Has the State of Siege Improved Security in the Eastern DRC?

A hearing in progress before the military court in Uvira (South Kivu) on May 16, 2021. (Photo MONUSCO/Justice Support Section, Bukavu).

By Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker.

Despite what the Congolese authorities announced, there have been few military operations since the onset of the state of siege, and civilian security has deteriorated in North Kivu and Ituri provinces.

Regaining control of National Road 27, of the Mbau-Kamango trunk road, “freeing” of various localities in the territories of Djugu and Irumu from the clutches of armed groups, “neutralization” of the members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) or their associates… Based on official statements, you might think that multiple victorious offensives had been launched by the army since the start of the siege on May 6, and that the security situation is about to come under control.

Data collected by the Kivu Security Tracker (KST) however, portray a different picture of the situation. Since the state of siege was decreed by President Félix Tshisekedi on April 30, civilian security as a whole has, in fact, gotten worse in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. KST has recorded the deaths of at least 223 people there in May, compared with 198 in April.

Number of civilians killed in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri in April and May 2021

The killings in Boga and Tchabi, in Irumu territory, which led to 55 civilian deaths, during the night of May 30 to 31 (the deadliest day ever recorded by KST), were largely responsible for this upswing. However, from one month to the next, the death toll also increased in Beni territory (74 civilians killed in May, compared with 47 in April) and in Mambasa territory (35 civilians killed in May, compared with 3 in April).

It is also difficult to detect a genuine uptick in FARDC activity in the same period. KST logged 29 clashes involving the FARDC in May, compared with 26 in April. No head of an armed group identified by KST has been killed or arrested by the FARDC or the Police – a Mai-Mai head, Jackson Muhukambuto, was arrested on June 8, 2021, but by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).

Highly-localized Progress 

So what about the government’s recent announcements? At the start of June 2021, for example, Kinshasa announced the pacification of the Mbau-Kamango trunk road, in the territory of Beni. Yet the reopening of this trunk road had already been announced in September 2020 by the then minister of defense, and no incident had been recorded on this road by KST in 2021. It seems improbable for the state of siege to take credit for this…

However, there have been FARDC announcements that have resulted in concrete action in the field. The Congolese army, for instance, has retaken all of National Road 27, which links Bunia to Uganda. At least ten members of the Codeco-URDPC group, which was occupying various localities along this road, have been killed. Since then, this group has largely left this road and incidents have fallen drastically.

The FARDC also retook the town of Nyakunde, close to Marabo (Irumu territory) and several surrounding villages from the Chini ya Kilima-FPIC. Eleven militia members were killed and fourteen arrested. However, it remains difficult to know whether this offensive is genuinely linked to the state of siege: it started on May 2, that is, after the measure was announced, but before it came into force. This offensive took place at a heavy cost for civilians, as we will learn below.

Lastly, although some ten ADF members were effectively killed close to Halungupa (Beni territory) on May 9, the FARDC lost at least as many men on the days following. Above all, it has not brought the number of killings perpetrated by the ADF under control. Quite the contrary: KST recorded the deaths of 98 civilians in attacks attributed to this group in May, that is, nearly twice that of April (53).

Number of civilians killed by the ADF in April and May 2021

Additionally, a series of killings were perpetrated close to Biakato, in Mambasa territory, an area in which the ADF have never been present until now. They therefore appear to be pursuing retaliation against civilians and growing their area of operations – a process ongoing since the start of the large-scale operations against them, launched in October 2019.

Locations of the killings perpetrated by the ADF in April (to the left) and May (to the right) 2021

As concerns extra-operational measures, the FARDC announced that they had arrested three soldiers, suspected of links with the ADF, even if they refused from providing any details. Regional intelligence service coordination efforts were continued, with the organization of a workshop in Goma at the start of May, even if this was in all likelihood scheduled well before the state of siege announcement. This kind of measure may well have a positive impact in the long term. However, in the absence of more details on their substance, it is difficult to evaluate it. Their possible effects are in all cases not visible for the time being.

Persistent Absence of Joint Planning

Nor has the attitude of the UN Mission to the DRC (MONUSCO), the target of protests in North Kivu in April, radically changed on the ground. It carried out an aerial bombardment of an ADF base on May 14, which had not occurred for several years. However, according to several UN sources, this operation had been planned before the state of siege decree.

MONUSCO remains committed to reforming its Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), by creating four “Quick Reaction Forces” of 150 blue helmets each, comprising Kenyan, Nepalese, South African, and Tanzanian troops, who would be capable of more rapid interventions. The Tanzanian faction is already operational but the new units will only be fully operational in August.

Above all, in the persistent absence of joint planning of operations – an absence which remains to this day unaltered by the state of siege – no truly joint MONUSCO-FARDC operation is possible, nor is any large-scale unilateral operation by the blue helmets planned. MONUSCO appears for the time being therefore, limited to reacting to attacks by armed groups in the best of cases. Regardless, KST has not recorded any FIB-initiated clashes with the ADF since 2018.

Lastly, problems relating to the absence of a working disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program remained. Several former members of the NDC/R Bwira group, stationed in Rumangabo (Rutshuru territory), looted the neighboring village of Kayenzi to find food four days after the visit of the military governor of the province, Constant Ndima Kongba.

Uptick in FARDC Abuses

Concomitantly, there has been a marked uptick in the number of civilians killed in incidents involving the FARDC: 32 cases were recorded in May, compared with 17 in April. Several particularly serious incidents occurred in Ituri. After the FARDC retook the town of Nyakunde, they killed seven civilians during combing operations in the village of Nongo on May 2 and eight civilians in the villages of Banikasowa, Ndenge I and II on May 15. In their statement, the FARDC claimed that all of those killed on May 15 were militia members. However, the presence of women and children among the victims, witnessed by several sources, lends little credence to this statement. Beyond the abuses themselves, this type of violence can have a lasting adverse effect on the population’s confidence in the FARDC, a much-needed ingredient of success for any counter-insurgency operation. Many of the area’s inhabitants fled the area following the onset of operations.

A woman was also killed after refusing the advances of a soldier in Nizi (Djugu territory) on May 16, a civilian was killed after having been taken by a militia in Djaiba on May 16 and a civilian was killed during a raid by the FARDC against the mine at Malindi-Buo (Mambasa territory) on May 20.

As the problems relating to respect for human rights are longstanding, and as the operations against the Chini ya Kilima-FPIC started before the entry into force of the state of siege, it is difficult to certify that these new abuses are linked to this measure. However, it cannot be excluded that at least some of the incidents are related to a sentiment of heightened impunity on the part of some members of the FARDC following the state of siege announcement.

Beyond the military impact, the state of siege also has—perhaps above all— psychological, legal and political effects, which are likely to impact dynamics of violence in the long term.

These have enabled the FARDC to take control of local entities’ civil institutions (the provinces since May 6, but also of towns and territories since May 26). And the many statements by the new governor of North Kivu on the state of finances and revenue generation in his province may suggest that the control of the related financial resources is a matter of particular concern for the new authorities.

At the national level, the state of siege and the resulting security and military issues are hardly debated in parliament. At the national assembly, this measure–which still lacks a legal framework–was extended for two weeks at the request of the government. 334 MPs officially voted for the measure, with hardly any debate. President Félix Tshisekedi now plans to pass an authorization law to allow him to renew the measure without consulting parliament, according to reports of one of his discussions with senators, which would limit any regular assessment.

This situation could also be used by the government to adopt unpopular measures. This is specifically the case of military cooperation agreements that President Félix Tshisekedi has long wished for but whose implementation has always been thwarted by lack of political support.

Thus, the DRC and Uganda have signed an agreement to “stabilize” the east of the DRC according to the Ugandan government. However, this has not been made public, and nothing has been submitted to parliament, as the Constitution demands (in French) for this type of agreement. Discussions with Rwanda, which have been ongoing for several months, have continued. But “it has become practically impossible to publicly demand respect for the Constitution on such subjects,” explained a member of parliament anonymously. “The president’s followers would accuse us of being traitors to the nation.” In the absence of transparency on these agreements, it is difficult to assess their possible consequences. However, in the past, some foreign army operations on Congolese soil have led to human rights violations without long term solutions.

Unanimity on the state of siege has somewhat faltered since the Boga and Tchabi killings, during the night of May 30 to 31. Following this incident, the military governor of Ituri province was forced to recognize that until then he had essentially been focused on “assessing the situation” and the “implementation of all the teams.”

On June 1st, the Minister of Defense, Gilbert Kabanda, stated that the situation would be different within two weeks, after the government had “moved some men” and unblocked further resources. It has not, however, specified a budget or a timetable.

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.