Does the New Disarmament and Demobilization Program Stand a Chance of Success? 

Collected firearms for destruction in Goma (North Kivu) in November 2013 (Photo MONUSCO/South African Battalion).

By Reagan El Miviri, Analyst at the Kivu Security Tracker, and Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator at the Kivu Security Tracker.

In early August, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi appointed a national coordinator to head the new Disarmament, Demobilization, Community Reintegration and Stabilization Program (P-DDRCS). This type of program seems vital to place eastern DRC on the road to peace. However, all previous DDR attempts have largely failed. Will this time prove any different?

On August 7, 2021, President Tshisekedi appointed Emmanuel Tommy Tambwe Rudima to the position of National Coordinator of the new Disarmament, Demobilization, Community Reintegration and Stabilization Program (P-DDRCS), established one month earlier.

This announcement had been expected for months, even years. Since the failure of the third “Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration” program in eastern DRC (DDR3) with a planned 2015 launch, but which was never effectively implemented, the country had been without a program of this kind. In December 2019, the UN Security Council had already “called upon” the Congolese government to “appoint a senior coordinator to address Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration.” 

This type of program is therefore vital for progress on the path to peace in eastern DRC.

Why is a DDR Program Needed?

The largely military approaches, encouraged by Félix Tshisekedi since his arrival as president in January 2019, have still not resulted in the expected outcomes. At times, they have even worsened the situation, such as the “large-scale” offensive launched against the ADF at the end of October 2019, and which was followed by a wave of civilian killings, unprecedented since that of 2014-15.

The “state of siege” implemented in the provinces of Ituri and of North Kivu from May 6 this year, has not had the expected results either to date. This has in essence consisted of the transfer of large swathes of civil jurisdiction over to military or police governors, administrators and mayors. But civilian killings have continued since it came into being: at least 723 civilians have been killed by armed actors the North Kivu and Ituri since May 6 (cross-checks are still ongoing concerning the further killings occurring during this period). The ADF, the deadliest of the 122 armed groups listed by the KST in eastern DRC, are behind most of the killings (they are implicated in the deaths of at least 396 civilians). In recent months, its sphere of action has shifted towards the territories of Irumu and Mambasa in Ituri province. The armed forces and police are themselves implicated in the deaths of at 65 civilians.

As a result, the state of siege, which had the near-unanimous support of the political class at its launch at the end of April, is now facing criticism. Pointing to the lack of results and demanding that the minister of defense come before them to explain the situation, 90 national members of parliament boycotted the vote to prolong the state of siege on August 3.

In this context, could the new P-DDRCS or Disarmament, Demobilization, Community Reintegration and Stabilization Program bring peace to eastern DRC?

The negotiations entered into in recent months, between the FARDC and the armed groups of the Petit Nord (the territories of Nyiragongo, Rutshuru, Masisi, Walikale, and the south of that of Lubero), have resulted in surrenders. However, none of the main militia heads has, until now, handed himself in to the authorities, which makes such progress reversible. Also, previous surrenders show that such advances are rarely long-lasting without a properly funded and organized DDR program, which provides real support for combatants. Former combatants of the Nduma Defense of Congo-Rénové (NDC-R), billeted in Rumangabo (Rutshuru territory, North Kivu), have. for instance, carried out multiple lootings of the surrounding villages, such as on May 25 this year. Many of those who have surrendered have also returned to the bush and rejoined their armed group. Additionally, in the absence of a DDR program to replace them, most attempts at creating peace and mediation agreements in recent years have never got off the ground.

Since 2003, at least three DDR programs have been launched nationally, without any decisive progress. A significant number of the current members of armed groups have gone through such DDR programs before taking up arms again in a movement of “circular return” and a “recycling of rebels.”

Does this new DDRCS program have any chance of success when the previous ones have failed?

A Controversial New Coordinator

Initial reactions to the appointment of Tommy Tambwe to the position of national coordinator have not been very encouraging. His profile as a former senior member of the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD, of which he was Vice-President of South Kivu, in particular) and a leader of the Alliance for the Liberation of Eastern Congo (ALEC), both rebel movements backed by Rwanda, have caused hostility from members of civil society. Dr Denis Mukwege, a Nobel Prize winner, shared his “caution” and believed that “it was time to break with policies whose aim was to give promotions to those who should be brought to justice. In a press release, the NGO Human Rights Watch (co-founder of KST) opined that this appointment raises “serious concerns.”

Regarding armed groups, the news was hardly better received. The Collective of Movements for Change (CMC), one of the main militia coalitions in the Petit Nord and, as such, one of the significant targets of the P-DDRCS, declared their hostility to Mr. Tambwe who they describe as a “puppet” and “mercenary of the foreign invaders of our country.”

In South Kivu, Tommy Tambwe’s province, this appointment also seems to be problematic. Civil society organizations as diverse as the Solidarité des jeunes fuliiru (SOJEF) and the Banyamulenge Mutual Societies Coordination Committee have denounced his selection as the head of the P-DDRCS.

The new P-DDRCS National Coordinator rejects such criticism. During an interview with KST in Kinshasa on September 1, he promised that, as from his first trip to eastern DRC, his delegation would “improve the living conditions of those who had already surrendered,” and that “many new combatants would surrender and be welcomed.” This trip was to have taken him to the provinces of “Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu, Tanganyika and Maniema.”

Will the Donors Support the New Program?

Another challenge is to convince the donors to back the program. Tommy Tambwe has stated that the Congolese state will contribute its own funds to this program. “We have recovered 1.1 million USD from the budget lines of the STAREC and PN-DDRC,” [two institutions replaced by the P-DDRC], he specified to KST. “This would be used to become operational immediately but is insufficient. We are currently in talks with the executive to find further funds from the already approved 2021 budget. And we will also develop the budget for 2022.”

The level of state support therefore remains to be defined. There are justified fears that it remains insufficient without the help of foreign donors. DDR3 in particular had failed on that issue: potential funders, chastened by the suspicions of corruption and misappropriation of funds in previous programs, had believed that the necessary guarantees had not been forthcoming.

Does the international community have a positive view, at this point, of the new P-DDRCSy? Upon the presentation of the idea of a community DDR by the governors of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri in October 2020, the Ambassadors of the European Union, United States, Great Britain and Canada had expressed their support.

However, an initial hitch occurred during the publication of the ruling establishing the P-DDRCS on July 4. A Western diplomat questioned by KST was unpleasantly surprised to discover that the structure of the program allocates less decision-making to the three regions the most affected by insecurity than he expected. He fears that centralizing the program jeopardizes its effectiveness.

Tommy Tambwe’s profile has also raised concerns in Western diplomatic circles in Kinshasa; such concerns have been strengthened by the reaction of civil society and armed groups. However, no foreign country has publicly criticized his appointment, leaving the door open for collaboration. According to a source close to the program, funders will not try to change the President’s mind on the subject of his appointment. It remains to be seen, however, whether they are willing to fund the program.

On August 24, in Kinshasa, Tommy Tambwe met with eight diplomatic delegations (those of the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and of several of its member states, in particular). Several sources who took part in this meeting have indicated that it went rather well: delegations had the feeling that their concerns had been taken on board by the new P-DDRCS Coordinator and his team. It is expected that they will be invited to join the steering committee.

But not all issues have been solved. According to a source at the World Bank, it has already rejected the idea of directly funding the P-DDRCS. This doesn’t mean that no funding will be provided for projects within the framework of this program, but the Bank – and all the diplomats in communication with KST – appear to want to avoid funding the national structure as such. In the long term this could cause problems by weakening the capacity of the P-DDRCS to administer its entire program, in particular with carrying out tasks such as the identification and monitoring of demobilized combatants. These funders however have not ruled out providing technical support to the program, along with MONUSCO, which has also undertaken to support the new program.

Which Strategy Should be Adopted? 

For the P-DDRCS to work, it also needs a strategy capable of having learnt from previous failures.

It has a few arguments in its favor. Firstly, the political context has changed compared with previous programs: after 18 years of Joseph Kabila’s reign, the rise to the head of the country of a president who has not taken part in armed conflicts in the last 20 years is a window of opportunity to convince armed groups to lay down their weapons.

The struggle against Joseph Kabila’s regime had long been the corner stone of the armed groups’ leader’s justification for taking up arms. Ever since the arrival of President Félix Tshisekedi in January 2019, several groups (in French) had spontaneously expressed the wish to join a DDR process to “serve” the country.

Also, if we were to wonder about the relevance of the state of siege in fighting against insecurity in the east, this is a measure of the will of the government to do something about this issue. As underlined by the government’s spokesperson in a Débat Africain podcast, the state of siege banks on its psychological effect: it shows the government’s commitment to put an end to armed group activities in the provinces concerned.

Another advantage of the P-DDRCS is that it is the fruit of the merging of STAREC and the National DDR Program, two institutions which were previously under two different ministries (Planning as regards the STAREC and Defense as regards the PN-DDR), which led to redundancies and conflicting competences.

However, who conducts security policies in eastern DRC has not been entirely clarified. This remains split between the P-DDRCS, under the presidency, the Ministry of Defense, led by Gilbert Kabanda, and the National Oversight Mechanism (NMS) of the Addis Ababa Framework Agreement, led by Claude Ibalanky.

Lastly, there remains the task of implementing a clear and convincing strategy. This program’s vocation is to be community-oriented. This is itself an interesting idea. In “Untangling the Gordian knot of insecurity”, the Rift Valley Institute proposed that in 2013 the previous program had been insufficiently community-oriented. The authors noted that by only targeting combatants, the DDR had undermined reconciliation efforts since “the communities that they return to had the impression that those who had taken up arms were being rewarded by giving them money and professional training.

During his first trip to eastern DRC, Tommy Tambwe plans to “implement in each province “Consultation Frameworks for Peace Program Support” (CCAPs) with the authorities, civil society, customary chiefs, religious confessions, tribal mutual societies, NGOs, youth, women, etc.,” he told KST. “We do not want people to come and say afterwards that they had not taken part in the process,” he added.

“However, the strategy itself remains to be developed along with MONUSCO specialists,” he clarified.

The Dilemma Posed by Reintegration

This strategy will invariably collide with the social reintegration of combatants into communities and the issue of their possible integration into the armed forces.

Providing economic alternatives to former combatants is an essential part of reintegration into the community. However, such alternatives should be fit-for-purpose. In the past, reintegration programs led former combatants towards ill-adapted activities (work in mills, hairdressing, etc.), since they didn’t have the skills required to take on such roles.

Also, the ruling establishing the DDRCS specifies that integration into the armed forces will only be possible on an individual basis. This is a means of rejecting collective integrations, which have occurred in the past. Such military integration is seen as a red line by the international community and by civil society, as it perpetuates the cycle of violence and impunity by incentivizing the taking up of arms to eventually benefit from this type of program.

However, this intransigence may well be difficult to apply, particularly for the armed groups which have already started a demobilization process. This is the case, for instance, of the Union of Patriots for the Liberation of Congo (UPLC) or the Patriotic Resistance Front of Ituri (FRPI), which have received the promise that its members will be integrated into the army, along with recognition of their ranks. This is the basis upon which they accepted to remain billeted in camps. The hope of amnesty and integration into the FARDC is also often one the main motives for armed groups to surrender. According to some reports, the historic head of the Nduma Defense of Congo-Rénové (NDC-R), Guidon Shimiray, has recently proposed this type of condition prior to considering his surrender.

The new leaders of the P-DDRCS are faced with multiple challenges: convincing skeptical funders of their ability to develop an effective program; lead it to its successful implementation; and breaking with past practices whilst finding a way of motivating combatants to surrender. This will be no small challenge.

Why were the Virunga National Park Rangers Killed?

Two Virunga National Park Rangers gaze upon the lava of Nyiragongo crater. MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh

In the heart of the forest, Mikeno Lodge, and its spacious bungalows, is the most luxurious accommodation in the Virunga National Park, located in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fireside drinks of Champagne are served in the evening. During the day, visitors can meet orphan chimpanzees, brought up by the park rangers, and visit mountain gorillas in their natural environment. Virunga Park is one of the few in the world to host this critically endangered emblematic species.

On the morning of April 24, however, the lodge was empty due to the new coronavirus pandemic and tourism had been at a standstill for several weeks. But another scourge was about to strike.

Towards 11 o’clock, combat weapon shots suddenly tore through the forest calm. A few hundred meters from the bungalows, three vehicles, including two belonging to the rangers, had fallen into an ambush in Mahura. Half an hour of crossfire later, the death toll was horrific: 12 rangers, their driver and four civilians were dead. The Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) had never suffered such a heavy attack in Virunga Park.

Its rangers, however, were used to such danger. From Mount Rwenzori, which is often used to shelter the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF, a Uganda-based Islamist rebellion), to the Nyiragongo Volcano, overlooking the city of Goma, the 7,800 km2 Virunga National Park is regularly used by armed groups as their battlefield, smuggling route, or source of raw materials for looting.

This dangerous environment justified an arms race in the 2010s which led to the creation of the ICCN Quick Reaction Force (QRF), a paramilitary unit, sometimes deployed offensively, comprising 270 elite rangers (in French).  In this way, and as noble as their nature conservation mission may be, the rangers have in effect become actors caught up in the conflicts in the Kivus. The Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has recorded 28 clashes involving ICCN rangers since it started logging such incidents in 2017. This figure most likely only represents part of the true total.

The rangers often cooperate with the Congolese army in attacks which can cause collateral civilian damage, such as against the Mai-Mai Mazembe on May 23, 2019. “The park believes, rightly, that rangers are not legitimate targets under international humanitarian law, but the specific status of the QRF and the nature of their operations places them in a gray zone,” says Christoph Vogel, a researcher at the University of Ghent (Belgium) and former member of the UN Group of Experts on the DRC.

Furthermore, a long and complex conflict on the limits of the park’s boundaries has pitted them against some local communities. The park covers a quarter of the territories of Beni, Lubero, Masisi, Nyiragongo, and Rutshuru and deprives some farmers of access to land on which they are used to farming. This conflict is particularly acute in the region of Nyamilima, although the ICCN has recently authorized harvesting on a temporary basis from April 27 to July 26 to allow them to better cope with food scarcity caused by the pandemic (in French).

ICCN rangers therefore do not lack for enemies, especially its most feared unit, the QRF, which was decimated in the attack. On the same day, park authorities were able to publish several highly detailed statements on the circumstances surrounding the attack.

The first states that in fact it was a civilian vehicle which was targeted by the ambush. According to our information, this was a white Toyota Prado TX which was attacked with RPG rocket launchers and PKM machine guns. According to the statement, the assailants were reported to be none other than Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR-Foca).  More specifically, the assailants appeared to be approximately sixty combatants from the Maccabé group, formerly known as the Commando de recherche et d’action en profondeur (CRAP), an FDLR commando unit.

ICCN rangers, who happened to be passing by on the drive back to their headquarters in Rumangabo, were reported to be only the collateral damage of the ambush and only targeted because they tried to assist some civilians. The second version slightly amended the first statement, which only stated that a civilian vehicle in close proximity had been attacked before the arrival of the rangers.

So why would the FDLR possibly have carried out an attack on a civilian vehicle with combat weapons? Several diplomatic, university, and ICCN sources outlined the scenario to KST. According to them, the FDLR is reported to have received information that FARDC Colonel Claude Rusimbi, deputy commander of intelligence operations of the 3409th Regiment, was going to use that road, between Goma and Rutshuru, on the same morning. It may well be that the FDLR mistook the rangers for his escort.

The FDLR had cause to hold a personal grudge against Rusimbi. On April 13, one of their main strongholds in Kazahoro, a few kilometers from the attack, had been attacked in a major offensive by the Congolese army (in French). According to several military and diplomatic sources, Rwandan army (RDF) Special Forces had secretly participated in this attack. However, according to several military and university sources, Colonel Rusimbi is just one of the Congolese officers in charge of coordination with their Rwandan counterparts. The colonel was also aware that he was the target of the FDLR, according to a member of his entourage.

Whether it was targeted retaliation against Rusimbi or not, the responsibility of the FDLR seems highly probable. It fits with both the weapons used and the modus operandi of the armed group, as well as the area known for attacks by this group.

The attack against the Virunga Park Rangers (red star) is located in an area where the FDLR-Foca regularly carry out attacks (other colors: incidents in which they were implicated, since June 2017)

In addition to the ICCN, who holds the FDLR responsible for the ambush, President Paul Kagame also accused the armed group during a press conference on April 27 (37th minute).

The FDLR also had its own motivations for attacking the ICCN. These rebels regularly suspect the park rangers of collaborating with the Rwandan army to hunt them down. In addition, according to several reports by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, one of their main sources of funding is the sale and taxation of “makala,” or charcoal, produced by illegally burning trees from within the park. This effectively places them in conflict with the ICCN, including the QRF.

The FDLR have, however, put forward their own theory: according to them, the Rwandan army is responsible for the attack (in French). But this scenario appears convoluted: the ICCN is alleged to have knowingly lied, by wrongly accusing the FDLR so as to demonize them and justify, after the fact, the presence of the RDF on Congolese soil. Such a plot, involving several different actors, appears difficult to put together.

“The FDLR statement is totally disconnected from the reality of the facts,” claims an expert on this group. “It was only released to respond to the Rwandan authorities in the war they are waging in the media.”

“Members of the FDLR admit in private that they are behind this attack,” indicates Christoph Vogel. “According to them, this was a ‘mistake’ and they claim that their target was Rusimbi.”