Is the era of armed groups over?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ebola Treatment Centers Attacked by Armed Groups in Butembo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the elections, a shifting military landscape in the Kivus

The former spokesperson of the FDLR, Laforge Bazeye

The former spokesperson of the FDLR, Laforge Bazeye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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