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 Starting on May 6, and lasting initially for 30 days, the civil authorities of both provinces have been replaced by the military and the police.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.

Will Intercommunity Dialogue Restore Peace in the Highlands of South Kivu?

Mikenge, in the highlands of South Kivu on June 1, 2020. Photo Monusco / Alain Likota.

An agreement was signed on March 31, 2021 in Kinshasa, between the representatives of the different communities of the high and middle plateaus of South Kivu. While modest in scope, the dialogue organizers recognize that the agreement alone will not be enough to restore peace. But is this right direction?

By Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker.

This blog post is a translation of the original French version published on April 8, 2021. A new government of the DRC was announced on April 12, 2021.

March 31 marked the end of the “intercommunity dialogue on peace, security and development in the high and middle plateaus of Fizi, Mwenga et Uvira.” Over the course of three days, representatives of the Babuyu, Banyindu, Barundi, Bavira, Babembe, Bafuliru, and Banyamulenge communities met in the Béatrice Hotel in the Congolese capital. This conference brought to an end a process led by the international NGO, Interpeace, with the support of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), to de-escalate the situation in the highlands of South Kivu.

Volatile Area

This area, which has been volatile for some decades, has seen an upsurge in violence since 2016, and above all since 2018. It is the main home of the Banyamulenge community, whose members traditionally are cattle-herders (the transhumance of cattle is often a source of conflict) and speak a language close to those spoken in Rwanda and Burundi. This historically marginalized and discriminated against (in French) community saw some of its members join the ranks of Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), then armed groups backed by Rwanda, such as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo-Zaire (AFDL) and the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) in the 1990s and 2000s, which committed abuses against civilians in South Kivu, sometimes in the context of local conflicts.

This fed into a deepening of the mistrust and discrimination against them and encouraged the formation of armed groups by other communities, particularly of the Mai-Mai type. From 2018, the situation considerably deteriorated following abuses committed by the Banyamulenge armed group, “Ngumino” (“let’s stay here”), against civilians, including the traditional chiefs of other communities (such as the assassinated Chief Munyindu Kawaza Nyakwana), the presence of Rwanda National Congress (RNC) rebels of Kayumba Nyamwasa in the area, and the decree confirming the creation of the rural commune of Minembwe led by a Munyamulenge mayor, thereby escaping the authority of the South Basimunyaka groupement.

Many Abuses

A significant coalition of armed groups, comprising in particular the Mai-Mai Yakutumba, Ebu-Ela Mtetezi or Biloze Bishambuke (from “indigenous” communities) and Burundian rebels of the Résistance pour un Etat de droit (RED-Tabara), who Burundian authorities accuse of being backed by Rwanda, assembled to fight the Ngumino. These groups committed many abuses against Banyamulenge villages, setting them on fire and looting their cattle, thereby forcing them to live in a few enclaves, such as Minembwe. On their side, the Twigwaneho “self-defense” militias have become the Banyamulenge community’s principal armed movement, which has also been responsible for committing just as many abuses against civilians belonging to other communities, leading 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).

Since January 2020, Interpeace, an international peacebuilding NGO, has tried to solve this problem through a community-oriented process. The meeting which took place March 29 to 31 is, in effect, the culmination of a process which started at the beginning of last year, including a ceasefire in March 2020 (with little lasting effect on the ground) and a series of “intercommunity” dialogue events.

According to the conclusions of the Kinshasa meeting, representatives of different communities noted that there were both points of convergence and persisting differences, and made recommendations and commitments, such as “to disengage from foreign armed groups,” “lay down arms […] at the end of a ceasefire process” and “raise awareness among their respective populations of the need to avoid the possession of weapons and to work for peace and security.”

Read the conclusions of the dialogue (PDF, in French)

These commitments are quite broad and vague, and therefore fail to clearly designate the actors, means, or timetable for their implementation. However, participants hope that the government will use them to form the basis of its “roadmap” for restoring peace. For this to stand a chance of success, the roadmap should move well beyond recommendations, by including in particular the reform of local administration and the security services, and a functional process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR).

The outcomes of the Kinshasa agreement were not, in any case, immediately apparent. Representatives of the Bavira community even directly rejected the conclusions of the process, believing that they had been marginalized. Moreover, several security incidents have occurred in the highlands since, such as at Rubarati on March 31 (where clashes took place between the Twigwaneho and some Mai-Mai groups), on April 1 at Kitanda (where a Munyamulenge woman was killed) or on April 4 (where a subsequent clash between the Twigwaneho and the Biloze Bishambuke occurred).

Weakness of Interventions to Bring Peace

Dialogue alone will not, therefore, restore peace. And this was not the aim of the organizers. But is it a step in the right direction? Past examples are far from encouraging. Between 2006 and 2020, at least 15 local agreements were signed in eastern Congo, according to a study by Claude Iguma Wakenge and Koen Vlassenroot published in July 2020. These agreements were implemented by such diverse actors as NGOs (Life & Peace Institute, in particular), the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO), or even Swedish or Swiss sustainable development agencies. “The general failure to make local agreements tangible reveals the weaknesses of peace interventions in eastern DRC,” the writers noted.

In a forthcoming report analyzing the conflict in the highlands (entitled “Mayhem in the mountains”), Judith Verweijen, Juvénal Twaibu, Moïse Ribakare, Paul Bulambo, and Freddy Mwambi Kasongo are even more critical of this type of process. According to them, “intercommunity dialogue can unwittingly result in worsening rather than mitigating the dynamics of the conflict and violence.” The risks raised include hiding internal conflicts, reinforcing the placing of blame for violence on communities (rather than on the armed groups themselves) and thereby increasing stigmatization. This logic was in plain sight at the Béatrice Hotel if some findings are to be believed, such as the accusation that the “Barundi were facilitating clandestine migrations and the infiltration of foreigners.”

“The argument put forward in this report is no doubt interesting, but in such a crisis situation, people identify very strongly with their community,” remarked a UN source who wished to remain anonymous. “This reality cannot be denied and the intercommunity model can be useful.”

Interpeace in any case tried to take past failings into account. Aware of the divisions within communities, the NGO organized a series of “intercommunity” dialogue events for each of the communities in 2020 in order to level out the disagreements and identify representatives through consensus. However, this had some adverse effects: the conclusion of the Bembe intercommunity meeting in March 2020, for example, described the Banyamulenge as “Rwandan so-called Banyamulenge,” which was inconsistent with easing tensions.

Lack of Coordination

On the other hand, the process did reproduce some issues identified in previous studies, including the lack of coordination between the various initiatives. While Interpeace was leading its process in the highlands with British funding from January 2020, another parallel and concurrent initiative was underway to obtain a ceasefire between the armed groups of South Kivu: the Murhesa process, led by the NGOs Search for Common Ground (SFC) and the Initiative for a Cohesive Leadership (ILC), with funding from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden, which led to the signing of another ceasefire (also largely ignored) in September 2020. The creation of a peacebuilding coordinator position within the forum of international NGOs to try to solve the problem is reported to be ongoing.

However, there were other issues, such as the lack of participation by the authorities. Most of the “recommendations” by the dialogue’s participants were addressed to the national government, such as the management of the issue of the rural commune of Minembwe, implementing a DDR process, or establishing a roadmap. All the participants with whom we were able to speak insisted on the fact that the dialogue would only have positive effects if the government effectively engaged with all stakeholders. Instead, the national ministers present at the dialogue (the Minister of the Interior, Gilbert Kankonde and Defense, Aimé Ngoy Mukena) belong to the outgoing government and could be replaced by the next government.

Will the next ministers of the interior and defense transform these recommendations into an action program? It remains unclear, and it would certainly have been preferable for the dialogue to have been held under the auspices of the new government. However, the funding awarded by the FCDO for this project stops on March 31, which led to the timing of the meeting being brought forward. Discussions took place with a view to postponing the end of the funding (and therefore the meeting) to May, but were unsuccessful. “The presidency was involved and it was the head of the Civil House of the Head of State, Bruno Miteyo, who moderated the dialogue,” explained a source within Interpeace. “Future ministers will be briefed and will continue the process.”

The other category of actors capable of bearing on the conflict is the armed groups themselves. However, in the case of the Kinshasa discussions, there were very few among those invited, they only made vague commitments and above all, without any certainty as to their implementation on the armed group who they were supposed to represent. The group of Michel Rukunda, aka Makanika, who has become one of the main armed actors of the highlands, whose numbers were recently boosted by the arrival of former FARDC officers, was not represented, for example. According to a source close to the organizers, bringing more representatives of armed groups to Kinshasa would have created legal and security issues, but the other participants had insisted on holding the meeting in the capital so as to engage the national elite.

So, despite everything, could the process started by Interpeace lead to a breakthrough? One of the conditions would be that MONUSCO, the armed groups, and the next Congolese government converge to take up its findings and develop them into a complete roadmap, including the far-reaching reforms needed to solve the current situation. This dialogue was surely not the last.

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.