“Balkanization,” Regional Tensions or State Weakness: the Real Threats to Stability in the Kivus

A FARDC (Congolese army) camp close to Kibumba (North Kivu) during the March 23 Movement (M23) crisis in 2012 (UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti)

The scene took place in Baraka, in South Kivu, on January 17. A young militant from the Congolese Lamuka opposition coalition, wearing a white headband, whipped up the crowd in a hate-filled frenzy. While giving the Banyamulenge 48 hours to leave the country, he ordered that those unwilling to do so be forced out and issued threats against all those who assist or give refuge to members of this Rwandophone Congolese minority.

Was this a random event? This outburst was the result of a national protest called by the opposition (in French) against the “balkanization” of the country. In DR Congo, this term refers to the fear that there is a plot by neighboring countries, in league with certain communities living in Congo, to annex its rich land in the country’s east. According to this theory, these states are alleged to have clandestinely sent their citizens to DR Congo to prepare this annexation. Often, it is the Tutsi communities of the region, and specifically those from Rwanda, who are labeled as conspirators.

This topic, regularly raised in Congolese public debate, was strengthened in the nineties and noughties, by the occupation of large parts of the Congo by rebels partly led by members of the Rwandophone Congolese community, who were backed by Uganda (RCD/K-ML) and Rwanda (RCD-Goma).

In recent weeks, it has become increasingly popular, particularly since a press briefing by Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo (in French), the highest ranking Catholic authority in the country, during a visit to Beni. In his speech, he claimed that the massacres committed in that territory since November had been “planned” with the “aim of balkanizing our country.” “This [can be] verified by the replacement of displaced populations by populations that are generally Rwandophone and Ugandophone (sic)” he added, denouncing the “discharge” of populations by neighboring countries into Congo, namely Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Despite the prelate’s careful language, which also confirmed the Congolese nationality of some Rwandophone communities, including the Banyamulenge, the dissemination of this argument could heighten mistrust of these communities. Several hateful messages, similar to those of Baraka, have circulated on social networks throughout the month of January.

These suspicions have also been increased by the awkward comments of Vital Kamerhe, the president’s chief of staff, who was recently in Rwanda to attend the wedding of the son of the former Rwandan Minister of Defense, James Kabarebe. He was said to have offered 30 cows to “strengthen relations”  between Rwanda and Kivu (in French), as though the eastern provinces of DR Congo were a separate entity to the rest of the country.

Martin Fayulu, the opposition politician and candidate in the last presidential elections who has been using the rhetoric of balkanization for several years (in French), took advantage of this situation to repeat his argument, even publicly accusing President Félix Tshisekedi and his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, of carrying out this project (in French). In private, he even claims that Félix Tshisekedi is seeking to complete the project of “balkanization” together with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

This argument, which offers a simple explanation to complex problems, has met with genuinely popular success. And the intense clashes, which have affected three areas in eastern Congo in recent months, have contributed to its increased popularity.

First, Mgr. Ambongo cited the clashes in Beni territory in support of his speech. There, 312 have been killed since November, mostly by the enigmatic Islamist uprising of Ugandan origin, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), according to the latest death toll by the Kivu Security Tracker (KST, in French). This modus operandi, which is particularly brutal and difficult to understand, has in fact led to the internal displacement of civilians fleeing the massacres.

The second area affected by intense clashes is the highlands of Fizi and Uvira. There, armed groups from local Banyindu, Babembe, and Bafuliru communities are disputing the creation of the rural commune of Minembwe, which is located in a Banyamulenge-majority area. Violent acts have been committed against civilians in addition to cattle theft. At the same time, Banyamulenge armed groups, claiming to defend their community, have also committed abuses against civilians. Many villages have been burned during this crisis, which has also led to population displacement. The defection from the Congolese army of Colonel Michel Rukunda, aka Makanika, himself a Munyamulenge, at the beginning of January, has fed into the idea that a vast Banyamulenge uprising is being created. This is “Banyamulenge expansionism,” a political leader from Bukavu told KST.

The third conflict feeding suspicions is that which was started at the end of November by the Congolese army to dislodge the Rwandan Hutu uprising of the National Congress of Resistance for Democracy (CNRD) in Kalehe territory. Similar to Rutshuru territory in recent months, many local sources contacted by KST have reported the presence of soldiers from the regular Rwandan army in Congolese uniforms. According to many of these sources, frightened inhabitants have, in turn, deserted the villages of Kigogo and Kasika.

However, these three situations in effect appear to obey different local realities, and it is difficult to see a coordinated plan on a regional level.

In Beni territory, the ADF arrived some 25 years ago with the aim of fighting against the influence of Kampala. They established relations with local communities and have taken advantage of their conflicts, according to research by the Congo Research Group (CRG). This group may, to a certain extent, have territorial ambitions, but it is difficult to imagine that they would one day obtain international recognition from an independent state or annexation to Uganda.

Yet, in his speech on January 3, Mgr. Ambongo stated that “Rwandan immigrants driven out of Tanzania some years ago” have been “dumped” in areas emptied of their inhabitants due to massacres. This is a reference to the migrations of Hutu populations who, in recent years, have left the Congolese territories of Masisi and Lubero to move to Ituri province, and who passed through Beni. The scale and current status of these migrations, however, remain difficult to evaluate. On the surface, they have had very little impact on the urban areas of Beni territory, where the bulk of recent massacres have taken place.

In the highlands of Fizi and Uvira, armed Banyamulenge groups appear weakened and divided, and are highly unlikely to have the means to act on any ambitions of political independence. The profile of the renegade colonel, Makanika, fits uneasily with the notion that armed Banyamulenge groups are associates of Rwanda. Makanika, on the contrary, took part in many uprisings against Kigali in the noughties, and was still described in 2013 as “strongly opposed to Rwanda” (in French). Several members of Banyamulenge civil society also express distrust towards Rwanda, in particular claiming that Mai-Mai uprisings and groups are supported by Kigali, which is reported to want to punish them for having given refuge to a Rwandan rebellion: the Rwanda National Congress (RNC).

Moreover, despite many rumors, few Congolese officers seem to have followed in the footsteps of Makanika, although it is the case that former soldiers from abroad have joined him, such as Gakunzi Masabo and Alexis Gasita, in his stronghold of Kajembwe. However, most Banyamulenge military leaders active in the Congolese army, such as Masunzu, Venant Bisogo, and Mustafa, are currently stationed very far from the front, in the west of the country. The former rebel chief, Richard Tawimbi, is also in the Congolese capital. And the other Banyamulenge officers are kept under close watch by their colleagues. Three Banyamulenge officers suspected of wanting to defect – Lieutenant-Colonel Joli Mufoko Rugwe, Major Sébastien Mugemani, and Sub-Lieutenant Aimable Rukuyana Nyamugume – are under arrest in the camp of Saïo in Bukavu, according to military and local civil society sources.

The last territory where the reality on the ground does not fit with the theory of balkanization is that of Kalehe. Several local customary authority, UN, diplomatic, and Congolese military sources have in fact confirmed to KST the presence of elements of the Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) during the offensive against the CNRD. Estimates of their numbers diverge considerably, from a handful of intelligence officers to several battalions. However, according to a Congolese military source, who claims to have witnessed the discreet arrival of a Rwandan battalion, these operations are one-offs and accepted by President Félix Tshisekedi. Their presence is alleged to only have been hidden due to fear of a hostile reaction by local inhabitants. Above all, rather than “dumping” Rwandophone populations in DR Congo, they have on the contrary led to a repatriation of some 2500 members of the rebel Rwandan CNRD (combatants and families) from DR Congo to Rwanda.

The theory of balkanization therefore inadequately describes the conflicts affecting the Kivus. Contrary to the situation between 2000-2013, no Rwandophone Congolese uprising appears in reality to be supported by Rwanda at this time.

This does not necessarily mean that the current situation is reassuring. Tens of thousands of eastern Congolese live in territories controlled by more than a hundred armed groups and which are, in fact, beyond Kinshasa’s control. Rather than a coordinated regional plan between neighboring states to carve up DR Congo, it is the tensions among these states, along with the weakness of the Congolese authorities, that appears to threaten stability in the Kivus.

Uganda and Burundi on the one hand, and Rwanda on the other, accuse one another of backing dissident groups in eastern Congo and waste no time in fighting them, either directly or by way of allied groups.

Kigali specifically accused Burundi and Uganda of supporting the RNC, which was partly confirmed by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC. The RNC has however been considerably weakened in mysterious circumstances in 2019: it has less than some fifty men near the village of Miti, according to sources from MONUSCO intelligence and civil society.

Several attacks originating on Congolese soil have also affected Burundi and Rwanda in recent months. This was the case of the attack on Kinigi in Rwanda on October 6 attributed by Kigali to the Rwandan Hutu uprising of the Rally for Unity and Democracy (RUD), which is reportedly supported by Uganda. Then there was the attack of October 22 in Musigati (Burundi), which was claimed by the RED-Tabara, a Burundian rebel group operating in South Kivu. Lastly, on November 16, Burundi suffered a new attack, in Mabayi, which the Burundian president blamed on Rwanda.

Additionally, several Burundian uprisings hostile to the Gitega government are present in South Kivu, such as the RED-Tabara, FRODEBU, or the FNL. According to a Congolese military source and a report by the UN Group of Experts, the RED-Tabara has in recent years been supported by Kigali. Also, the National Defense Force of Burundi and Imbonerakure militia (close to the Gitega government) regularly carry out incursions into DR Congo, according to reports by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC as well as security officials contacted by KST. Some members of the Burundian authorities are reported to support several Congolese armed groups, such as the Mai-Mai Mbulu, in the Ruzizi plain, probably to prevent possible attacks on their soil.

Were the Burundian presidential election, scheduled for May, to provoke violent protests comparable to the last one in 2015, South Kivu could rebecome a battlefield. This would not, however, mean that the “balkanization” of the country is underway.

Can MONUSCO Really Withdraw From the DRC?

A “Short Course on Vehicle Repair” given by the Indian contingent of MONUSCO in Lubero territory. (MONUSCO/Force)

Twenty years. On November 30, it was exactly twenty years to the day that the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC was born. No one, however, had the heart to celebrate this anniversary.

Since November 22, MONUSCO has been facing a popular uprising on a scale rarely seen in North Kivu. On November 25, one of its camps, in Beni’s Boikene neighborhood, was even partly destroyed by protesters. The protesters have accused the mission of inaction – and its most vocal critics of complicity –  during the killing of civilians in recent weeks.

The Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has recorded the deaths of at least 161 civilians by armed groups since November 5 in Beni territory. In the vast majority of cases, these abuses were carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF, a Uganda-based Islamist rebellion), in all likelihood in retaliation for the “major offensive” launched on October 30 by the Congolese army.

During these violent demonstrations, Blue Helmets even opened fire, killing at least one civilian, who, according to the mission, “was about to throw a Molotov cocktail.” An investigation has been opened but this episode has played a part in further radicalizing the protests. They have even reached large towns: demonstrations have been organized by citizen movements such as Lucha in Goma and Kinshasa, calling for the UN mission to leave if it is unable to prevent the killings. In total, KST has logged the deaths of at least 15 people in recent demonstrations in Beni and Butembo.

The confidence of the Congolese in the ability of the mission to ensure their security has, in fact, waned in recent years. In answer to the question “Do you trust MONUSCO to ensure the security of your neighborhood/village?”, only 15% of Congolese polled in December 2018 by Peacebuildingdata.org replied in the affirmative (and only 14% for the inhabitants of North Kivu). This represents a fall of 11 points compared with 2015.

However, the current lack of confidence is occurring at a crucial moment when the future of the mission is under discussion at UN headquarters: its renewed mandate should be adopted before December 20. The mission’s budget, which was for a long time the largest in the world for a peacekeeping mission (it reached 1.45 billion dollars in 2013-2014), has dropped to 1.01 billion dollars, principally due to the reduction in UN funding by the United States. MONUSCO is now less well funded than MINUSMA in Mali or MINUSS in South Sudan.

In March, the Security Council had only renewed the mission in DRC for nine months, not the usual 12. French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves le Drian had even announced that this shortened mandate would be used to plan for its “gradual disengagement.”  Meanwhile, a strategic review of the mission has been carried out by Tunisian diplomat Youssef Mahmoud. His report, whose conclusions were leaked to AFP (in French), argues for the mission’s withdrawal within three years.

Could it be that from New York to Beni, a convergence of interests of various kinds of frustration with the mission is leading to its untimely demise?

Some members of the mission are certainly demoralized by their scapegoating. MONUSCO is not responsible for the new wave of violence, as some have stated, particularly since the DRC Armed Forces (FARDC) denied it a role in planning their operations against the ADF.

On December 1, during his visit to eastern Congo, UN Peacekeeping Operations Chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix even stated that the attacks against the mission had been “premeditated, organized and financed” and called for “investigations into everything that has happened.”

Who orchestrated them? On condition of anonymity, some members of the mission revealed to KST that members of the Congolese army took part in fueling the protests against it, including by transporting protesters. KST has been able to verify that certain Congolese army officers have been spreading messages that are hostile to the Blue Helmets.

What was the aim of these officers in seeking to foment hostility against MONUSCO? Focusing criticism on MONUSCO could firstly hide their own responsibility. Also, most of those still in place at the head of the Congolese army were appointed by former President Joseph Kabila, who had called for the withdrawal of MONUSCO before 2020 (in French). Some Congolese officers are themselves under UN sanctions such as General Muhindo Akili Mundos, currently Commander of the 33rd military region (South Kivu and Maniema). According to a high-level UN source, Defense Minister Aimé Ngoy Mukena (who is close to former president Kabila), had still not signed the proposed new cooperation agreement between the FARDC and MONUSCO, even though the former agreement had expired in July.

This would not completely remove any responsibility on MONUSCO’s part. The attacks against civilians could have been anticipated. This armed group had already used this strategy during previous offensives, such as in 2014 (when 345 civilians had been killed in three months). Yet MONUSCO’s mandate defines protecting civilians as one of its two priorities (along with support for Congolese institutions).

Troops engaged on the ground in Beni territory are in reality ill equipped for this mission. In the main, these comprise some 300 Malawian, South African, and Tanzanian soldiers of MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a combat force rather than a civilian protection force. This was created in 2013 to put an end to the M23 rebel movement, which was operating like a regular army. According to several diplomatic sources, it was borne of the will of southern African states to fight against Rwandan influence in the Kivus.

The FIB today must face a completely different enemy, using counter-insurgency techniques. According to the strategic review report, it is also facing “significant problems relating to unified command and control, intelligence, analysis, planning and coordination.”

Its troops have suffered heavy losses in Beni territory in recent years: 15 Blue Helmets were killed in the battle of Semuliki in December 2017. Then, during their last offensive against the ADF, in November 2018, eight Blue Helmets were also killed. Consequently, since then and despite instructions from the mission’s command, FIB patrols, under their own chain of command, with at its head, the South African General Patrick Dube, have become more cautious, including in towns of the Grand Nord of North Kivu.

Compounding this is the fact that the crisis has occurred during a transition at the head of the MONUSCO force: after the departure of its commander, the Brazilian Elias Martins, it found itself without a head. The new deputy commander, General Thierry Lion, who came to his post during the same period, therefore had to take on a dual role. This situation should, however, come to an end shortly: a new force commander, the Brazilian Ricardo Augusto Ferreira Costa Neves, was appointed on December 3.

How can the mission find a way out of this crisis? After the Beni protests, the office of the head of mission, Leila Zerrougui, called for a meeting with the highest Congolese authorities. A meeting of the National Security Council was held on November 25 in Kinshasa with the president of the republic, his ministers and several Congolese generals. It decided to resume “joint operations” between MONUSCO and the FARDC. However, beyond the public announcement, which might have calmed down the protesters, it remains difficult to identify the practical measures that this will involve.

Since then, the UN mission has released information on the support it already provides to the FARDC, mainly in the form of reconnaissance flights and the evacuation of wounded soldiers. It could increase its logistical support to Congolese forces but only to a certain extent: its budget already has a deficit of several million dollars according to the office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General.

Joint “planning” meetings between MONUSCO officers and the FARDC were also held (in French) in Beni territory. MONUSCO announced the arrest of combatants as part of joint “combat patrols” with the FARDC (in French). However, its participation in conflicts with the ADF, in the air or on the ground, remains off the table for the time being, according to several diplomatic sources. Several UN officials believe the FARDC operation to be ineffective and badly prepared. They also fear finding themselves mixed up in possible abuses.

In this context, one option could be to suspend operations against the ADF, to provide time to develop a new joint strategy between the FARDC and MONUSCO. Only President Félix Tshisekedi could take such a decision. But it remains to be seen whether Congolese military chiefs would agree. Above all, it would risk appearing as a step backwards in the eyes of the people, and particularly damaging to the president’s image. He had committed to eliminating the ADF before the end of the year.

On a deeper level, there is a profound disconnect between what the Congolese expect of MONUSCO and what MONUSCO is able and willing to do. President Tshisekedi, who wants to keep MONUSCO, is calling for the mission’s military capacity to be reinforced. Among civil society, also, Lucha is calling for MONUSCO “to do something or leave.” Political opponent Martin Fayulu and Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege, both of whom are in favor of the UN presence, are calling for military intervention in Beni territory based on the model of the European Artémis operation in 2003 in Ituri province. The underlying idea behind such calls is that a hard-hitting military offensive could quickly eliminate the ADF.

Conversely, several MONUSCO officials asked by KST believe that the mission is “not there to go to war” and that the use of force is only effective if it goes hand in hand with political and diplomatic initiatives. In its report, “The Art of the Possible: MONUSCO’s New Mandate,” the Congo Research Group recommended rebuilding “a viable political strategy for protecting civilians in zones of armed conflict.” Also, the recent independent strategic review indicates that “there is no military solution to many of the security crises in the DRC.” The report also states that “without such a critical re-examination, the mission will continue to be burdened with unrealistic expectations and short term remedies that unwittingly allow Congolese stakeholders to shirk their own responsibility for addressing the causes of conflict many of which are the result of homegrown governance deficits.”

The report even proposes the withdrawal of the FIB, particularly to underscore that “it would also send the signal that neutralization is a sovereign duty of the national army.” In the eventuality that this force is renewed, it should be renewed for no more than one year.

These proposals are now under discussion at the UN Security Council. A withdrawal in less than three years appears unfeasible: even if such a decision were taken, carrying it out would require more time. Moreover, the DRC is still affected by an Ebola epidemic, which risks gaining ground due to recent attacks against MONUSCO and agents of the riposte, such as that at Mangina on November 27.

It is possible, however, that the Security Council will call for this withdrawal to be planned. According to a diplomatic source, the United States, in particular, has expressed its desire for the creation and adoption of a withdrawal timeline.