[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.

Can MONUSCO Really Withdraw From the DRC?

A “Short Course on Vehicle Repair” given by the Indian contingent of MONUSCO in Lubero territory. (MONUSCO/Force)

Twenty years. On November 30, it was exactly twenty years to the day that the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC was born. No one, however, had the heart to celebrate this anniversary.

Since November 22, MONUSCO has been facing a popular uprising on a scale rarely seen in North Kivu. On November 25, one of its camps, in Beni’s Boikene neighborhood, was even partly destroyed by protesters. The protesters have accused the mission of inaction – and its most vocal critics of complicity –  during the killing of civilians in recent weeks.

The Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has recorded the deaths of at least 161 civilians by armed groups since November 5 in Beni territory. In the vast majority of cases, these abuses were carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF, a Uganda-based Islamist rebellion), in all likelihood in retaliation for the “major offensive” launched on October 30 by the Congolese army.

During these violent demonstrations, Blue Helmets even opened fire, killing at least one civilian, who, according to the mission, “was about to throw a Molotov cocktail.” An investigation has been opened but this episode has played a part in further radicalizing the protests. They have even reached large towns: demonstrations have been organized by citizen movements such as Lucha in Goma and Kinshasa, calling for the UN mission to leave if it is unable to prevent the killings. In total, KST has logged the deaths of at least 15 people in recent demonstrations in Beni and Butembo.

The confidence of the Congolese in the ability of the mission to ensure their security has, in fact, waned in recent years. In answer to the question “Do you trust MONUSCO to ensure the security of your neighborhood/village?”, only 15% of Congolese polled in December 2018 by Peacebuildingdata.org replied in the affirmative (and only 14% for the inhabitants of North Kivu). This represents a fall of 11 points compared with 2015.

However, the current lack of confidence is occurring at a crucial moment when the future of the mission is under discussion at UN headquarters: its renewed mandate should be adopted before December 20. The mission’s budget, which was for a long time the largest in the world for a peacekeeping mission (it reached 1.45 billion dollars in 2013-2014), has dropped to 1.01 billion dollars, principally due to the reduction in UN funding by the United States. MONUSCO is now less well funded than MINUSMA in Mali or MINUSS in South Sudan.

In March, the Security Council had only renewed the mission in DRC for nine months, not the usual 12. French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves le Drian had even announced that this shortened mandate would be used to plan for its “gradual disengagement.”  Meanwhile, a strategic review of the mission has been carried out by Tunisian diplomat Youssef Mahmoud. His report, whose conclusions were leaked to AFP (in French), argues for the mission’s withdrawal within three years.

Could it be that from New York to Beni, a convergence of interests of various kinds of frustration with the mission is leading to its untimely demise?

Some members of the mission are certainly demoralized by their scapegoating. MONUSCO is not responsible for the new wave of violence, as some have stated, particularly since the DRC Armed Forces (FARDC) denied it a role in planning their operations against the ADF.

On December 1, during his visit to eastern Congo, UN Peacekeeping Operations Chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix even stated that the attacks against the mission had been “premeditated, organized and financed” and called for “investigations into everything that has happened.”

Who orchestrated them? On condition of anonymity, some members of the mission revealed to KST that members of the Congolese army took part in fueling the protests against it, including by transporting protesters. KST has been able to verify that certain Congolese army officers have been spreading messages that are hostile to the Blue Helmets.

What was the aim of these officers in seeking to foment hostility against MONUSCO? Focusing criticism on MONUSCO could firstly hide their own responsibility. Also, most of those still in place at the head of the Congolese army were appointed by former President Joseph Kabila, who had called for the withdrawal of MONUSCO before 2020 (in French). Some Congolese officers are themselves under UN sanctions such as General Muhindo Akili Mundos, currently Commander of the 33rd military region (South Kivu and Maniema). According to a high-level UN source, Defense Minister Aimé Ngoy Mukena (who is close to former president Kabila), had still not signed the proposed new cooperation agreement between the FARDC and MONUSCO, even though the former agreement had expired in July.

This would not completely remove any responsibility on MONUSCO’s part. The attacks against civilians could have been anticipated. This armed group had already used this strategy during previous offensives, such as in 2014 (when 345 civilians had been killed in three months). Yet MONUSCO’s mandate defines protecting civilians as one of its two priorities (along with support for Congolese institutions).

Troops engaged on the ground in Beni territory are in reality ill equipped for this mission. In the main, these comprise some 300 Malawian, South African, and Tanzanian soldiers of MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a combat force rather than a civilian protection force. This was created in 2013 to put an end to the M23 rebel movement, which was operating like a regular army. According to several diplomatic sources, it was borne of the will of southern African states to fight against Rwandan influence in the Kivus.

The FIB today must face a completely different enemy, using counter-insurgency techniques. According to the strategic review report, it is also facing “significant problems relating to unified command and control, intelligence, analysis, planning and coordination.”

Its troops have suffered heavy losses in Beni territory in recent years: 15 Blue Helmets were killed in the battle of Semuliki in December 2017. Then, during their last offensive against the ADF, in November 2018, eight Blue Helmets were also killed. Consequently, since then and despite instructions from the mission’s command, FIB patrols, under their own chain of command, with at its head, the South African General Patrick Dube, have become more cautious, including in towns of the Grand Nord of North Kivu.

Compounding this is the fact that the crisis has occurred during a transition at the head of the MONUSCO force: after the departure of its commander, the Brazilian Elias Martins, it found itself without a head. The new deputy commander, General Thierry Lion, who came to his post during the same period, therefore had to take on a dual role. This situation should, however, come to an end shortly: a new force commander, the Brazilian Ricardo Augusto Ferreira Costa Neves, was appointed on December 3.

How can the mission find a way out of this crisis? After the Beni protests, the office of the head of mission, Leila Zerrougui, called for a meeting with the highest Congolese authorities. A meeting of the National Security Council was held on November 25 in Kinshasa with the president of the republic, his ministers and several Congolese generals. It decided to resume “joint operations” between MONUSCO and the FARDC. However, beyond the public announcement, which might have calmed down the protesters, it remains difficult to identify the practical measures that this will involve.

Since then, the UN mission has released information on the support it already provides to the FARDC, mainly in the form of reconnaissance flights and the evacuation of wounded soldiers. It could increase its logistical support to Congolese forces but only to a certain extent: its budget already has a deficit of several million dollars according to the office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General.

Joint “planning” meetings between MONUSCO officers and the FARDC were also held (in French) in Beni territory. MONUSCO announced the arrest of combatants as part of joint “combat patrols” with the FARDC (in French). However, its participation in conflicts with the ADF, in the air or on the ground, remains off the table for the time being, according to several diplomatic sources. Several UN officials believe the FARDC operation to be ineffective and badly prepared. They also fear finding themselves mixed up in possible abuses.

In this context, one option could be to suspend operations against the ADF, to provide time to develop a new joint strategy between the FARDC and MONUSCO. Only President Félix Tshisekedi could take such a decision. But it remains to be seen whether Congolese military chiefs would agree. Above all, it would risk appearing as a step backwards in the eyes of the people, and particularly damaging to the president’s image. He had committed to eliminating the ADF before the end of the year.

On a deeper level, there is a profound disconnect between what the Congolese expect of MONUSCO and what MONUSCO is able and willing to do. President Tshisekedi, who wants to keep MONUSCO, is calling for the mission’s military capacity to be reinforced. Among civil society, also, Lucha is calling for MONUSCO “to do something or leave.” Political opponent Martin Fayulu and Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege, both of whom are in favor of the UN presence, are calling for military intervention in Beni territory based on the model of the European Artémis operation in 2003 in Ituri province. The underlying idea behind such calls is that a hard-hitting military offensive could quickly eliminate the ADF.

Conversely, several MONUSCO officials asked by KST believe that the mission is “not there to go to war” and that the use of force is only effective if it goes hand in hand with political and diplomatic initiatives. In its report, “The Art of the Possible: MONUSCO’s New Mandate,” the Congo Research Group recommended rebuilding “a viable political strategy for protecting civilians in zones of armed conflict.” Also, the recent independent strategic review indicates that “there is no military solution to many of the security crises in the DRC.” The report also states that “without such a critical re-examination, the mission will continue to be burdened with unrealistic expectations and short term remedies that unwittingly allow Congolese stakeholders to shirk their own responsibility for addressing the causes of conflict many of which are the result of homegrown governance deficits.”

The report even proposes the withdrawal of the FIB, particularly to underscore that “it would also send the signal that neutralization is a sovereign duty of the national army.” In the eventuality that this force is renewed, it should be renewed for no more than one year.

These proposals are now under discussion at the UN Security Council. A withdrawal in less than three years appears unfeasible: even if such a decision were taken, carrying it out would require more time. Moreover, the DRC is still affected by an Ebola epidemic, which risks gaining ground due to recent attacks against MONUSCO and agents of the riposte, such as that at Mangina on November 27.

It is possible, however, that the Security Council will call for this withdrawal to be planned. According to a diplomatic source, the United States, in particular, has expressed its desire for the creation and adoption of a withdrawal timeline.

After the Death of at Least 77 Civilians, the Congolese Army’s Strategy Against the ADF is Called into Question

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.

Foreign Troops Enter DRC: Why the Goma Meeting Failed

Representatives of the region’s armies at the first Goma meeting on September 13 and 14 (DR/Jonathan Kombi for actualite.cd)

This blog post was updated on Friday, November 15, 2019, to reflect the results of the meeting held between Félix Tshisekedi and Yoweri Museveni on November 9.

Uganda will not be taking part in a new venture in neighboring countries in the Eastern DR Congo. At least, not now and not in the form initially planned. 

On October 24 and 25 in Goma, a highly anticipated meeting was supposed to have led to the creation of an “integrated Chief of Staff” of the region’s armies (Burundi, DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania) which could have paved the way for these countries’ soldiers to take part in operations against armed groups in eastern DRC. The meeting in question did take place, in the presence of the Chief of Staff of the Congolese army Célestin Mbala, the Chief of the Ugandan army Peter Elwelu, the Chief of Rwandan military intelligence Vincent Nyakarundi, MONUSCO observers (led by the French Brigadier General Thierry Lion, the blue helmets’ deputy commander in DRC), and representatives of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM).    

However, the Ugandan delegation refused to sign the final declaration. According to several military and diplomatic sources, including one present at the meeting, this refusal was only made known on the second and final day of the meeting. Uganda had not expressed any reservations until then, nor at the previous meeting held in Goma on September 13 and 14 (in French), nor on the first day, October 25. This radical shift suggests a counter order was issued from Kampala, which has had particularly tense relations with Rwanda for months.  

According to a Congolese military source present at the meeting, and several sources close to the Ugandan army, Kampala now wishes to take part in the search for Allied Democratic Forces (ADF, a Ugandan rebel Islamist group, present in the Congo) within the framework of a bilateral agreement and is against any kind of regional agreement. 

Uganda specifically wanted to avoid a deal that would have allowed the Rwandan army to be legally present on Congolese soil, including in the south of South Kivu and in the Grand Nord of North Kivu, according to a source familiar with the matter. 

“Uganda appears to have realized that Rwanda would have the most to win from this coalition,” explained a diplomatic source. “Kigali would have gained a semblance of legality to justify the presence of its troops in eastern Congo and extended its sphere of influence.” 

According to a source familiar with the matter, Uganda was also extremely annoyed by the discreet arrival of Rwandan troops in eastern Congo in recent months. Their arrival had been reported to Kivu Security Tracker (KST) by several sources from civil society, the army and local Congolese authorities, and was not disputed by Rwandan and Congolese military sources when asked. 

However, Uganda was not alone in opposing the regional coalition. The Common Front for Congo (FCC), a coalition led by Joseph Kabila, with a majority in parliament, has expressed “reservations” about “foreign troops entering onto Congolese soil,” believing that it “would lead to a settling of scores between the troops, given their proven belligerence [and that] the collateral victims would inevitably be the populations in the east of the country” (in French). 

In recent weeks, civil society in eastern Congo has also voiced opposition to any presence of foreign troops on its soil (in French). Parliamentarians such as UNC (Union for the Congolese Nation, a member of the ruling coalition) deputy Juvénal Munubo and senator Jean-Philippe Mabaya (opposition party) have also called on the executive to answer oral questions with debate on the issue, which seems to have embarrassed the government: no response has been provided on this matter, nor has any official announcement been made to national representatives on the ongoing negotiations. For Tshisekedi, whose slogan is “the people first,” supporting this project in the face of such popular hostility would have undoubtedly proven difficult.   

Has the creation of this integrated Chief of Staff been definitively abandoned? Not altogether.

Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi and his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, discussed the matter of “security in the sub-region” during their meeting in Entebbe on Saturday, November 9.

According to the statement issued after the meeting, the two presidents have decided to work together, “including with other countries” to “combat the negative forces that [continue to] afflict the eastern part of DRC.”

According to Congolese and Rwandan military sources, the region’s armies have agreed to convene another meeting in a month’s time, with the date yet to be determined.

Uganda appears to have the power to make its conditions on collaboration be heard. President Félix Tshisekedi jeopardized his credibility by publicly committing, during a speech in Beni, to restoring peace before the end of the year (in French). Yet the “last offensive” against the group, launched with great fanfare on October 30 by the Congolese army alone (it failed to even receive the support of MONUSCO), seems to have already suffered from setbacks. During the night between November 5 and 6, at least ten civilians and six Congolese soldiers were killed in the village of Kokola, between Oicha and Eringeti, in an ADF attack verified by KST. 

“The Congolese army suffers from structural weaknesses which mean that without additional resources success is unlikely,” claims a former MONUSCO official. “It lacks well trained special forces and intelligence forces. And the situation is even worse when it comes to aviation. It lost two of its three Mi24 attack helicopters in the mountains of Virunga in 2017 and therefore no longer has any capacity in this area. As for MONUSCO air support, it is not enough. That is why the intervention of Ugandan aviation and special forces, planned for in the framework of the coalition, makes sense.”     

Félix Tshisekedi, who has to accommodate the reluctance of Congolese public opinion and that of his allies in the FCC, prevailing conditions in neighboring countries and the weaknesses of his army, has very limited room for maneuver to restore peace in the east of the country.