazo were captured on April 14th in Shabunda territory, but their dependents are still at mostly at large.


However, it will be difficult for the government to consolidate these gains, for three reasons:

First, instead of disarming, some armed groups have taken advantage of their good relations with the FARDC to bolster their positions, becoming de facto self-governing entities: this is the case of Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC-R), which has extended its reach though new offensives in Masisi during the months of March and April 2019. The NDC-R’s strength has made it difficult to disarm them, and their collaboration with the FARDC has encouraged the mobilization of other armed groups.

Second, and probably the most important challenge, there is a striking lack of options for those who want to surrender. The National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Program (PNDDR) has not been accepting any new demobilization candidates for several years. Those who surrender are sometimes placed in military camps––the main two such camps are in Nyamunyunyi, north of Bukavu; and Mubambiro, west of Goma––with little supervision, or are provided with simple demobilization tokens and returned to their villages. At the same time, the Congolese government is sending mixed signals. For example, on February 3rd, the rebel leader Ebuela arrived with dozens of combatants to surrender in Mikenge (Fizi territory), only to return to the bush after the FARDC attacked his troops who were preparing to disarm in Kafulo on March 2nd.

Finally, somewhat paradoxically, the death or capture of the commanders of some armed groups has deprived the FARDC of important interlocutors who could persuade their troops to demobilize. Some groups, following the removal of their commander, have fragmented into gangs of criminals operating without a clear command structure.

Release of the hostages by the ADF: Peace offering or distraction?

During the first half of March 2019, the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels released dozens of hostages, often with messages to the newly-elected leaders of the DRC. On March 2nd, the ADF released seven men and seven women in Makembi, Beni territory. Three days later, seven women, one girl and fourteen men were released at Mayi-Safi, in the same territory. On March 11th, the rebels released twenty-three civilians in Maselele village, around 12 km east of Oicha, the capital of Beni territory. These releases, which began in February, were initially surprising, as the ADF had never officially taken responsibility for the deadly attacks around Beni and had never released hostages in such a dramatic fashion. Their messages included a proposal for a truce with the new Congolese president: they promised not to kill civilians if the new government leaves them alone

The ADF, via the released hostages, also requested the opportunity to meet  with President Felix Tshisekedi, who was visiting Beni from 16 to 17 April 2019, to give him their version of what led to the killings. Nonetheless, a few days before the arrival of the head of state, they appeared to carry out further attacks against civilians in Watalinga, where they killed eight civilians during the night of April 11th. For his part, the new president let it be understood during his visit to the United States that he is seeking American support to confront a group he considers to be linked to ISIS and that the Ugandan government could also support military operations in the DRC.

It is unclear whether the ADF have adopted a more peaceful stance following the transfer of power after the elections of last December, or that the hostage release is rather a diversionary maneuver issued to distract the Congolese army that has been attacking them since 2014.

As a reminder, the ADF never released the priests abducted at the Catholic parish at Mbau on October 19th 2012, or indeed most of the hundreds of other people who have been abducted by the group over the past years.  In October 2014, a series of massacres attributed to them began in the territory of Beni, although several other armed groups have also been involved in the killings. The Congo Research Group has published two investigation reports on this violence.

Ebola Treatment Centers Attacked by Armed Groups in Butembo

Between the end of February and mid-March, within two weeks, several Ebola Treatment Centers (ETCs) were attacked in the town of Butembo in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. On March 11, 2019, around 5:00 am, an attack on the ITAV health center left a policeman dead and injured a health worker. One of the Mai-Mai attackers was arrested. This was the second attack on the health center; two weeks earlier, on February 27 at 4:00 pm, assailants had killed a policeman, burned down part of the center, and scattered 12 patients who were under quarantine. The first such attack in Butembo took place at the Katwa ETC on February 24th, after which the national health minister blamed local community members before realizing that the ETCs were being targeted by armed groups.

The attacks in Butembo have perhaps been the most noteworthy, given the size of the town (around 700,000), and the fact that it has been relatively peaceful in recent years. But armed groups have attacked health centers elsewhere, including those treating Ebola, as well. This is particularly the case of Kasitu and Vuhovi. According to the United Nations, since the beginning of the epidemic, there have been 317 security incidents that have had an impact on the response to the disease.

The security challenge is enormous, and the Ebola response strategy – with 731 deaths already in the region – should have anticipated such attacks. In a region where the state and the humanitarian community has often reacted slowly in response to the killing of civilians and other abuses committed by armed groups, the population has become suspicious of outsiders. The recent arrival of large missions to combat Ebola, with experts recruited from around the world and considerable financial resources, has prompted cynicism and conspiracies. The decision by the Congolese government in December 2018 to postpone elections to Butembo and Beni, which many locals saw as targeting them for their support of the opposition, also contributed to a crisis of trust toward authorities.

Several local leaders have stepped in to try to dispel these suspicions, including the Catholic bishop of Butembo and the Nobel Prize laureate Denis Mukwege. The Minister of Health Oly Ilunga and the director of the World Health Organization have also visited the region to encourage locals to collaborate with the humanitarian efforts. Nonetheless, the population remains reserved. The campaign against Ebola should be accompanied by a deeper engagement with local communities and should attempt to answer the following questions:

What is the role and responsibility of the Congolese security services when the armed groups are able to penetrate into the city center during broad daylight –– the ITAV health center is located in downtown Butembo –– without being detected by the intelligence services, the police and the army?

To what extent does the strategy of the Ebola response take into account and mitigate the risk that the massive deployment of financial resources will attract armed actors, including local armed groups and the pauperized Congolese security services?

In any case, the attacks against the ETCs in a city that had become a haven of peace in the midst of a deeply unstable region, suggest that the Ebola response should not be decoupled from the security of the general population, and that well-funded humanitarian action can be undermined by weak and abusive state.

After the elections, a shifting military landscape in the Kivus

The former spokesperson of the FDLR, Laforge Bazeye

The former spokesperson of the FDLR, Laforge Bazeye

Although it is too early to gauge the impact of elections on insecurity and armed mobilization in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, we can already see slight changes in conflict dynamics in North and South Kivu. Security services and militia leaders are trying to figure out what the the arrival of Felix Tshisekedi as president – and his contestation by some in the opposition and civil society – means for their political and strategic future. However, the main forces currently affecting armed mobilization are only indirectly linked to elections. The two most important ones are the regional tensions between Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi (each of these countries works with Congolese armed groups); and realignments between belligerents as commanders die, are arrested, or defect.

The most dynamic area in terms of these dynamics is the border between Burundi, Rwanda and the Congo in South Kivu province. Although cross-border incursions and tensions have been commonplace for a long time, the past few months have seen a sharp increase in clashes between armed groups with support from all three countries. At the heart of this conflict are two main camps: Burundian rebels who rebelled against the government of Pierre Nkurunziza following the failed coup of 2015 and the ensuing repression; and various Rwandan rebellions, old and new, seeking to position themselves against Kigali. In their efforts to dismantle their enemies, the two countries are supporting their neighbor’s enemies, while the Congolese and Ugandan governments find themselves in their own tactical gambits, both sides demonstrating considerable flexibility.

An example of these complex alliances are incursions of the Burundian army (FDN) against various rebels from their country – especially against the RED-Tabara (former FRONABU-Tabara), but also against the Nzabampema wing of the National Forces of Liberation (FNL). Last year, the FDN often took benefited from the tacit or active complicity of the Congolese armed forces (FARDC). On the other side of the battlefield, the FNL––which has been in the eastern Congo for many years––has cultivated relationships with Mai-Mai groups such as those led by Makanaki, Rushaba, René, Réunion, and Nyerere. As elsewhere in the Kivus, these coalitions sometimes produce surprising alliances: thus, at the end of January 2019, the Burundian army supported an offensive against the RED-Tabara in the highlands of Uvira territory led by the Mai-Mai of Marungu (from the Fuliiro community) together with the Twiganeho, a militia that recruits among the Banyamulenge – even though these two communities are often in conflict with each other.

Meanwhile, former Rwandan chief of staff Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who defected in 2010 and since then resides in exile in South Africa, has been supporting a small rebellion in the Uvira highlands. Operating under the same name as Kayumba’s political party, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), this group had allied themselves with Banyamulenge militias like the Gumino and Twiganeho while receiving support from the Congolese government. Despite these alliances, the RNC has never really been able to penetrate into Rwandan territory. Since December 2018, there have been reports suggesting dissent within the RNC, possibly provoked by outside instigators, even as some analysts speak of Rwandan support for the RED-Tabara to attack the RNC.

It is in this context that in January – just before the final proclamation of the results of the presidential elections in the Congo – Kinshasa recalibrated its alliances: following the visit of a large Congolese delegation to Kigali – including Kalev Mutond, the intelligence chief – Kinshasa reportedly arrested several RNC combatants as well as Colonel Richard Tawimbi, a prominent Munyamulenge military leader. At the same time, Kinshasa transferred to Rwanda Laforge Fils Bazeye (aka Ignace Nkaka), the spokesperson of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) who had recently been arrested in the DRC. Why this shift? It is likely that Kinshasa was reacting to Rwanda’s criticism of the election results at the African Union on January 17th.

While fighting continues in the highlands of Uvira territory, a dissident wing of the FDLR – the National Council for Renewal and Democracy-Ubwyunge (CNRD) – seems to be heading towards this area, from where they are reportedly trying to navigate a passage toward Burundi. It is not clear what role the CNRD will play in these complex interplay of alliances, but it is clear that the rising tensions within the region could exacerbate if the Congo fails to reign in the instability in the Kivus, which – as often in the past – provides an arena for regional disputes.

A second trend in recent weeks has been the changing command structures within armed groups. Several rebel commanders have been killed, arrested, or have surrendered since the beginning of the year. The most important case is the death of Charles Bokande, reported on February 5th 2019. Sources diverge on the causes of his death – he may have been killed by his deputy JTM (“Je t’aime”) following internal quarrels or by guards of the Virunga National Park, who have been longstanding adversaries of the Mai-Mai Charles. Bokande had been among the most important rebel commanders in the Kivus. He controlled large parts of the southern shoreline of Lake Edward, where he taxed the fisheries and clashed regularly with Virunga park guards.

The head of the Raia Mutomboki group “Lance Muteya”, active in western Kalehe territory since October 2018, succumbed to a similar fate: on January 3rd, a market day, he traveled to the west to pillage Nduma village in neighboring Shabunda territory. On his way back, he was allegedly ambushed by FARDC in the forest between the territories of Kalehe and Shabunda, dying along with seven of his combatants. Also in Kalehe territory, the FARDC reportedly arrested the militia commander “Gachacha” (a former deputy commander of a Nyatura faction) in Bushaku on January 17th 2019.

Meanwhile, there was a significant surrender: “Colonel” Ebuela handed himself over to the FARDC on February 3rd, along with a substantial number of troops, in Mikenge, Fizi territory. He was a member of the National People’s Coalition for the Sovereignty of Congo (CNPSC) armed coalition––it was unclear what his motives were or what the consequences of his surrender would be for the coalition, in which he was the second most important commander after William Amuri Yakutumba. Ebuela was quoted as saying that he did not see why he should continue his rebellion after Felix Tshisekedi came to power, as he had been motivated by opposition to Joseph Kabila.

It is too early to know if these trends will continue. Although a new president has been inaugurated, his government and the provincial executives will still take months to be formed, and local elections will not be held until September. Within the security forces – including the FARDC and the police – the pre-election command structures remain largely in place, and the new president has not yet articulated his strategy for stabilizing the Kivus.