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.

Who’s Stealing the FARDC’s money?

On the afternoon of February 20, the green Congolese army jeep was speeding along National Road 2, between Goma and Rutshuru-center. In the jeep were seven FARDC soldiers and some precious cargo: the wages of the 3416th regiment. Over 100,000 USD in cash.

But as it approached the village of Rwaza, the convoy was brought to an abrupt halt. “The attackers had blocked the road and positioned themselves to stop the arrival of reinforcements,” explained a FARDC officer in his office at the 34th Military Region’s headquarters in Goma. “When the jeep arrived, any retreat was effectively blocked off. None of the passengers survived. It was the work of professionals.”

Is it conceivable that such an ambush could take place without collusion from within the army? An investigation has since been launched by the military prosecutor’s office. But the Sukola-2 operational sector spokesperson, Major Guillaume Ndjike, has already accused the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR-Foca). In his view, they are the main enemy forces operating in the area.

However, data analysis by the Kivu Security Tracker (KST) suggests that Rwaza has not been part of the area of operations of this group for at least six months. The areas surrounding the village have, however, been impacted by incidents involving the FARDC and the Nyatura FDP (Forces de défense du peuple) militia, who are allied with the FDLR.

The red star indicates where the ambush took place on February 20, and the colored dots show the incidents recorded by the KST over the previous six months.

Whatever the case may be, the attackers vanished into the Virunga National Park with their loot. All that remained was the soldiers’ resentment, deprived as they were of their meagre salary. This feeling of resentment was violently expressed in the hours and days that followed: FARDC soldiers retaliated indiscriminately, killing four civilians – all from the Hutu community – between February 20 and 23 according to information collected by the KST.

At the 34th Military Region, no one refutes that civilians were killed around the same time as the ambush. But, according to one officer, these were collateral victims of crossfire.

However, the incident is nevertheless a source of embarrassment. Especially as this is the second time in less than a month that soldiers have protested and called for what is rightfully theirs in Rutshuru territory (North Kivu). The last time, it was in Nyanzale on January 27, after soldiers of the 3407th regiment accused their commanding officer of misappropriating part of their food rations. Soldiers had “gone on strike,” shooting into the air and refusing to intervene during a kidnapping. This attitude so annoyed local inhabitants that a “ghost town” (ville morte) day was declared on January 28. Four people, suspected of being kidnappers, were lynched by the mob. However, the army also denies that there was any cause for concern there. “The commanding officer did not misappropriate anything,” explained Major Ndjike. “He simply took some welcome and practical steps: the frozen fish destined for soldiers was going to rot before it could be delivered to this remote area. He therefore decided to sell the fish in order to buy some meat in its place. Only one soldier complained and fired a shot at one of his friends. He was arrested.”

Such eye-opening events are in fact only the visible part of a much larger phenomenon: the chronic inability of the FARDC to pay a decent and regular wage to its soldiers. Often what is at stake are methods for misappropriation and fraud, where some of the cash destined to pay troops is misappropriated by commanders, or where commanders fraudulently claim troop numbers well in excess of reality, to embezzle the wages of fictional soldiers.

The use of such methods – and particularly inflating troop numbers – has been widespread since the FARDC was created in 2003. At the end of the Second Congo War, this army was created by bringing together the troops of several warring parties after the signing of the Sun City Agreement: the Congolese Armed Forces (FAC), the Congolese Rally for Democracy/Liberation Movement (RCD/ML) and National (RCD/N), the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) and the Mai-Mai groups (in French). Each party found it advantageous to artificially increase the number of its combatants, to exaggerate its troop numbers – and its capacity to misappropriate. An assessment carried out by South Africa in 2004 estimated that between 30% to 50% of the new FARDC troops were fictitious.

Despite efforts to improve the system, including by deploying a biometric census and separating the payment chain from the command chain with the support of the European Union (EUSEC) from 2005, problems have remained. Successive waves of integrating rebels, sometimes in haste, such as the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) in 2009, have added to the ongoing confusion and inflation of troop numbers. In 2011, the regimentation process (the restructuring of the Congolese army from brigades into regiments) which aimed to remove fictitious troops, again revealed the scale of the problem. For example, in the province of South-Kivu, the official recorded troop count of 35,000 was re-evaluated at less than 16,000.

In 2012, the government of Prime Minister Matata Ponyo attempted to put an end to the misappropriation of wages by using the banking system to pay soldiers’ wages directly into a bank account rather than through their commanding officers.

Although this system, still used today, did prevent some embezzlement and improved the timeliness of payments, other problems remain. First, not all regiments have access to this system. Those which were created recently, or those based in remote areas far from any bank branches, can still opt to be paid in cash. This is the case for the 3416th Regiment, which explains that their wages, physically transported, were able to be stolen in an ambush.

Second, commanders may be tempted to hide their losses to keep control of the wages of dead (“ghost”) soldiers or deserters. “Using the banking system to pay soldiers’ wages directly into their bank accounts, which in theory prevents this practice, is sometimes subverted because commanders can fabricate powers of attorney to withdraw the money,” explains a source who for many years worked for one the banks used by the FARDC. “Widows regularly complain that their deceased husbands’ wages have been withdrawn without them knowing who made the withdrawal.”

Lastly, only wages are paid directly into bank accounts. The various bonuses are still paid in cash. And they quickly add up: operational funds, funds for provisioning during operations, command responsibility bonus, special intelligence funds, funds for conducting operations, funds for healthcare and funerals, funds for provisioning… In her thesis, published in 2015, the researcher Judith Verweijen listed seven different types of bonuses, which provide as many opportunities to embezzle. In total, these funds represent a greater amount of money than the wages of soldiers themselves.

This issue is therefore vital for Félix Tshisekedi, who has set his sights on improving the living conditions of soldiers to increase his popularity within the army, with whom he had little contact before becoming president.

Also, the former head of military intelligence, Delphin Kahimbi, on January 9, during an operation against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), had warned that “dissatisfaction” was “insidiously growing” in the ranks of the FARDC, “due to non-payment of bonuses and other funds (FP, FHF, etc.) for nearly three months, exacerbating to some extent the precariousness of their living conditions” in a leaked letter (in French).

Is this evidence of a cause and effect relationship? An increase of ten USD per month came into effect in January 2020. According to a source at the Ministry of Finance of North Kivu, soldiers with the lowest incomes are now paid 156,000 Congolese Francs per month, or 92 USD.

However, for such measures to have an impact – and allow Félix Tshisekedi to gain an upper hand in his power struggle with Joseph Kabila (in French) – this money still needs to get to its recipients.

In this regard, steps have been taken since the last presidential elections. The 2020 Finance Law lists approximately 205,000 “base salaries of regular staff” for “military, police and security” compared with 221,000 the previous year, which suggests troop number lists have been cleaned up.

Also, military hearings have been conducted in recent years on the issue of misappropriation of funds. This was the case of General Fall Sikabwe, Commander of the 3rd FARDC Defense Zone (in French), who was called to Kinshasa to be questioned on suspicions of misappropriation of funds – a relatively rare event at this level of the military hierarchy.

President Félix Tshisekedi also appears to be pressured to take this approach by the United States, a “strategic partner for peace and prosperity” of the DR Congo. On February 27, the US Ambassador, Mike Hammer, tweeted: “As we have consistantly (sic) said, those who are corrupt, commit violations of human rights, or disrupt the democratic process should be held accountable,” in reaction to the news that General Delphin Kahimbi had been suspended as military intelligence chief (in French).

However, will these hearings and warnings suffice to remediate the way the FARDC handles its money? Judith Verweijen has misgivings. “The issue of embezzlement of wages is only a small part of a vast system of generating revenue within the army,” she explains. “Commanders generate considerably more income by means of trafficking or illicit taxation, at roadblocks or mining sites. And they have to give some of this income to the senior military staff who appointed them. This system is therefore deeply entrenched at all levels and I am not convinced that increasing soldiers’ wages is enough for it to stop”.

Photo: 401kcalculator.org

[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.