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.
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.
Colonel Charles Sematama, commander of the 3411th regiment of the #FARDC based in Kitchanga (#Masisi territory, North #Kivu), deserted, according to several sources within the FARDC. #DRC pic.twitter.com/i3H1cvJkJ9
— Baromètre sécuritaire du Kivu (@KivuSecurity) February 28, 2021
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.