Divisions between Tshisekedists and Kabilists Paralyze the State in Eastern DRC

In Kanyaruchinya, near Goma, July 15, 2013. (Monusco Photo by Sylvain Liechti)

The division between President Felix Tshisekedi’s camp and that of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, prevents, for the time being, the adoption of a coherent strategy to stabilize eastern DRC.

By Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker.

2127 civilians killed, 1450 abducted, 938 kidnapped… The Kivu Security Tracker (KST) recorded record-high deaths, abductions, and kidnappings for ransom during the first twenty months of Félix Tshisekedi’s presidency. This toll is even heavier than that of the last 20 months of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila (1553 civilians killed).

The difference is due mainly to the resurgence of killings perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)– the very one that President Félix Tshisekedi had promised to “definitively exterminate” during a “final offensive” in October 2019.

In order to fulfill this promise, and, more broadly, to eliminate all foreign armed groups present in the Kivus, the Congolese president first attempted to set up a regional military coalition. He organized several meetings in Goma with neighboring countries’ armies’ chiefs of staff in September and October 2019.

Already at that time, Joseph Kabila’s political coalition, the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), opposed this project. And the deep divisions between Rwanda on the one hand, and Uganda and Burundi on the other, as well as the opposition of a large part of Congolese public opinion, finally killed the project.

But on October 31, 2019, the FARDC, most of whose generals were appointed during Kabila’s time, launched a unilateral offensive. MONUSCO, which had not been involved in the planning, did not participate.

One year later, results on the ground are sorely lacking. Despite the announced reconquest of certain ADF strongholds, the operation has largely failed to put this Islamist group out of action. In fact, the ADF has committed far greater massacres since the beginning of the offensive (more than 640 civilians killed in attacks attributed to the ADF in the past year, compared to 195 the year before). On the ground, the FARDC offensive is now largely at a standstill. The Congolese military seems to have become the target in this conflict: of the eight clashes between the FARDC and ADF recorded by the KST in August, for example, the ADF were the initiators in seven cases. “When the president wanted to launch this offensive, the generals accepted it because it allowed them to get the funding that went with it,” a senior FCC official commented to the KST “but they never really believed in it.”

This offensive against the ADF illustrates, among other things, the lack of a coherent, coordinated strategy among the various Congolese and international political leaders to stabilize eastern DRC. Félix Tshisekedi’s rise to power has not, for the moment, made it possible to remedy this.

In Kinshasa, a multitude of Congolese institutions play a role in the politics of the country’s east. However, these institutions are divided between the coalition of the president and that of his predecessor. The Minister of Defense, Aimé Ngoy Mukena, is close to Joseph Kabila. But the Deputy Minister of Defense, Sylvain Mutombo Kabinga, is a fierce supporter of Tshisekedi, as is the Minister of the Interior, Gilbert Kankonde. The National Monitoring Mechanism of the Addis Ababa Agreement (MNS), which is expected to publish a roadmap for stabilizing the country, is headed by Claude Ibalanky. Ibalanky, a close associate of Tshisekedi, comes from the diaspora and does not have extensive experience dealing with conflict dynamics in eastern DRC. “We do not know who is in control” a European diplomatic source revealed in an interview with the KST. In his speech to the nation on October 23, President Tshisekedi cited “issues relating to peace and national security” as the main reason why there are “differences that persist between parties” to the ruling coalition.

Indeed, not all personalities playing a role in the east are pulling in the same direction. This has been evident of late in the “hauts plateaux” (highlands) of South Kivu, where a conflict pitted several militias from the Fuliru, Bembe, Nyindu, and Vira communities against those from the Banyamulenge community. This conflict, which has gone through repeated cycles of violence for several decades, has resumed with renewed vigor since Tshisekedi’s presidency: the main belligerents (Mai-Mai René, Ebu Ela, Biloze Bishambuke, Twirwaneho, Gumino and Makanika) have killed at least 81 civilians in the past year, a sharp increase over the previous year (35 killed), according to KST figures.

In August, Tommy Thambwe Rudima, a former member of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) rebellion, traveled to the highlands to try to defuse the conflict. He is affiliated with the NGO Interpeace, and apparently also held a presidential mandate, which a source in the head of state’s office confirmed to the KST. However, at the MNS, a source interviewed by the KST said that he was unaware of this mission, and even went so far as to suggest that Thambwe Rudima was probably an imposter.

Then, in mid-September, Tshisekedist Deputy Minister of Defense Sylvain Mutombo traveled to Murhesa, near Bukavu, to participate in talks between armed groups organized by the NGOs Search for Common Ground (SFCG) and the Initiative for a Cohesive Leadership (ILC). This initiative was funded by the governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, but was criticized by other donors and many sources in MONUSCO as being premature. Among the participants were representatives of the main belligerents in the highlands who eventually signed a very fragile ceasefire on September 16.

During the following days, relative calm prevailed in the region. But on September 28, Defense Minister Aimé Ngoy Mukena and Decentralization Minister Azarias Ruberwa, both FCC members, traveled to Minembwe to participate in the official induction of Gad Mukiza, a Munyamulenge, as mayor of the rural commune. This ceremony, held at a time when other local entities in South Kivu were still waiting for their administrative status to be formalized, was perceived as a provocation by a large part of the Congolese public. As a result, Félix Tshisekedi himself visited Goma on  October 8, promising to “cancel what has been done” in Minembwe. Since October 19, violent clashes have resumed in the highlands.

The rivalry between Tshisekedi coalition’s Cap pour le changement (CACH) and the FCC is also evident – and deleterious – in the development of a new Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program. While many of the armed groups in eastern DRC justified their struggle as being against Joseph Kabila’s presidency, Felix Tshisekedi’s term in office has sparked a real wave of voluntary demobilizations since the beginning of the year. Most of these combatants found themselves in cantonment camps. However, due to a lack of resources allocated to these camps, particularly food, most of them fled and returned to the bush.

With bitter memories of previous DDR programs, which they considered to be ineffective and non-transparent, donors did not release the funding that was hoped for for “DDR 3.” “The state was not fulfilling its part of the contract, which was to feed the cantoned combatants,” explained a source close to the dossier.

Félix Tshisekedi has therefore promoted a new approach: so-called “community-based” DDR. This was initially launched by governors of South and North Kivu, as well as Ituri, and is coordinated by Clovis Munihire, under the acronym “CIAP-DDRRRC”: Commission interprovinciale d’appui au processus de désarmement, démobilisation, réinsertion, reintegration et réconciliations communautaires. Its promoters want to change DDR methods, for example by avoiding the problematic DDR stage of confinement in military camps. The idea would now be for them to remain in their communities of origin. This approach also rules out any collective reintegration of combatants into the FARDC.

After having raised a certain amount of skepticism among the DRC’s main donors and MONUSCO, the project now seems to have the consent of the majority from this group. Most western ambassadors supported the new approach after a meeting with the president on October 22, where no FCC minister was present.

In fact, the president’s camp is hampered by the presence of people close to Kabila in key positions. Until now, DDR programs have been coordinated by the Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for Eastern DRC (STAREC), the Congolese agency that is supposed to implement these programs with the international community. It is also this structure that controls the donor-funded Stabilization Coherence Fund (SCF).

STAREC is coordinated by Alain Kasindi, a man reputed to be close to Néhémie Mwilanya, the National Coordinator of the FCC, and is placed under the authority of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Planning, Elysée Munembwe, who is also from the FCC.

According to a source related to the case, the Tshisekedi camp sees STAREC as a tool to capture funds for the benefit of the FCC. According to a UN source, the president intends to create a new structure, attached to the presidency, which would allow him, among other things, to control STAREC. Thus, in Goma the president announced the forthcoming appointment of a National Coordinator for community DDR.

The issue of funding for these projects, however, remains unresolved. During his visit to Goma, the president announced that $50 million would be allocated to DDR. According to a source at the World Bank, however, this money was not intended to finance DDR-C, but the “Social Fund for the DRC” to support communities affected by violence. Faced with a fait accompli, however, the Bank finally announced “a dedicated stabilization project to support the governors’ initiative in the east,” the parameters of which have yet to be defined.

In addition, the DRC is eligible for new funding under the World Bank’s Prevention and Resilience (PRA) allocation. This funding, provided by European diplomatic sources, totals $700 million. However, the Congolese government must meet several conditions in order to release these funds, including the publication of a comprehensive strategy for stabilizing the country. To date, the World Bank believes that the Congolese government has not met this condition.

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.