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.

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.