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.