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.

In the Highlands of South Kivu, a Political Impasse and a Chain of Desertions

Un soldat des FARDC à Minembwe, en octobre 2020 (DR)

Since the start of the year, at least four senior FARDC officers have deserted to join an armed group in the highlands of South Kivu. Their lack of confidence in President Félix Tshisekedi, now alone at the head of the DRC, and his ability to solve the area’s problems appear to have been determining factors.

By Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker.

In 2020, the desertion of FARDC Colonel Michel Rukunda, aka Makanika, had been at the forefront of Congolese public opinion. Since the start of 2021, four senior officers have already left the ranks of the Congolese army according to Kivu Security Tracker (KST) sources. The most emblematic example is that of the desertion of Colonel Charles Sematama, commander of the 3411th Regiment of the FARDC in Kitchanga (Masisi territory, North Kivu), at the end of February (in French). However, other examples include Lieutenant-Colonel Mufoko Jolie Rungwe, Major Patrick Muco or Major Senanda.

Similar to Makanika, these four officers are from the Banyamulenge community and have all moved to the highlands of South Kivu and have joined the “self-defense” community militia Twigwaneho (“let’s defend ourselves” in Kinyamulenge).

Some of the desertions may have been motivated by personal concerns. Colonel Charles Semata, for example, in the latest interim report by the UN Group of Experts, was reported to have cooperated closely with armed group head Gilbert Bwira and was part of the group of officers called by Kinshasa for training. This may have played a part in him feeling threatened to be arrested.

However, the scale of these desertions suggests a deeper problem. According to a western diplomatic source, at least six officers and 20 soldiers are reputed to have left the FARDC in 2021 to join the Twigwaneho. Having emerged in recent years, this armed group was behind a “self-defense” movement comprised of Banyamulenge civilians from the area’s villages or the diaspora. Though largely decentralized, a more organized group has coalesced in Makanika in Kamombo (Fizi territory). The latter group has inflicted heavy losses on the Congolese army like at Tuwetuwe (where six FARDC soldiers died in July 2020).

Do such desertions presage the birth of a large-scale rebellion against Kinshasa’s hold on South Kivu?  For the time being, this rebellion seems highly unlikely. The arrival of officers from the army’s ranks might make it easier for the Twigwaneho to organize an uprising. However, at the same time, several Twigwaneho combatants have defected, including nine who surrendered to the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) in recent weeks according to one of KST’s UN sources. “Eight of them are Hutus from Kalehe territory (South Kivu), who were promised money for tending cows. But in the face of attacks by Mai-Mai groups, they were unable to defend themselves.” For the time being, the movement seems to have found it difficult to broaden recruitment beyond its community of origin. Moreover, Banyamulenge armed groups remain divided: the leadership embodied by Makanika is being contested by Shyaka Nyamusaraba, the head of a smaller group, the Ngumino (“let’s stay here” in Kinyamulenge). These two groups clashed in Rukuka in November 2020. Above all, the vast majority of Banyamulenge officers in the Congolese army, particularly the highest ranking, have remained faithful to the government in Kinshasa.

The hard-to-reach region of the highlands (peaking at over 3400 meters in altitude), however, remains a breeding ground for Banyamulenge (sing. Munyamulenge) armed groups. Since the emergence of the “Abagirye” (derived from guerrier, French for “warrior”) in the 1960s, the highlands have been the birthplace of successive armed movements, fueled by the minority’s feelings of exclusion, insecurity, and discrimination. Traditionally made up of cattle breeders, the Banyamulenge’s spoken language is very closely related to that of its neighbors, Rwanda and Burundi, which feeds the suspicion that they are in collusion with foreign powers. Moreover, contrary to other peoples in the area who consider themselves “indigenous” (the Bafuliru, Babembe, Banyindu, or Bavira), no Munyamulenge traditional chief has a chiefdom, grouping or sector (the local administrative entities governed by customary power). Also, as they are not in the majority in any electoral district, the Banyamulenge are rarely elected. For decades, all of this has fed the desire to create an administrative entity in which they would constitute a majority.

The situation considerably deteriorated in the 1990s. The integration of some young Banyamulenge into the ranks of Paul Kagame’s RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army) reinforced the perception that the community as a whole was serving foreign interests. In 1995, the transition parliament in Kinshasa and the authorities in Uvira territory officially excluded the Banyamulenge from the Zairian nation and called for their expulsion, which led to new acts of discrimination, looting, and further rallying to the APR.

Prior to the invasion of the country by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFLC) of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, which was supported by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, a vanguard comprising of Banyamulenge had been sent to take position in the highlands. The vanguard caused a terrible cycle of killings, retaliation, and discrimination. This trauma is still keenly felt to this day. Due to these events, every armed group made up of Banyamulenge is suspected of inciting a regional war. Others have gone so far as to accuse the Banyamulenge of the  “balkanization” of the Congo – a baseless theory that says there is an international conspiracy to divide the DRC into several autonomous states.

Some members of the Banyamulenge community have attained positions of power due to their AFDL membership and involvement in the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). The RCD was an uprising backed by Kigali which controlled a large part of Eastern Congo for a long time. This rise to power is exemplified in the case of Azarias Ruberwa, who was Secretary General of the RCD. After the Sun City Agreement, which put an end to the war in 2002, Ruberwa became Vice President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo then later a very close advisor to President Joseph Kabila. Many Banyamulenge combatants also became senior officers in the FARDC through this agreement and through successive integrations of rebels in its ranks.

Despite the Sun City Agreement, violence never really ceased in the highlands of South Kivu. Since 2016, and even more so in 2018, the violence has intensified. In addition to the main causes of the upsurge in violence, there are three other causes to consider. The first being the abuses committed by the Ngumino against civilians and the traditional chiefs of other communities (such as Chief Munyindu Kawaza Nyakwana who was killed). Second, the open-arms policy by these same groups of Rwandan rebels of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) of Kayumba Nyamwasa. And third, the 2018 decree confirming the creation of the rural commune of Minembwewhich did not fall under the authority of the South Basimunyaka grouping. These causes gave rise to powerful hate speech against the Banyamulenge and has reignited the rhetoric of “balkanization,” particularly taken up by the opposition politician Martin Favulu and several representatives of the Catholic Church.

On the ground, a significant coalition of armed groups has come together to fight the Ngumino. This coalition comprises of the Mai-Mai Yakutumba, Ebu-Ela Mtetezi or Biloze Bishambuke (from the “indigenous” communities), and Burundian rebels of the Résistance pour un Etat de droit (RED-Tabara) who are backed by Rwanda according to Burundian authorities. The coalition has committed several atrocities against the Banyamulenge by setting their villages on fire and looting their cattle (an essential asset in the highlands of South Kivu), thereby forcing them to live in a few enclaves such as that of Minembwe. On the Banyamulenge side, the “Twigwaneho” militias have become the main armed movement and have in turn committed just as many abuses against civilians of other communities present in the highlands, which has also led 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).

All the above however does not explain why this wave of desertions from within the FARDC only occurred in 2021. The arrival of the Mai-Mai Yakutumba (the most powerful armed group in South Kivu) in the highlands, whose presence has been confirmed since the start of the year, may have played a role, by increasing the perceived threat.

However, above all, it appears to coincide with the break-up of the national political coalition between the Heading for Change (Cap pour le changement in French (Cach)) of President Félix Tshisekedi and the Common Front for Congo (Front commun pour le Congo in French (FCC)) of his predecessor Joseph Kabila. The main Banyamulenge political leaders on the national political scene (the Minister of Decentralization, Azarias Ruberwa, and the MP Moïse Nyarugabo in particular), are part of Kabila’s FCC, and have not joined the Sacred Union of the Nation (USN) as the president had hoped after the break-up. “The president did not even invite us to national consultations,” said Moïse Nyarugabo when interviewed by KST.

Although the authority of Ruberwa and Nyarugabo is contested by part of their community, no new political leader of national stature has truly emerged. Of the 48 members of the Provincial Assembly of South Kivu there are no Banyamulenge members. “Ruberwa was contested, but we knew that he had Kabila’s ear,” explains a community leader who wishes to remain anonymous. “Since Kabila lost power, we have lost any political outlet.” This is especially the case since Azarias Ruberwa is currently out of the country receiving medical treatment in South Africa.

Many Banyamulenge also doubt Félix Tshisekedi’s sincerity and capacity to defend them. In an interview with BBC Gahuza, deserter Colonel Charles Sematama justified his decision by referring to the president’s broken promises to stabilize the country (in French).

Tshisekedi’s close ties with the Rwandan authorities also arouse deep mistrust. It is true that the community is divided and the regional alliances of all the factions are unknown. However, many Banyamulenge have tense relations with the Kigali government. This tension was clear when the March 23 Movement (M23) was created in 2012. Virtually no Munyamulenge soldier joined this new Kigali-supported uprising led by Tutsis of North Kivu. A significant number of Banyamulenge officers, such as General Jonas Padiri, had even been at the forefront of the FARDC fighting against the movement.

Nonetheless, security cooperation between the DRC and the Paul Kagame-led Rwanda is thriving more than ever since Tshisekedi broke off his alliance with Kabila. Rwandan military delegations traveled to Kinshasa (in French) on at least two occasions since the start of the year (the last time was on Monday March 15th when some ten delegates, mainly Rwandan senior officers, traveled to the DRC). Additionally, a Congolese delegation, led by the president’s security advisor, François Beya, traveled to Kigali in February (in French). “We are here to say that we are united and that there will never be conflict between us,” declared Beya at the time.

Similarly, Félix Tshisekedi’s personal involvement in the issue of the highlands has been criticized by the community. In a January 2020 speech in front of the Congolese diaspora in London, Tshisekedi courageously confirmed that the Banyamulenge were Congolese (in French). Booed by the public, he has not dared declare it again since.

Then, in October 2020, he became even more unpopular in the Banyamulenge community. Major controversy ensued after Ruberwa attended the official mayoral appointment ceremony in Minembwe because no other mayor of a newly created rural commune had ever received the same treatment. In the face of the national uproar caused by this ceremony, the president had suspended the process and announced the creation of a scientific commission designed to decide on its legitimacy and propose solutions.

“This premature appointment is undoubtedly a political error. But in the end, we have to admit that Kabila gave us the rural commune of Minembwe and that Tshisekedi has taken it away from us,” complained a Munyamulenge community leader.

Five months after this announcement, the scientific commission has still not been assembled, let alone made any proposals to end the current crisis. In the absence of political process, there is a real danger that more Banyamulenge soldiers choose the force of arms.

How the Coronavirus Risks Further Weakening the Kivus

A MONUSCO Blue Helmet in Kibati (North-Kivu) in September 2012 (Monusco/Sylvain Liechti)

For the last 20 months, eastern Congo has been fighting the longest and most complex Ebola epidemic in DRC’s history. It has also been the most lethal, killing 2,276 people.

On top of this, a new communicable disease appeared in the Kivus in March: the coronavirus, or COVID-19. On March 29, the first two cases were confirmed in Bukavu. Since then, others were recorded in Goma and Beni.

This analysis is an attempt to anticipate the effects that this epidemic might have on peace and security in the Kivus, even if, due to its unprecedented nature, such an exercise is difficult. COVID-19 is the first coronavirus pandemic in history. It is currently still in its early stages around the world, and even more so on the African continent. Above all, it too has not hit a conflict zone before.

Although the Ebola epidemic can provide useful insights, the two situations are not the same. The Ebola epidemic only affected a limited area of the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri. While its death rate was very high (over half of those infected died), the disease was only transmittable after the dramatic and easily identifiable symptoms appeared and was therefore traceable. A vaccine was used to help control its contagion. The DRC also received support from the international community to cope with this epidemic totaling over 800 Million USD (in French). Health workers became targets (in French) and the capture of resources allocated by the international community became an objective, which seems to have escalated the conflicts.

Conversely, COVID-19 has shown no signs of stopping its geographical progression and nothing indicates that it will remain limited to certain areas in the east of DRC. Control strategies by means of tracking and confinement are extremely difficult with this virus, which can be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers. Only a handful of countries around the world (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan or Vietnam) have until now been able to implement them with any success. All were countries with strong states, and it is unclear whether the DRC has such capacity, particularly in the east. This is also a pandemic which is affecting every continent. Although China and the European Union (EU) have committed to assist the continent (the EU announced that it has pledged 15 billion euros in aid), this assistance, targeted in part to the whole of Africa, will necessarily be more diluted than that of the response to the Ebola epidemic.

In such conditions, any prospective analysis is necessarily speculative, and any trends identified can only be provisional at best.

Observable Consequences

The arrival of the virus in the region has, nevertheless, had observable consequences in the Kivus. All the surrounding states have closed their borders to travelers: this was the case for Burundi since March 15, followed by Rwanda since the 21st and Uganda since the 23rd. These decisions have cut transport routes regularly used by Kivutians, such as the Bukavu-Goma road via Kibuye in Rwanda, or the Bukavu-Uvira road via Rwanda and Burundi. Some of the traffic has therefore been diverted to roads in poorer condition or that are more dangerous, exposing travelers to more risks. A rise in insecurity was seen at the start of April in the Ruzizi Plain (in French), without direct proof that this is due to the closing of borders. Also, provincial authorities have decided to close access roads to the main urban centers of the region, namely Bukavu, Goma, Butembo, and Beni.

Such restrictions do not apply in principle to the transport of goods. However, reports obtained by KST indicate that these decisions have been interpreted overly strictly and have in effect slowed down trade. Most of the region’s trade, and specifically that of small traders who physically move with their goods, have been affected. Additionally, these borders – particularly between Goma and Gisenyi in Rwanda – see thousands of workers cross them daily under normal circumstances.

The crisis has therefore led to a loss of such economic activity as well as to a rise in the price of basic necessities, which has eroded the purchasing power of inhabitants. On March 26, shortly after the closing of the borders, inflation had already reached between 5 and 88% for basic necessities according to KST data in Goma.

However, the economic situation could deteriorate further if local authorities adopt strict confinement measures, such as those put in place in the municipality of Gombe in Kinshasa since April 6 (in French). These could have devastating consequences on employment and income in urban areas where wage labor is the exception, remote working rarely feasible and where the informal sector represents most of the work available (the urban informal sector represented 81.5% of jobs in 2012 in the DRC). If implemented, such measures could lead to tension by negatively impacting the basic interests of most of the population.

Furthermore, the international economic slowdown is also affecting the Kivus. Similarly to previous economic crises, transfers of remittances by the diaspora, overrepresented in the most vulnerable classes of industrial societies, could dry up. The price of raw materials on international markets has also fallen considerably. The impact is already visible including on tin prices whose ore, cassiterite, is mined in Walikale and Shabunda territories.

One-year gold price history in USD in tons (source: lme.com)

However, the value of other ores produced in the Kivus such as gold, considered a refuge currency, remained at a historically high level.

One-year gold price history in USD in ounces (source: lme.com)

The security implications of the global economic slowdown remain difficult to predict, however. The economic slump, particularly when it affects the young, could facilitate their recruitment by armed groups. The previous global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, however, did not have a direct impact on the scale of the conflicts. 2009 was even a year of relative calm, with the signing of the 23 March Agreements which put an end to the most powerful of uprisings of the time, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). These peace agreements, however, were the result of regional reconfigurations rather than the international financial crisis.

Preventative measures

Above all, the effects of the coronavirus epidemic are not confined to the economy but impact all human activity in different ways. The UN Mission to the DRC (MONUSCO) is, for example, unusually affected by this crisis. While there has not been any known case among its ranks to date (according to a spokesperson asked by KST), it has taken preventative measures to avoid becoming a vector of this epidemic.

It has urged its staff who are at risk to return to their home country. Its civilian staff who have remained in the DRC have to work remotely from home. The rotations of uniformed personnel have been suspended for an initial period of three months, which in the medium term could have a negative effect on troop morale. MONUSCO’s network of regular air links (the densest in the country) has been suspended, which poses logistical problems for many organizations who depend on it, including the FARDC.

Despite such precautions, hostile reactions from local communities towards UN staff could increase, as the coronavirus is, for the moment, largely seen as a problem that came from abroad. This kind of phenomenon has been seen by KST many times during the Ebola epidemic (in French). Moreover, hostile reactions to foreigners have also been seen in Kinshasa since the start of the coronavirus epidemic (in French).

Over the course of the coming months, MONUSCO donor states, who provide troops and finance, could focus their resources on their own countries, relegating the crisis in the Kivus to the back of their minds. Mediation and demobilization initiatives for armed groups, which require travel, meetings and other gatherings, risk becoming more difficult due to the measures aimed at fighting the health crisis. Some bases where combatants were gathered have been closed (such as in Mubambiro near Sake), with probable negative consequences for security.

It follows that MONUSCO’s effectiveness will likely suffer for several months. Its ability to maintain pressure on armed groups, already found lacking by many Congolese, will be further weakened.

Regional impact

Countries in the region, which are often more closely integrated with the international economy, are also likely to be severely affected by the crisis. In recent years, Rwanda in particular has heavily invested in the air transport, tourism, and conference industries (in French). The exceptionally severe impact of the coronavirus crisis on these sectors could result in a shock leading to a review of the country’s priorities.

Also, if the crisis there were to lead to political instability in neighboring countries, including among the elite, turning their focus abroad – and particularly to the DRC – could be a survival strategy for those in authority. Furthermore, this shock comes at a time when levels of distrust between Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are exceptionally high, despite the efforts of the DRC to bring them together.

The war by proxy being waged by these countries on Congolese soil, particularly in the highlands of the South-Kivu, could therefore continue or even escalate. Controlling smuggling routes, particularly for resources which have maintained their value such as gold, could become even more critical at regional level.

Further, Congolese security forces risk having to deal with mounting challenges. The imposition of social distancing measures could force them to deploy their very limited resources to urban areas. Additionally, in the Kivus, the maintenance of order frequently leads to abuses by the security services, which can degenerate into local conflicts. The Congolese state’s budget crisis, which is likely to worsen mainly due to the global economic slowdown, will make financing military operations harder. Even if MONUSCO were to seek to do everything possible to continue to support the FARDC in their fight against armed groups (in French) – particularly the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Beni territory – the weakening of both the FARDC and MONUSCO may have an adverse impact on such operations.

Armed groups and militias are also likely to be affected by the current crisis. Although it may be difficult to quantify, a large part of their income comes from taxes collected at roadblocks, where activity has already dropped, and in all probability for a prolonged period.

This could incite such groups to use other means, including violent ones, to make up their shortfall in income: cases of kidnappings for ransom, looting and abductions may rise. Also, the issue of controlling smuggling routes could become even more critical.

The growth of self-defense groups (Mai-Mai or Raia Mutomboki) has also historically been linked to perceived threats from abroad, such as the presence of neighboring countries’ armies in the 1990s or of uprisings backed by foreigners in the 2000s and 2010s. Even though the coronavirus pandemic is a different type of threat, armed groups could exploit the need for more security by carrying out checks on movements within communities, for example, since the virus is currently widely seen as a threat which came from abroad.

Lastly, the desire to appropriate part of the international aid allocated to fight the disease – regardless of whether it is financially significant – could add to continuing insecurity, as was the case during the Ebola epidemic.

A paralyzed international community, an escalation of regional conflicts, a weakening of the state… If confirmed, these trends may foster the emergence of new militias and armed groups, accelerating the fragmentation of the security landscape in the Kivus. Within a decade, the number of armed groups has increased from 30 to 130. Their numbers could rise further still in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.

Who’s Stealing the FARDC’s money?

On the afternoon of February 20, the green Congolese army jeep was speeding along National Road 2, between Goma and Rutshuru-center. In the jeep were seven FARDC soldiers and some precious cargo: the wages of the 3416th regiment. Over 100,000 USD in cash.

But as it approached the village of Rwaza, the convoy was brought to an abrupt halt. “The attackers had blocked the road and positioned themselves to stop the arrival of reinforcements,” explained a FARDC officer in his office at the 34th Military Region’s headquarters in Goma. “When the jeep arrived, any retreat was effectively blocked off. None of the passengers survived. It was the work of professionals.”

Is it conceivable that such an ambush could take place without collusion from within the army? An investigation has since been launched by the military prosecutor’s office. But the Sukola-2 operational sector spokesperson, Major Guillaume Ndjike, has already accused the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR-Foca). In his view, they are the main enemy forces operating in the area.

However, data analysis by the Kivu Security Tracker (KST) suggests that Rwaza has not been part of the area of operations of this group for at least six months. The areas surrounding the village have, however, been impacted by incidents involving the FARDC and the Nyatura FDP (Forces de défense du peuple) militia, who are allied with the FDLR.

The red star indicates where the ambush took place on February 20, and the colored dots show the incidents recorded by the KST over the previous six months.

Whatever the case may be, the attackers vanished into the Virunga National Park with their loot. All that remained was the soldiers’ resentment, deprived as they were of their meagre salary. This feeling of resentment was violently expressed in the hours and days that followed: FARDC soldiers retaliated indiscriminately, killing four civilians – all from the Hutu community – between February 20 and 23 according to information collected by the KST.

At the 34th Military Region, no one refutes that civilians were killed around the same time as the ambush. But, according to one officer, these were collateral victims of crossfire.

However, the incident is nevertheless a source of embarrassment. Especially as this is the second time in less than a month that soldiers have protested and called for what is rightfully theirs in Rutshuru territory (North Kivu). The last time, it was in Nyanzale on January 27, after soldiers of the 3407th regiment accused their commanding officer of misappropriating part of their food rations. Soldiers had “gone on strike,” shooting into the air and refusing to intervene during a kidnapping. This attitude so annoyed local inhabitants that a “ghost town” (ville morte) day was declared on January 28. Four people, suspected of being kidnappers, were lynched by the mob. However, the army also denies that there was any cause for concern there. “The commanding officer did not misappropriate anything,” explained Major Ndjike. “He simply took some welcome and practical steps: the frozen fish destined for soldiers was going to rot before it could be delivered to this remote area. He therefore decided to sell the fish in order to buy some meat in its place. Only one soldier complained and fired a shot at one of his friends. He was arrested.”

Such eye-opening events are in fact only the visible part of a much larger phenomenon: the chronic inability of the FARDC to pay a decent and regular wage to its soldiers. Often what is at stake are methods for misappropriation and fraud, where some of the cash destined to pay troops is misappropriated by commanders, or where commanders fraudulently claim troop numbers well in excess of reality, to embezzle the wages of fictional soldiers.

The use of such methods – and particularly inflating troop numbers – has been widespread since the FARDC was created in 2003. At the end of the Second Congo War, this army was created by bringing together the troops of several warring parties after the signing of the Sun City Agreement: the Congolese Armed Forces (FAC), the Congolese Rally for Democracy/Liberation Movement (RCD/ML) and National (RCD/N), the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) and the Mai-Mai groups (in French). Each party found it advantageous to artificially increase the number of its combatants, to exaggerate its troop numbers – and its capacity to misappropriate. An assessment carried out by South Africa in 2004 estimated that between 30% to 50% of the new FARDC troops were fictitious.

Despite efforts to improve the system, including by deploying a biometric census and separating the payment chain from the command chain with the support of the European Union (EUSEC) from 2005, problems have remained. Successive waves of integrating rebels, sometimes in haste, such as the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) in 2009, have added to the ongoing confusion and inflation of troop numbers. In 2011, the regimentation process (the restructuring of the Congolese army from brigades into regiments) which aimed to remove fictitious troops, again revealed the scale of the problem. For example, in the province of South-Kivu, the official recorded troop count of 35,000 was re-evaluated at less than 16,000.

In 2012, the government of Prime Minister Matata Ponyo attempted to put an end to the misappropriation of wages by using the banking system to pay soldiers’ wages directly into a bank account rather than through their commanding officers.

Although this system, still used today, did prevent some embezzlement and improved the timeliness of payments, other problems remain. First, not all regiments have access to this system. Those which were created recently, or those based in remote areas far from any bank branches, can still opt to be paid in cash. This is the case for the 3416th Regiment, which explains that their wages, physically transported, were able to be stolen in an ambush.

Second, commanders may be tempted to hide their losses to keep control of the wages of dead (“ghost”) soldiers or deserters. “Using the banking system to pay soldiers’ wages directly into their bank accounts, which in theory prevents this practice, is sometimes subverted because commanders can fabricate powers of attorney to withdraw the money,” explains a source who for many years worked for one the banks used by the FARDC. “Widows regularly complain that their deceased husbands’ wages have been withdrawn without them knowing who made the withdrawal.”

Lastly, only wages are paid directly into bank accounts. The various bonuses are still paid in cash. And they quickly add up: operational funds, funds for provisioning during operations, command responsibility bonus, special intelligence funds, funds for conducting operations, funds for healthcare and funerals, funds for provisioning… In her thesis, published in 2015, the researcher Judith Verweijen listed seven different types of bonuses, which provide as many opportunities to embezzle. In total, these funds represent a greater amount of money than the wages of soldiers themselves.

This issue is therefore vital for Félix Tshisekedi, who has set his sights on improving the living conditions of soldiers to increase his popularity within the army, with whom he had little contact before becoming president.

Also, the former head of military intelligence, Delphin Kahimbi, on January 9, during an operation against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), had warned that “dissatisfaction” was “insidiously growing” in the ranks of the FARDC, “due to non-payment of bonuses and other funds (FP, FHF, etc.) for nearly three months, exacerbating to some extent the precariousness of their living conditions” in a leaked letter (in French).

Is this evidence of a cause and effect relationship? An increase of ten USD per month came into effect in January 2020. According to a source at the Ministry of Finance of North Kivu, soldiers with the lowest incomes are now paid 156,000 Congolese Francs per month, or 92 USD.

However, for such measures to have an impact – and allow Félix Tshisekedi to gain an upper hand in his power struggle with Joseph Kabila (in French) – this money still needs to get to its recipients.

In this regard, steps have been taken since the last presidential elections. The 2020 Finance Law lists approximately 205,000 “base salaries of regular staff” for “military, police and security” compared with 221,000 the previous year, which suggests troop number lists have been cleaned up.

Also, military hearings have been conducted in recent years on the issue of misappropriation of funds. This was the case of General Fall Sikabwe, Commander of the 3rd FARDC Defense Zone (in French), who was called to Kinshasa to be questioned on suspicions of misappropriation of funds – a relatively rare event at this level of the military hierarchy.

President Félix Tshisekedi also appears to be pressured to take this approach by the United States, a “strategic partner for peace and prosperity” of the DR Congo. On February 27, the US Ambassador, Mike Hammer, tweeted: “As we have consistantly (sic) said, those who are corrupt, commit violations of human rights, or disrupt the democratic process should be held accountable,” in reaction to the news that General Delphin Kahimbi had been suspended as military intelligence chief (in French).

However, will these hearings and warnings suffice to remediate the way the FARDC handles its money? Judith Verweijen has misgivings. “The issue of embezzlement of wages is only a small part of a vast system of generating revenue within the army,” she explains. “Commanders generate considerably more income by means of trafficking or illicit taxation, at roadblocks or mining sites. And they have to give some of this income to the senior military staff who appointed them. This system is therefore deeply entrenched at all levels and I am not convinced that increasing soldiers’ wages is enough for it to stop”.

Photo: 401kcalculator.org

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.

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?

[Guest blog] General Mudacumura: the death of a most-wanted

Christoph Vogel is a researcher and investigator specialising on DRC’s armed groups. A former member of the UN security council group of experts, he currently works with the Conflict research programme based at London school of economics and Ghent University (Belgium).

This morning, around 5am, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda’s (FDLR) long-standing overall military commander Lt.-Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura (also known by his noms de guerre Bernard Mupenzi and Pharaon) has been killed in a raid near Bwito-Monument, a small locality in southern Bwito chieftaincy roughly situated between Bukombo and Bambu.

Mudacumura has been one of the most-wanted armed group leaders and war criminals in the past 25 years. Indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed by the FDLR and its predecessors (ALiR I/II, RDR, ex-FAR/interahamwe) in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mudacumura was also one of the few known Rwandan génocidaires still at large. Born in today’s Rubavu area of Rwanda in 1954, the young Mudacumura made a fulminant military career in the Rwanda of the 1980s. Interrupted by military training in Germany specialising on transmissions (journalist Simone Schlindwein, in her book, recounts how much later he would still greet his troops in German), Mudacumura made it into former Rwandan president Habyarimana’s presidential guard, temporarily serving as a personal bodyguard. During the 1994 genocide, Mudacumura is suspected to have played a commanding role in several killing operations.

As the RPF was progressing and pushing back the then-Rwandan army and the interahamwe, he managed to flee and cross the border into then-Zaire. Ever since, he has risen the ranks of the Rwandan rebel groups formed out of the génocidaires, effectively becoming the military commander of the FDLR in the mid-2000s, as his predecessor Paul Rwarakabije demobilized and returned to Rwanda. A few years later, in 2009, joint Rwando-Congolese military operations dubbed Umoja Wetu inflicted serious losses to the group which hitherto controlled vast parts of eastern Congo’s Kivu provinces. In 2012, the ICC issued an international arrest warrant against Mudacumura. He also figures – alongside 8 other key genocide suspects – on a US-issued most-wanted list. On the ground, this coincided roughly with a further blow to the FDLR, as the nascent Raia Mutomboki militia in Walikale, Shabunda and Kalehe areas were able to further weaken the Rwandan group. Ever since, the FDLR has been mainly based out of northern Masisi and western Rutshuru areas, including with key strongholds in the Virunga National Park.

While the FDLR has been feared for large-scale massacres throughout most of the 2000s, the group changed strategy in the face of growing military pressure. In the current decade, it has mainly tried to stand away from military confrontation and limit attacks and human rights abuses so as to diminish international justice and media interest, but also to avoid further losses in effectives and ammunition. Economically, the FDLR has lost most of its mining operations throughout Umoja Wetu and the subsequent Raia Mutomboki mobilisation. Ever since, it has focused revenue generation on a fine-grained system they internally refer to as ‘logistique non-conventionelle’ (LNC). It includes legal business such as agriculture, herding and local retail trade as well as systems of forced taxation, trade in cannabis, charcoal and woods – often in collaboration with Congolese armed groups, army units and local traders. LNC has permitted the FDLR to maintain purchases of ammunition in an era of shrinking revenue and as outside support (such as through diaspora organisations) has become more difficult due to scrutiny over financial transactions. However, increasing economic pressure also led the FDLR to carry out kidnappings, mostly notably in mid-2018, when their abduction of two British tourists led to the temporary closure of Virunga National Park. By the mid 2010’s, the FDLR possibly had around 2000-3000 combatants, more weapons than soldiers in many of its units but severely lacked supply in ammunition which they would mostly gather in small quantities from individual Congolese army officers.

In the past couple of years, the FDLR’s position kept weakening for a couple of converging reasons. After the demise of the M23 rebellion, Kinshasa, regional governments and the UN agreed on putting the FDLR top of the list of armed groups that needed to be forcefully disarmed for the sake of local and regional stabilisation. Yet, UN-backed operations of the Congolese army (FARDC) began against the Ugandan-originating ADF in Beni area and subsequently planned FDLR operations fell apart in a row between UN peacekeeping forces and the FARDC. Nonetheless, the Congolese army began unilateral operations in late 2014, known as Sukola II. In parallel, newly emerging Congolese armed groups – in particular a splinter faction of Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi led by Guidon Shimiray as well as the various Mazembe militia in Lubero area – began tracking down FDLR units on their side. Having lost key headquarters in Mumo and Ihula by 2016, the FDLR kept control over parts of northern Masisi and western Rutshuru. At this point, deeply entrenched internal divisions – reflecting both the regionalist split between northern and southern Rwandans in the leadership as well as diverging attitudes to repatriation of civilian Rwandan refugees which the FDLR claims to represent – led to a major split (previous defections had happened in the 2000s, prompting the FDLR-Soki and the RUD-Uranana factions) and the creation of the CNRD, which took the whole of the FDLR’s Mwenga-based South Kivu wing and significant parts of its North Kivu wing, especially those based out of Masisi.

Ever since, the FDLR and its armed wing FOCA (Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi) became limited to a triangle between Nyanzale, Kitchanga and Rutshuru town. Mostly situated inside Virunga National Park, this area had been a home turf to the group for many years – helping the FDLR’s hide-and-run strategy when facing military pressure. Several operations to catch Mudacumura or other senior leaders between 2014 and 2018 failed due to the FDLR’s superior knowledge of the terrain but also in sequence to leaks out of the Congolese army and the UN. Bolstering their stamina in western and southern Rutshuru, the FDLR also tied an efficient web of Congolese Hutu militia – often collectively referred to as Nyatura (‘hit hard’/’hard sticks’) – especially the CMC coalition including Dominique Ndaruhutse and the late John Love. Using its infrastructure (especially what remains from the FDLR’s training wing called ‘Groupement des Ecoles’), the FDLR formed hundreds of Nyatura recruits who in turn would form a cordon sanitaire around the FDLR’s positions and taking the bulk of fighting against FARDC, NDC–R, Mazembe and other enemy forces. Yet, pressure on the FDLR/CMC alliance mounted in 2017 and 2018 as Guidon Shimiray’s NDC–R flamboyantly progressed to take control over most of southern Lubero and eastern Walikale. In early 2019, the NDC–R further expanded into northern Masisi, dislodging first the FDLR’s former CNRD brothers-in-arms as well as the Nyatura groups of Kavumbi, Jean-Marie and Nzayi (part of which were incorporated into Guidon’s troops). Throughout the Sukola II era, the FARDC focused increasingly on capturing individual FDLR top brass (including Vainqueur, Mudacumura’s former personal guard chief, intelligence chief Sophonie Mucebo, General Leopold Mujyambere or most recently the FDLR’s spokesperson Laforge Fils Bazeye). With the FDLR cut in half and under strong pressure since 2016, these losses have further weakened the organisational and military capacity of the group, whose only serious combat force to date is the Maccabe unit composed of its special forces. Occasional joint operations between Congolese and Rwandan army units have happened as well, but were mostly not officially declared – such as most recently throughout the first half of 2019 in Rutshuru area.

Throughout the past months, clashes circled in around Kitchanga and Mweso, two major towns located just west of the FDLR’s and CMC’s strongholds. Finally, just two days ago, a major NDC–R troop movement was reported from Mweso/Kashuga area (Masisi) into Bukombo (Rutshuru). At the same time, other movements were reported into Bukombo area from units wearing FARDC uniforms. Today at 5am, Mudacumura was killed in Bwito-Monument. The event took place in presence of several other high-ranking FDLR commanders, two of which have been killed according to FARDC sources, while others may be on the run as combats have continued throughout the zone during the day. Media and observers have been in disagreement over whom has taken out Mudacumura. While some point at Guidon’s NDC–R, others have mentioned FARDC commando troops in a joint operation with Rwandan special forces. Given that the area is highly inaccessible, early affirmation are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Looking at historical operational dynamics in the area, however, it would not be surprising if all of this is true to a certain extent and various belligerents be involved either directly or indirectly in Mudacumura’s killing. It is not known, however, whether Mudacumura has been killed because he resisted arrest or whether this was the actual objective of the raid.

A couple of points are particularly striking: in dozens of attempts, this is the first successful not only in getting to Mudacumura but actually eliminating him. Secondly, if it weren’t for official confirmation and a few well-placed local sources, it may be impossible to authenticate Mudacumura’s killing – pictures used for his arrest warrant are all 20+ years old and he has been particularly successful not only in escaping arrest but also in camouflaging himself and his whereabouts. Third, he was wearing a Rwandan army uniform while killed, indicating that in its last unsuccessful raids into Rwanda, FDLR special forces may at least have pillaged a small army warehouse. Fourth, UN troops seem not to be involved in the operation.

In sum, whoever of all potentially participating forces carried out the actual killing, this represents another major blow to the FDLR. While subsequent military operations and pressure from Congolese armed groups have diminished the FDLR in size, territory and capabilities, the loss of key leaders – including convicted Ignace Murwanashyaka who died in a German prison earlier in 2019 – is not to be underestimated considering the group’s emphasis on bureaucratic and hierarchical structures (even after 20+ years based in Congolese forest, the FDLR keeps meticulous records on stockpiles, units, activities and internal commands). Mudacumura has been, until the end and despite his advanced age, the groups undisputed military leader even as younger commanders such as Pacifique Ntawunguka or Gaby Ruhinda had become more relevant in operational military affairs. Moreover, he has been a key ideological pillar inside the group, especially after the CNRD split that left the FDLR increasingly dominated by Mudacumura and interim president Victor Byiringiro.

Whether or not this is the end of the FDLR is difficult to tell. Relying on internal cohesion and ideology, the group has often managed to rebound and survive after previous blows. However, the loss of its evergreen leader certainly is a big piece to chew for the remaining leadership. Moreover, it is unlikely that self-declared FDLR enemies such as the NDC–R will suddenly stop their military campaign. On the other hand, the FDLR’s and CMC’s entrenched versatility in southern Bwito could also lead to a lengthy and protracted stand-off in the coming months.