Divisions between Tshisekedists and Kabilists Paralyze the State in Eastern DRC

In Kanyaruchinya, near Goma, July 15, 2013. (Monusco Photo by Sylvain Liechti)

The division between President Felix Tshisekedi’s camp and that of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, prevents, for the time being, the adoption of a coherent strategy to stabilize eastern DRC.

By Pierre Boisselet, Coordinator of the Kivu Security Tracker.

2127 civilians killed, 1450 abducted, 938 kidnapped… The Kivu Security Tracker (KST) recorded record-high deaths, abductions, and kidnappings for ransom during the first twenty months of Félix Tshisekedi’s presidency. This toll is even heavier than that of the last 20 months of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila (1553 civilians killed).

The difference is due mainly to the resurgence of killings perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)– the very one that President Félix Tshisekedi had promised to “definitively exterminate” during a “final offensive” in October 2019.

In order to fulfill this promise, and, more broadly, to eliminate all foreign armed groups present in the Kivus, the Congolese president first attempted to set up a regional military coalition. He organized several meetings in Goma with neighboring countries’ armies’ chiefs of staff in September and October 2019.

Already at that time, Joseph Kabila’s political coalition, the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), opposed this project. And the deep divisions between Rwanda on the one hand, and Uganda and Burundi on the other, as well as the opposition of a large part of Congolese public opinion, finally killed the project.

But on October 31, 2019, the FARDC, most of whose generals were appointed during Kabila’s time, launched a unilateral offensive. MONUSCO, which had not been involved in the planning, did not participate.

One year later, results on the ground are sorely lacking. Despite the announced reconquest of certain ADF strongholds, the operation has largely failed to put this Islamist group out of action. In fact, the ADF has committed far greater massacres since the beginning of the offensive (more than 640 civilians killed in attacks attributed to the ADF in the past year, compared to 195 the year before). On the ground, the FARDC offensive is now largely at a standstill. The Congolese military seems to have become the target in this conflict: of the eight clashes between the FARDC and ADF recorded by the KST in August, for example, the ADF were the initiators in seven cases. “When the president wanted to launch this offensive, the generals accepted it because it allowed them to get the funding that went with it,” a senior FCC official commented to the KST “but they never really believed in it.”

This offensive against the ADF illustrates, among other things, the lack of a coherent, coordinated strategy among the various Congolese and international political leaders to stabilize eastern DRC. Félix Tshisekedi’s rise to power has not, for the moment, made it possible to remedy this.

In Kinshasa, a multitude of Congolese institutions play a role in the politics of the country’s east. However, these institutions are divided between the coalition of the president and that of his predecessor. The Minister of Defense, Aimé Ngoy Mukena, is close to Joseph Kabila. But the Deputy Minister of Defense, Sylvain Mutombo Kabinga, is a fierce supporter of Tshisekedi, as is the Minister of the Interior, Gilbert Kankonde. The National Monitoring Mechanism of the Addis Ababa Agreement (MNS), which is expected to publish a roadmap for stabilizing the country, is headed by Claude Ibalanky. Ibalanky, a close associate of Tshisekedi, comes from the diaspora and does not have extensive experience dealing with conflict dynamics in eastern DRC. “We do not know who is in control” a European diplomatic source revealed in an interview with the KST. In his speech to the nation on October 23, President Tshisekedi cited “issues relating to peace and national security” as the main reason why there are “differences that persist between parties” to the ruling coalition.

Indeed, not all personalities playing a role in the east are pulling in the same direction. This has been evident of late in the “hauts plateaux” (highlands) of South Kivu, where a conflict pitted several militias from the Fuliru, Bembe, Nyindu, and Vira communities against those from the Banyamulenge community. This conflict, which has gone through repeated cycles of violence for several decades, has resumed with renewed vigor since Tshisekedi’s presidency: the main belligerents (Mai-Mai René, Ebu Ela, Biloze Bishambuke, Twirwaneho, Gumino and Makanika) have killed at least 81 civilians in the past year, a sharp increase over the previous year (35 killed), according to KST figures.

In August, Tommy Thambwe Rudima, a former member of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) rebellion, traveled to the highlands to try to defuse the conflict. He is affiliated with the NGO Interpeace, and apparently also held a presidential mandate, which a source in the head of state’s office confirmed to the KST. However, at the MNS, a source interviewed by the KST said that he was unaware of this mission, and even went so far as to suggest that Thambwe Rudima was probably an imposter.

Then, in mid-September, Tshisekedist Deputy Minister of Defense Sylvain Mutombo traveled to Murhesa, near Bukavu, to participate in talks between armed groups organized by the NGOs Search for Common Ground (SFCG) and the Initiative for a Cohesive Leadership (ILC). This initiative was funded by the governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, but was criticized by other donors and many sources in MONUSCO as being premature. Among the participants were representatives of the main belligerents in the highlands who eventually signed a very fragile ceasefire on September 16.

During the following days, relative calm prevailed in the region. But on September 28, Defense Minister Aimé Ngoy Mukena and Decentralization Minister Azarias Ruberwa, both FCC members, traveled to Minembwe to participate in the official induction of Gad Mukiza, a Munyamulenge, as mayor of the rural commune. This ceremony, held at a time when other local entities in South Kivu were still waiting for their administrative status to be formalized, was perceived as a provocation by a large part of the Congolese public. As a result, Félix Tshisekedi himself visited Goma on  October 8, promising to “cancel what has been done” in Minembwe. Since October 19, violent clashes have resumed in the highlands.

The rivalry between Tshisekedi coalition’s Cap pour le changement (CACH) and the FCC is also evident – and deleterious – in the development of a new Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program. While many of the armed groups in eastern DRC justified their struggle as being against Joseph Kabila’s presidency, Felix Tshisekedi’s term in office has sparked a real wave of voluntary demobilizations since the beginning of the year. Most of these combatants found themselves in cantonment camps. However, due to a lack of resources allocated to these camps, particularly food, most of them fled and returned to the bush.

With bitter memories of previous DDR programs, which they considered to be ineffective and non-transparent, donors did not release the funding that was hoped for for “DDR 3.” “The state was not fulfilling its part of the contract, which was to feed the cantoned combatants,” explained a source close to the dossier.

Félix Tshisekedi has therefore promoted a new approach: so-called “community-based” DDR. This was initially launched by governors of South and North Kivu, as well as Ituri, and is coordinated by Clovis Munihire, under the acronym “CIAP-DDRRRC”: Commission interprovinciale d’appui au processus de désarmement, démobilisation, réinsertion, reintegration et réconciliations communautaires. Its promoters want to change DDR methods, for example by avoiding the problematic DDR stage of confinement in military camps. The idea would now be for them to remain in their communities of origin. This approach also rules out any collective reintegration of combatants into the FARDC.

After having raised a certain amount of skepticism among the DRC’s main donors and MONUSCO, the project now seems to have the consent of the majority from this group. Most western ambassadors supported the new approach after a meeting with the president on October 22, where no FCC minister was present.

In fact, the president’s camp is hampered by the presence of people close to Kabila in key positions. Until now, DDR programs have been coordinated by the Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for Eastern DRC (STAREC), the Congolese agency that is supposed to implement these programs with the international community. It is also this structure that controls the donor-funded Stabilization Coherence Fund (SCF).

STAREC is coordinated by Alain Kasindi, a man reputed to be close to Néhémie Mwilanya, the National Coordinator of the FCC, and is placed under the authority of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Planning, Elysée Munembwe, who is also from the FCC.

According to a source related to the case, the Tshisekedi camp sees STAREC as a tool to capture funds for the benefit of the FCC. According to a UN source, the president intends to create a new structure, attached to the presidency, which would allow him, among other things, to control STAREC. Thus, in Goma the president announced the forthcoming appointment of a National Coordinator for community DDR.

The issue of funding for these projects, however, remains unresolved. During his visit to Goma, the president announced that $50 million would be allocated to DDR. According to a source at the World Bank, however, this money was not intended to finance DDR-C, but the “Social Fund for the DRC” to support communities affected by violence. Faced with a fait accompli, however, the Bank finally announced “a dedicated stabilization project to support the governors’ initiative in the east,” the parameters of which have yet to be defined.

In addition, the DRC is eligible for new funding under the World Bank’s Prevention and Resilience (PRA) allocation. This funding, provided by European diplomatic sources, totals $700 million. However, the Congolese government must meet several conditions in order to release these funds, including the publication of a comprehensive strategy for stabilizing the country. To date, the World Bank believes that the Congolese government has not met this condition.

“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.