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.