“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.

[Guest blog] General Mudacumura: the death of a most-wanted

Christoph Vogel is a researcher and investigator specialising on DRC’s armed groups. A former member of the UN security council group of experts, he currently works with the Conflict research programme based at London school of economics and Ghent University (Belgium).

This morning, around 5am, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda’s (FDLR) long-standing overall military commander Lt.-Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura (also known by his noms de guerre Bernard Mupenzi and Pharaon) has been killed in a raid near Bwito-Monument, a small locality in southern Bwito chieftaincy roughly situated between Bukombo and Bambu.

Mudacumura has been one of the most-wanted armed group leaders and war criminals in the past 25 years. Indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed by the FDLR and its predecessors (ALiR I/II, RDR, ex-FAR/interahamwe) in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mudacumura was also one of the few known Rwandan génocidaires still at large. Born in today’s Rubavu area of Rwanda in 1954, the young Mudacumura made a fulminant military career in the Rwanda of the 1980s. Interrupted by military training in Germany specialising on transmissions (journalist Simone Schlindwein, in her book, recounts how much later he would still greet his troops in German), Mudacumura made it into former Rwandan president Habyarimana’s presidential guard, temporarily serving as a personal bodyguard. During the 1994 genocide, Mudacumura is suspected to have played a commanding role in several killing operations.

As the RPF was progressing and pushing back the then-Rwandan army and the interahamwe, he managed to flee and cross the border into then-Zaire. Ever since, he has risen the ranks of the Rwandan rebel groups formed out of the génocidaires, effectively becoming the military commander of the FDLR in the mid-2000s, as his predecessor Paul Rwarakabije demobilized and returned to Rwanda. A few years later, in 2009, joint Rwando-Congolese military operations dubbed Umoja Wetu inflicted serious losses to the group which hitherto controlled vast parts of eastern Congo’s Kivu provinces. In 2012, the ICC issued an international arrest warrant against Mudacumura. He also figures – alongside 8 other key genocide suspects – on a US-issued most-wanted list. On the ground, this coincided roughly with a further blow to the FDLR, as the nascent Raia Mutomboki militia in Walikale, Shabunda and Kalehe areas were able to further weaken the Rwandan group. Ever since, the FDLR has been mainly based out of northern Masisi and western Rutshuru areas, including with key strongholds in the Virunga National Park.

While the FDLR has been feared for large-scale massacres throughout most of the 2000s, the group changed strategy in the face of growing military pressure. In the current decade, it has mainly tried to stand away from military confrontation and limit attacks and human rights abuses so as to diminish international justice and media interest, but also to avoid further losses in effectives and ammunition. Economically, the FDLR has lost most of its mining operations throughout Umoja Wetu and the subsequent Raia Mutomboki mobilisation. Ever since, it has focused revenue generation on a fine-grained system they internally refer to as ‘logistique non-conventionelle’ (LNC). It includes legal business such as agriculture, herding and local retail trade as well as systems of forced taxation, trade in cannabis, charcoal and woods – often in collaboration with Congolese armed groups, army units and local traders. LNC has permitted the FDLR to maintain purchases of ammunition in an era of shrinking revenue and as outside support (such as through diaspora organisations) has become more difficult due to scrutiny over financial transactions. However, increasing economic pressure also led the FDLR to carry out kidnappings, mostly notably in mid-2018, when their abduction of two British tourists led to the temporary closure of Virunga National Park. By the mid 2010’s, the FDLR possibly had around 2000-3000 combatants, more weapons than soldiers in many of its units but severely lacked supply in ammunition which they would mostly gather in small quantities from individual Congolese army officers.

In the past couple of years, the FDLR’s position kept weakening for a couple of converging reasons. After the demise of the M23 rebellion, Kinshasa, regional governments and the UN agreed on putting the FDLR top of the list of armed groups that needed to be forcefully disarmed for the sake of local and regional stabilisation. Yet, UN-backed operations of the Congolese army (FARDC) began against the Ugandan-originating ADF in Beni area and subsequently planned FDLR operations fell apart in a row between UN peacekeeping forces and the FARDC. Nonetheless, the Congolese army began unilateral operations in late 2014, known as Sukola II. In parallel, newly emerging Congolese armed groups – in particular a splinter faction of Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi led by Guidon Shimiray as well as the various Mazembe militia in Lubero area – began tracking down FDLR units on their side. Having lost key headquarters in Mumo and Ihula by 2016, the FDLR kept control over parts of northern Masisi and western Rutshuru. At this point, deeply entrenched internal divisions – reflecting both the regionalist split between northern and southern Rwandans in the leadership as well as diverging attitudes to repatriation of civilian Rwandan refugees which the FDLR claims to represent – led to a major split (previous defections had happened in the 2000s, prompting the FDLR-Soki and the RUD-Uranana factions) and the creation of the CNRD, which took the whole of the FDLR’s Mwenga-based South Kivu wing and significant parts of its North Kivu wing, especially those based out of Masisi.

Ever since, the FDLR and its armed wing FOCA (Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi) became limited to a triangle between Nyanzale, Kitchanga and Rutshuru town. Mostly situated inside Virunga National Park, this area had been a home turf to the group for many years – helping the FDLR’s hide-and-run strategy when facing military pressure. Several operations to catch Mudacumura or other senior leaders between 2014 and 2018 failed due to the FDLR’s superior knowledge of the terrain but also in sequence to leaks out of the Congolese army and the UN. Bolstering their stamina in western and southern Rutshuru, the FDLR also tied an efficient web of Congolese Hutu militia – often collectively referred to as Nyatura (‘hit hard’/’hard sticks’) – especially the CMC coalition including Dominique Ndaruhutse and the late John Love. Using its infrastructure (especially what remains from the FDLR’s training wing called ‘Groupement des Ecoles’), the FDLR formed hundreds of Nyatura recruits who in turn would form a cordon sanitaire around the FDLR’s positions and taking the bulk of fighting against FARDC, NDC–R, Mazembe and other enemy forces. Yet, pressure on the FDLR/CMC alliance mounted in 2017 and 2018 as Guidon Shimiray’s NDC–R flamboyantly progressed to take control over most of southern Lubero and eastern Walikale. In early 2019, the NDC–R further expanded into northern Masisi, dislodging first the FDLR’s former CNRD brothers-in-arms as well as the Nyatura groups of Kavumbi, Jean-Marie and Nzayi (part of which were incorporated into Guidon’s troops). Throughout the Sukola II era, the FARDC focused increasingly on capturing individual FDLR top brass (including Vainqueur, Mudacumura’s former personal guard chief, intelligence chief Sophonie Mucebo, General Leopold Mujyambere or most recently the FDLR’s spokesperson Laforge Fils Bazeye). With the FDLR cut in half and under strong pressure since 2016, these losses have further weakened the organisational and military capacity of the group, whose only serious combat force to date is the Maccabe unit composed of its special forces. Occasional joint operations between Congolese and Rwandan army units have happened as well, but were mostly not officially declared – such as most recently throughout the first half of 2019 in Rutshuru area.

Throughout the past months, clashes circled in around Kitchanga and Mweso, two major towns located just west of the FDLR’s and CMC’s strongholds. Finally, just two days ago, a major NDC–R troop movement was reported from Mweso/Kashuga area (Masisi) into Bukombo (Rutshuru). At the same time, other movements were reported into Bukombo area from units wearing FARDC uniforms. Today at 5am, Mudacumura was killed in Bwito-Monument. The event took place in presence of several other high-ranking FDLR commanders, two of which have been killed according to FARDC sources, while others may be on the run as combats have continued throughout the zone during the day. Media and observers have been in disagreement over whom has taken out Mudacumura. While some point at Guidon’s NDC–R, others have mentioned FARDC commando troops in a joint operation with Rwandan special forces. Given that the area is highly inaccessible, early affirmation are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Looking at historical operational dynamics in the area, however, it would not be surprising if all of this is true to a certain extent and various belligerents be involved either directly or indirectly in Mudacumura’s killing. It is not known, however, whether Mudacumura has been killed because he resisted arrest or whether this was the actual objective of the raid.

A couple of points are particularly striking: in dozens of attempts, this is the first successful not only in getting to Mudacumura but actually eliminating him. Secondly, if it weren’t for official confirmation and a few well-placed local sources, it may be impossible to authenticate Mudacumura’s killing – pictures used for his arrest warrant are all 20+ years old and he has been particularly successful not only in escaping arrest but also in camouflaging himself and his whereabouts. Third, he was wearing a Rwandan army uniform while killed, indicating that in its last unsuccessful raids into Rwanda, FDLR special forces may at least have pillaged a small army warehouse. Fourth, UN troops seem not to be involved in the operation.

In sum, whoever of all potentially participating forces carried out the actual killing, this represents another major blow to the FDLR. While subsequent military operations and pressure from Congolese armed groups have diminished the FDLR in size, territory and capabilities, the loss of key leaders – including convicted Ignace Murwanashyaka who died in a German prison earlier in 2019 – is not to be underestimated considering the group’s emphasis on bureaucratic and hierarchical structures (even after 20+ years based in Congolese forest, the FDLR keeps meticulous records on stockpiles, units, activities and internal commands). Mudacumura has been, until the end and despite his advanced age, the groups undisputed military leader even as younger commanders such as Pacifique Ntawunguka or Gaby Ruhinda had become more relevant in operational military affairs. Moreover, he has been a key ideological pillar inside the group, especially after the CNRD split that left the FDLR increasingly dominated by Mudacumura and interim president Victor Byiringiro.

Whether or not this is the end of the FDLR is difficult to tell. Relying on internal cohesion and ideology, the group has often managed to rebound and survive after previous blows. However, the loss of its evergreen leader certainly is a big piece to chew for the remaining leadership. Moreover, it is unlikely that self-declared FDLR enemies such as the NDC–R will suddenly stop their military campaign. On the other hand, the FDLR’s and CMC’s entrenched versatility in southern Bwito could also lead to a lengthy and protracted stand-off in the coming months.