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.

Is the “State of Siege” a Step in the Right Direction?

Group of FARDC soldiers, on April 19, 2011, in North Kivu (Sasha Lezhnev/Enoughproject.org)

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.

Further Dangers

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.

Comprehensive Strategy

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.

Will Intercommunity Dialogue Restore Peace in the Highlands of South Kivu?

Mikenge, in the highlands of South Kivu on June 1, 2020. Photo Monusco / Alain Likota.

An agreement was signed on March 31, 2021 in Kinshasa, between the representatives of the different communities of the high and middle plateaus of South Kivu. While modest in scope, the dialogue organizers recognize that the agreement alone will not be enough to restore peace. But is this right direction?

By Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker.

This blog post is a translation of the original French version published on April 8, 2021. A new government of the DRC was announced on April 12, 2021.

March 31 marked the end of the “intercommunity dialogue on peace, security and development in the high and middle plateaus of Fizi, Mwenga et Uvira.” Over the course of three days, representatives of the Babuyu, Banyindu, Barundi, Bavira, Babembe, Bafuliru, and Banyamulenge communities met in the Béatrice Hotel in the Congolese capital. This conference brought to an end a process led by the international NGO, Interpeace, with the support of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), to de-escalate the situation in the highlands of South Kivu.

Volatile Area

This area, which has been volatile for some decades, has seen an upsurge in violence since 2016, and above all since 2018. It is the main home of the Banyamulenge community, whose members traditionally are cattle-herders (the transhumance of cattle is often a source of conflict) and speak a language close to those spoken in Rwanda and Burundi. This historically marginalized and discriminated against (in French) community saw some of its members join the ranks of Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), then armed groups backed by Rwanda, such as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo-Zaire (AFDL) and the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) in the 1990s and 2000s, which committed abuses against civilians in South Kivu, sometimes in the context of local conflicts.

This fed into a deepening of the mistrust and discrimination against them and encouraged the formation of armed groups by other communities, particularly of the Mai-Mai type. From 2018, the situation considerably deteriorated following abuses committed by the Banyamulenge armed group, “Ngumino” (“let’s stay here”), against civilians, including the traditional chiefs of other communities (such as the assassinated Chief Munyindu Kawaza Nyakwana), the presence of Rwanda National Congress (RNC) rebels of Kayumba Nyamwasa in the area, and the decree confirming the creation of the rural commune of Minembwe led by a Munyamulenge mayor, thereby escaping the authority of the South Basimunyaka groupement.

Many Abuses

A significant coalition of armed groups, comprising in particular the Mai-Mai Yakutumba, Ebu-Ela Mtetezi or Biloze Bishambuke (from “indigenous” communities) and Burundian rebels of the Résistance pour un Etat de droit (RED-Tabara), who Burundian authorities accuse of being backed by Rwanda, assembled to fight the Ngumino. These groups committed many abuses against Banyamulenge villages, setting them on fire and looting their cattle, thereby forcing them to live in a few enclaves, such as Minembwe. On their side, the Twigwaneho “self-defense” militias have become the Banyamulenge community’s principal armed movement, which has also been responsible for committing just as many abuses against civilians belonging to other communities, leading to population displacement. Last August, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office estimated that the total number of displaced (across all communities) in the area amounted to 110,000 (in French).

Since January 2020, Interpeace, an international peacebuilding NGO, has tried to solve this problem through a community-oriented process. The meeting which took place March 29 to 31 is, in effect, the culmination of a process which started at the beginning of last year, including a ceasefire in March 2020 (with little lasting effect on the ground) and a series of “intercommunity” dialogue events.

According to the conclusions of the Kinshasa meeting, representatives of different communities noted that there were both points of convergence and persisting differences, and made recommendations and commitments, such as “to disengage from foreign armed groups,” “lay down arms […] at the end of a ceasefire process” and “raise awareness among their respective populations of the need to avoid the possession of weapons and to work for peace and security.”

Read the conclusions of the dialogue (PDF, in French)

These commitments are quite broad and vague, and therefore fail to clearly designate the actors, means, or timetable for their implementation. However, participants hope that the government will use them to form the basis of its “roadmap” for restoring peace. For this to stand a chance of success, the roadmap should move well beyond recommendations, by including in particular the reform of local administration and the security services, and a functional process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR).

The outcomes of the Kinshasa agreement were not, in any case, immediately apparent. Representatives of the Bavira community even directly rejected the conclusions of the process, believing that they had been marginalized. Moreover, several security incidents have occurred in the highlands since, such as at Rubarati on March 31 (where clashes took place between the Twigwaneho and some Mai-Mai groups), on April 1 at Kitanda (where a Munyamulenge woman was killed) or on April 4 (where a subsequent clash between the Twigwaneho and the Biloze Bishambuke occurred).

Weakness of Interventions to Bring Peace

Dialogue alone will not, therefore, restore peace. And this was not the aim of the organizers. But is it a step in the right direction? Past examples are far from encouraging. Between 2006 and 2020, at least 15 local agreements were signed in eastern Congo, according to a study by Claude Iguma Wakenge and Koen Vlassenroot published in July 2020. These agreements were implemented by such diverse actors as NGOs (Life & Peace Institute, in particular), the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO), or even Swedish or Swiss sustainable development agencies. “The general failure to make local agreements tangible reveals the weaknesses of peace interventions in eastern DRC,” the writers noted.

In a forthcoming report analyzing the conflict in the highlands (entitled “Mayhem in the mountains”), Judith Verweijen, Juvénal Twaibu, Moïse Ribakare, Paul Bulambo, and Freddy Mwambi Kasongo are even more critical of this type of process. According to them, “intercommunity dialogue can unwittingly result in worsening rather than mitigating the dynamics of the conflict and violence.” The risks raised include hiding internal conflicts, reinforcing the placing of blame for violence on communities (rather than on the armed groups themselves) and thereby increasing stigmatization. This logic was in plain sight at the Béatrice Hotel if some findings are to be believed, such as the accusation that the “Barundi were facilitating clandestine migrations and the infiltration of foreigners.”

“The argument put forward in this report is no doubt interesting, but in such a crisis situation, people identify very strongly with their community,” remarked a UN source who wished to remain anonymous. “This reality cannot be denied and the intercommunity model can be useful.”

Interpeace in any case tried to take past failings into account. Aware of the divisions within communities, the NGO organized a series of “intercommunity” dialogue events for each of the communities in 2020 in order to level out the disagreements and identify representatives through consensus. However, this had some adverse effects: the conclusion of the Bembe intercommunity meeting in March 2020, for example, described the Banyamulenge as “Rwandan so-called Banyamulenge,” which was inconsistent with easing tensions.

Lack of Coordination

On the other hand, the process did reproduce some issues identified in previous studies, including the lack of coordination between the various initiatives. While Interpeace was leading its process in the highlands with British funding from January 2020, another parallel and concurrent initiative was underway to obtain a ceasefire between the armed groups of South Kivu: the Murhesa process, led by the NGOs Search for Common Ground (SFC) and the Initiative for a Cohesive Leadership (ILC), with funding from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden, which led to the signing of another ceasefire (also largely ignored) in September 2020. The creation of a peacebuilding coordinator position within the forum of international NGOs to try to solve the problem is reported to be ongoing.

However, there were other issues, such as the lack of participation by the authorities. Most of the “recommendations” by the dialogue’s participants were addressed to the national government, such as the management of the issue of the rural commune of Minembwe, implementing a DDR process, or establishing a roadmap. All the participants with whom we were able to speak insisted on the fact that the dialogue would only have positive effects if the government effectively engaged with all stakeholders. Instead, the national ministers present at the dialogue (the Minister of the Interior, Gilbert Kankonde and Defense, Aimé Ngoy Mukena) belong to the outgoing government and could be replaced by the next government.

Will the next ministers of the interior and defense transform these recommendations into an action program? It remains unclear, and it would certainly have been preferable for the dialogue to have been held under the auspices of the new government. However, the funding awarded by the FCDO for this project stops on March 31, which led to the timing of the meeting being brought forward. Discussions took place with a view to postponing the end of the funding (and therefore the meeting) to May, but were unsuccessful. “The presidency was involved and it was the head of the Civil House of the Head of State, Bruno Miteyo, who moderated the dialogue,” explained a source within Interpeace. “Future ministers will be briefed and will continue the process.”

The other category of actors capable of bearing on the conflict is the armed groups themselves. However, in the case of the Kinshasa discussions, there were very few among those invited, they only made vague commitments and above all, without any certainty as to their implementation on the armed group who they were supposed to represent. The group of Michel Rukunda, aka Makanika, who has become one of the main armed actors of the highlands, whose numbers were recently boosted by the arrival of former FARDC officers, was not represented, for example. According to a source close to the organizers, bringing more representatives of armed groups to Kinshasa would have created legal and security issues, but the other participants had insisted on holding the meeting in the capital so as to engage the national elite.

So, despite everything, could the process started by Interpeace lead to a breakthrough? One of the conditions would be that MONUSCO, the armed groups, and the next Congolese government converge to take up its findings and develop them into a complete roadmap, including the far-reaching reforms needed to solve the current situation. This dialogue was surely not the last.

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.

Laying down arms one day to take them up again the next: why the disarmament of rebels is at a standstill

Former Rwandan combatants voluntarily surrendering at Kamina Camp in 2002. (UN Photo/Yasmina Bouziane)

“Our fight will be to bring you peace. A definitive peace, a peace necessary for the stability of our country. And [for] that peace, believe me, I’m willing to die.” In Bukavu on Monday October 7, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi made an ambitious commitment.   

His election, it is true, provoked a wave of armed groups surrendering and the hope that peace would finally return to the Kivus. However, in Kalehe territory, some twenty kilometers away, local residents are unsure as to whether this is the best way forward. A few days before the president’s speech, the process almost seemed to be in reverse: Butachibera, the head of a Raia Mutomboki militia, who had recently surrendered to the Congolese army, decided in the end to return to the bush to take up arms again.

In this case, as in many others, the main reason for the failure of demobilization appears to be the lack of preparedness by Congolese authorities. “In reception centers, militia members who have gone there have no access to mattresses, beverages, not even food,” complained a Congolese army officer on duty in the area. We have to ask the local population for help. If we had the capacity to accommodate them, all armed groups would have already surrendered!” 

The failed surrender of Butachibera is far from an isolated case. Last March, Ngubito, the head of the Raia Mutomboki Kabishula, surrendered with 400 men before returning to the forest. “Colonel” Mayani, of the Union des patriotes pour la libération du Congo (UPLC), had also laid down arms but most of his 500 men went into hiding at the end of September. In Fizi territory, in South Kivu in February, hundreds of combatants from the Mai-Mai Reunion group also took up arms again after having been stationed nearby. In March, it was the Congolese army that attacked the men of Mai-Mai “General” Ebu Ela, who were regrouping precisely in order to surrender. Since then they have gone into hiding and are taking part in the community-based conflict ravaging the Minembwe area. A similar scenario occurred in Kasai in February: in Kamako, the poorly organized surrender of a group of Kamuina Nsapu militia members ended in shooting, and the deaths of 19 of these militia members at the hands of the Congolese army, as indicated in a report by the Congo Research Group (CRG). The upshot of this: their brothers-in-arms have since taken up arms again.

The issue of adequately providing for ex-combatants is not new. In 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed that 100 demobilized former combatants or members of their family had died of hunger and disease due to failings on the part of the Congolese government. In 2015, a budget of 85 million dollars was approved for the Implementation Unit of the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Program (UEPNDDR). However, it never received any funds.

Failing any genuine change in this area, there are credible fears that the wave of surrenders initiated by the election of Felix Tshisekedi will come to nothing and that an historic opportunity will have been wasted.

The president however did ask in February that the head of MONUSCO, Leila Zerrougui, provide him with assistance on this dossier. But setting up the program took several months. According to a MONUSCO official, its implementation was reported to have suffered from disagreement within the UN mission. “Some of us wanted the government to start by putting its multiple structures in charge of this dossier in order: the UEPNDDR was not restarted by Tshisekedi’s team. There is also a unit is in charge of this in the army. And Tshisekedi has asked his advisor Claude Ibalanky to deal with these issues: he has appointed him as coordinator of the National Oversight Mechanism of the Addis Ababa Agreement. Others believed that we should launch an ad hoc program as soon as possible.”      

“There have been delays, it’s true, but it’s not MONUSCO’s fault”, claims Florence Marchal, Head of Mission Leila Zerrougui’s spokesperson. 

Whatever the case, this program is finally being rolled out. Following the meeting between Felix Tshisekedi and the provincial governors of Ituri, Maniema, North and South Kivu, and Tanganyika in Bukavu on October 9, the President confirmed that a “clear DDR plan should be submitted as soon as possible.” The UN Peacebuilding Fund released a first installment of 6 million dollars to finance it on Friday October 4. However, these funds are only for the demobilization of militia in the Kasais and Tanganyika. “In these provinces, the situation is simpler than in the the Kivus,” explained Florence Marchal. “Firstly, all the armed groups based there are national. Secondly, they generally don’t have any political demands. Our position on this issue is no impunity – those that surrender and have committed abuses should face justice – and reintegration back into civilian life, not in the armed forces.”

As things stand, previous waves of demobilization and reintegration in the Kivus have only met with limited success and are regularly accused of inciting the creation of rebel groups that profit from these programs. “We’re surely not going to give them money for arms, which by the way they only ever hand over in dribs and drabs,” railed another UN source some months ago, in the heat of internal discussions.

Nonetheless, as far as the armed groups in the Kivus are concerned, there are no plans to implement any programs. By default, the main option for them appears to be military defeat. At the UN General Assembly, Felix Tshisekedi advocated for MONUSCO, but for a mission that is “nimble, well equipped, strong, and with a properly adjusted mandate, similar to the Rapid Intervention Brigade, which once defeated the M23 Movement.” In Beni, on October 10, he announced a final attack against the islamist insurgency of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). And he had admitted to “information sharing” with neighboring countries that wished to stamp out hostile insurgencies in DRC.   

The commander of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Sylvestre Mudacumura, was killed on September 18, in an operation in which Rwandan special forces took part. However, the effectiveness of this type of targeted operation is questionable. The death of the head of an armed group can sometimes deprive negotiators of an interlocutor, and jeopardize the chances of troops surrendering. The death of Mudacumura, however, did not protect Rwanda from the deadliest cross-border attack originating from DRC in recent years on October 4. In any case, approximately 130 armed groups are operating solely within the Kivu region, which suggests a systemic problem. It remains highly unlikely that arms alone can provide a solution.    

“For Ms. Zerrougui, there cannot be a purely military solution,”stated Florence Marchal. “The aim of these operations can only be to foster political dialogue and attack the root causes of conflicts.” In New York, where she was based at the end of September, the head of MONUSCO stepped up advocacy in front of the World Bank and donor countries that traditionally support DRC to finally pave the way for more ambitious demobilization programs.   

“There is a clear expression of support for such efforts on their part,” stated Florence Marchal. “These 6 million dollars are important because they allow for a quick start and encourage other donors. But this sum is only a small fraction of the amount that we want to raise.” When such new programs are finally rolled out, will the Kivu rebel groups still be willing to put down their arms?