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.