By Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker.
President Félix Tshisekedi has decreed a “state of siege” for one month, which will place the military and police in charge of the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu. Purely military approaches, however, have until now failed. But what should be done to restore peace to eastern DRC?
We now know more about the “state of siege”. Starting on May 6, and lasting initially for 30 days, the civil authorities of both provinces have been replaced by the military and the police. This includes the governors and vice-governors. Provincial government, provincial assemblies, local authorities and civil courts, have been suspended. The military has also been given special powers: including the power to prohibit or prevent publications, gatherings and even the presence of people they consider to be harmful to their actions. According to a UN source, these measures were taken without consulting the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).
The head of state has appointed two lieutenant generals to lead the provinces affected by the state of siege: Johnny Nkashama Luboya for Ituri and Constant Kongba Ndima for North Kivu. Like many FARDC officers, both have been involved in rebellions in the past. Johnny Nkashama Luboya was the head of military intelligence for the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) at the start of the 2000s. His latest post was that of FARDC Commander of the First Zone of Defense. Constant Kongba Ndima was also known as the “board wiper”, in reference to the particularly violent operation led by the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) in Ituri at the beginning of the 2000s. At the time he was a general in that rebellion. His previous post in the FARDC was that of Deputy Commander of the General Staff in charge of administration and logistics.
There remain some areas of uncertainty in this measure. Dozens of FARDC officers are still to be appointed. However, the logic is relatively clear: to give full authority to the Congolese army in these provinces. The message is just as clear: President Félix Tshisekedi is aware of the deterioration of the situation and wishes to wipe out the armed groups in the east. This is an extremely ambitious program, therefore, for a measure also described as time-bound.
It is perfectly true that the situation is becoming worse for civilians in eastern DRC. This trend is very clear from the data collected by the Kivu Security Tracker (KST) on the provinces of North and South Kivu. In 2018, KST recorded 914 civilian deaths caused by armed actors. In 2019, this toll had risen to 1070. In 2020, it was 1569. And 2021 has started more or less on the same trajectory as 2020.
Number of civilians killed by armed actors per year in the Kivus since 2018
From this viewpoint, Félix Tshisekedi’s determination is understandable. He has made restoring peace in the east a central element of his communication both during his 2018 electoral campaign and since the start of his presidency. The head of state’s focus on this issue is, in itself, a good thing: Congolese and International political leaders often neglect the problems which plague eastern DRC.
This measure is also a response to very serious concern among public opinion. According to a poll (to be published) by the Congo Research Group (CRG) and the Bureau d’Études, de Recherches, et Consulting International (BERCI), carried out on March 19 and 20, 2021 across the country, 20% of respondents believe that security should be the government’s priority, which ranks this issue in second place behind “social/living conditions”, and ahead of “economy/jobs”. Throughout the month of April, there were protests (including in North Kivu) which not only called for MONUSCO to leave but also for the president to keep his word.
The Military Option
The voice of the protesters appear, therefore, to have been heard. But is the state of siege the right solution to their concerns? To find out, a useful starting point would be to take stock of what has already been done to address problems in the east under Félix Tshisekedi’s presidency.
Since the beginning of his mandate, the head of state has appeared to approach the east’s problem from an essentially military angle. He declared that he was ready to “die” to restore peace. When he tried to forge a regional coalition to restore security in September and October 2019, this was designed as joint command body for the region’s armies to plan military operations in eastern DRC.
Under the authority of the president, operations such as Zaruba ya Ituri (Ituri Storm) in the Djugu territory in June 2019, or the “large-scale” FARDC offensive against the ADF involving some 20,000 troops in October 2019 have been launched. Yet MONUSCO were not consulted or involved in the planning of these offensives and in the end, the region’s countries did not take part, since the joint command body project failed.
Concomitantly, it is true that non-military initiatives have been implemented, such as the Murhesa ceasefire process, community dialogue in the high and middle plateaus of South Kivu, or the attempt to rebuild the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program with a newfound focus on “communities”. However, in general the central government was not the instigator of such initiatives. Although sometimes it has endorsed them – with varying degrees of enthusiasm, particularly during the period when it was itself divided –until now it has not shown the will to prioritize such initiatives. The new “community” focused DDR approach, for example, was launched by eastern provincial governors. In 2020 Félix Tshisekedi publicly supported it and announced the appointment of a national coordinator to manage the process. Several international donors committed to DDR have expressed their readiness to financially support the scheme. But the decree providing for its implementation, which he has received, remains unsigned. This delay is all the more damaging given that the aim of the “state of siege” is to enable more offensives against armed groups: it would have been useful to first ensure that a framework was in place to deal with disarmed combatants.
It is clear: since the start of Félix Tshisekedi’s presidency a military approach has been adopted. How successful has it been? Data collected by KST calls into question its effectiveness and could even suggest the approach has been counterproductive in some territories.
A Counterproductive Operation
In Djugu territory, where the Zaruba ya Ituri Operation was launched in June 2019, KST data is limited as data collection only began in April 2021. However, initial indications are concerning: in April, Djugu was the most dangerous territory for civilians in eastern DRC. KST recorded 66 violent civilian deaths in the space of one month (more than the 47 civilian deaths in Beni territory over the same period). Djugu, which is only one of the 18 territories monitored by KST, accounted for 33% of all civilian deaths in April.
How does this compare to Beni, the territory targeted by the “large-scale” operation launched in October 2019? The FARDC leadership has very quickly announced the retaking of main ADF bases. However, data mapped by KST suggest that most of the combatants were able to flee to other areas. Some towns located on the borders of Beni territory, such as Mandumbi, Mamove or in the sector of Rwenzori, which until then had been relatively unscathed by ADF violence, saw a dramatic increase in civilian killings after the launch of the operation.
Location of killings carried out by the ADF in Beni territory before the “large-scale” intervention (June 2017-October 2019) and since then (November 2019-April 2021)
When the number of civilians killed in Beni territory is exposed and explored, the operation also appears to have been counterproductive until now. A monthly average of 24 civilians killed by armed actors between June 2017 and October 2019 escalated to an average of 65 following the start of the operation.
Number of civilians killed by armed actors in Beni territory per quarter since July 2017
A small but significant part of this was also due to an increase in violence by the FARDC and the National Congolese Police (PNC): either institution is implicated in the deaths of 4 civilians on average per month since the beginning of the operation, compared with 2 prior to it being put into effect.
However, abuses recorded in Beni territory are still overwhelmingly committed by the ADF – in so far as those responsible can be told apart. In all likelihood, the aim of such killings is to discredit and put pressure on the Congolese authorities, to divide the forces pursuing them and to divide society as a whole. In this way the ADF appear to want to inhibit FARDC operations so they can return to their safe havens. However, until now the Congolese government has not been able to contain this strategy: MONUSCO was the target of mass protests in November 2019 and in April 2021, resulting in clashes which led to at least 25 people being killed in North Kivu province.
The results of the military approach favored by President Félix Tshisekedi, which are at best mixed, raise concern as to the consequences of the “state of siege”. This measure is in fact a continuation and strengthening of the method applied until now, rather than a new approach. This exceptional state also entails further dangers. The military, which have the capacity to prohibit protests, publications and to determine whether certain people are allowed to stay, will have greater autonomy and less accountability to justify their action than before. Both generals appointed as heads of the provinces by Félix Tshisekedi are also suspected to have been implicit in human rights’ violations according to a UN document seen by KST, which could jeopardize their collaboration with MONUSCO, since the mission operates in such matters under a policy of “due diligence”. This might be all the more damaging given the ongoing reform of MONUSCO’s Intervention Force Brigade (FIB) which will allow it to carry out interventions more frequently. At least some of the Kenyan troops, whose arrival was announced by Félix Tshisekedi during his visit to his counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, on April 21, are to be integrated into the FIB. However, to be able to act effectively, cooperation with the FARDC is vital.
Moreover, some FARDC members have ambiguous relationships with armed groups: complicity exists, sometimes at a high and structural level, as the CRG has evidenced concerning the Nduma Defense of Congo-Rénové, NDC-R, an armed group operating in North Kivu). Some members of the FARDC also profit from illicit economic activities. Reducing checks and balances by limiting the right to protest and criticize the operations might once again exacerbate the situation. Additionally, it must be questioned whether it will it be in the interest of the members of the military who now yield provincial power – and control of its associated resources – to bring violence to an end, which would most likely result in them losing their positions. It is therefore possible that the state of siege destabilizes the area, rather than stabilizes it.
This does not mean, of course, that nothing should be done to deal with the situation in eastern DRC. Congolese public opinion concerns about the situation are legitimate and call on everyone to try and come up with answers.
Firstly, the Congolese government needs to formulate a comprehensive strategy, which goes beyond exclusively military solutions. This should be based on an in-depth and detailed analysis of the causes of the conflict and the role that each series of actors play in its perpetuation. The aim would be to identify the conflict’s deep-rooted drivers and to provide relevant solutions.
The situation’s causes are numerous and varied: the absence of state and public services in some areas, a lack of institutions that are accepted to solve local conflicts by non-violent means and that are perceived as neutral, the lack of armed groups member’s interest to leave their ranks, the perpetuation of illicit economic channels at a provincial and regional level, the complicity with armed groups at various state levels, the difficulty in cooperation with MONUSCO, the insufficient means and training provided to the FARDC and PNC…
Such an analysis would in particular lead to questioning the role of some members of the army and police in the conflicts, including in abuses, illicit economic channels and their links to armed groups. What is needed is to strengthen the means by which transparency is ensured and such excesses limited: for example, effective and incorruptible military inspections and tribunals, the capacity of the justice system to investigate such matters, a respected freedom of the press, the ability of civil society to denounce abuses without fear of repression, etc.
The role of the FARDC is both inescapable and indispensible. However, this must be achieved in a context which ensures its professionalism and inclusion within a comprehensive strategy. Also, in order to dismantle armed groups and put in motion a transitional demobilization and justice programme at national and regional level, reforms and action plans of other state services are required, particularly for the intelligence service, the PNC, the justice system and in diplomacy.
Efforts to define such a strategy have been made. The mechanism for monitoring the Addis-Abeba Agreement has for example led to the publication of a roadmap in September 2020. This should be supplemented and clarified, but has the merit of insisting on pursuing military and non-military approaches side-by-side and provides some useful analyses and proposals. However, similarly to the community DDR program, its adoption is pending a presidential decree.
Defining and implementing a comprehensive strategy is a long-term endeavor, which requires the constructive, patient and ongoing involvement of the highest levels of government. It will only deliver results in the long term at best. Yet President Félix Tshisekedi is in an advantageous position to address the problem. He now has a large political majority and a government willing to break with past practices. His new Minister of Defense, Gilbert Kabanda Kurhenga, has made the “restoration of ethics” within the FARDC his priority. Moreover, there is a new head of MONUSCO, Bintou Keita, and a new commander, General Marcos De Sa Affonso Da Costa, has been appointed. In September, he will head a strengthened and reformed FIB. There is now a window of opportunity for a more comprehensive and effective policy.