After the Death of at Least 77 Civilians, the Congolese Army’s Strategy Against the ADF is Called into Question

A Congolese army soldier in North Kivu in 2012. (MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti)

This blog post was updated on Monday, November 25, 2019, to reflect the killing of 8 more people in Beni, bringing the death count to 77.

“Are we next?” This is the dreaded question that haunts the sleepless nights of the inhabitants of Beni territory. Over the last two weeks, there has almost not been a night without civilian massacres, in the Grand Nord of North Kivu. Ten people killed in Kokola on November 5, 15 in Mbau the following week, 20 in Mavete and Beni on November 19… In all, Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has logged the deaths of 77 civilians in abuses carried out by Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Over such a short period, such numbers have been unheard of since the wave of killings at the end of 2014, in which 345 people were killed in three months in Beni territory.

All such abuses occurred on the road between Beni town and Eringeti, the most used trunk road in the region. From these towns, you can hear, at a distance, the heavy artillery shelling by the Congolese army of the Uganda-based Islamist rebellion’s positions. However, it is neighbors who are found dead in the early hours of the morning, in most cases killed by stabbing.

According to the Congolese army, however, the “large offensive” launched on October 30 against the ADF has all the hallmarks of success. In announcements largely taken up by Congolese media in the absence of alternative sources, it has reported significant progress in the “triangle of death,” between Eringeti, Mbau and Kamango. If credible, the ADF camps of Vemba, Kadou, Kididiwe, Karwamba, Mabeto, Mayangose, Bahari, Chochota, and Mapobu have been recaptured. 

KST has in fact been able to confirm that some of these have been captured, including Mapobu, one of the rebellion’s main bases (see the above map), in offensives that have cost the lives of 19 Congolese soldiers. Also credible is the death of one of the ADF’s leaders, named “Mzee wa Kazi” by the Congolese army. An analysis of the three different photos of his remains obtained by KST reveals that in reality this is Nasser Abdu Hamid Diiru, Deputy Mwalika Camp Commander

Organigram from the Congo Research Group report “Inside the ADF” of November 2018.

Are such advances the sign of a future military victory? One indicator in particular raises doubt about the effective weakening of the ADF: the number of combatants killed. KST has only been able to confirm the death of 7 ADF combatants. Some photos of the taking of Mapobu show  four additional bodies. The head of operations, General Jacques Nduru Chaligonza (in French), announced on November 8 that his men had killed 25 enemy combatants. However, since then the FARDC has refused to provide a complete list.     

Regardless of the source, the casualties reported by the ADF appear relatively small in number. In their last report, UN experts estimated that this rebellion had between 790 and 1060 soldiers at its disposal, spread over their various camps.

“The enemy is carrying out delaying combat actions: they engage a few combatants every time and seek only to slow down our progress to allow the core of their forces to flee,” admitted a Congolese army officer. 

According to this source, the purpose of the ADF attacks against civilians was to push back the FARDC towards urban areas and to divert it from its objectives. “However, we have understood their strategy,” the source stated. “That’s why we are continuing our advances towards the interior.” The target of the FARDC is the main ADF camp: the “Madina complex.”

Map from the UN Group of Experts on the DRC report of June 2019.

In the eventuality that this base is captured, would it mean the end of the ADF? In previous offensives, such as that of 2014, the FARDC had managed to capture it. However, the territory had not been occupied permanently and the rebels had managed to recapture their strongholds and rebuild their capacity. There is no evidence that things would be different this time. “Our strategy is different,” claimed the Congolese army officer. “Once we have conquered our targets, we’re going to build up our presence and occupy the area.”    

Will the FARDC be able to sustain such an effort in the long term? Some military sources have announced that substantial resources have been implemented, putting forward an unverifiable figure of 22,000 soldiers present on the front. This seems doubtful, however, given the reported casualties. In the past, several FARDC offensives ended due to a lack of funding. It is unclear whether the Congolese state can do better this time, based on public finances. At the end of September, only 3.3 billion dollars had been raised for the state budget, against 4.3 announced at the time (in French). And Kinshasa has other costly priorities, such as the rollout of free primary education (in French).     

In this context, accusations of complicity with the ADF are rife. In the past, authorities in Kinshasa have regularly accused local authorities of collusion with the rebellion. However, in the view of the former minister of Foreign Affairs, Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi, still influential in the region, the issue lies rather with the Congolese army’s senior commanders. “No offensive will succeed as long as these men, whose misdemeanors have been brought to light many times, are still in place,” he stated to KST. This opponent had aligned himself with President Félix Tshisekedi last May (in French) and called for the appointment of certain officers to operational command against the ADF, without success (in French). He has since distanced himself from the presidency: he indicated that he has not returned to the country since August.   

In any case, the toll in civilian lives has made the operation difficult to sustain in the long term. If there were to be further massacres, Congolese public opinion could cease to support the main offensive announced by Félix Tshisekedi in the east of the country. Sporadic demonstrations have occurred in Beni, Butembo, Oicha, and Kasindi. The citizen movement Lucha, who had assisted the FARDC on November 9 (in French), are now demonstrating to call for security measures in favor of the population, such as in Oicha on November 20. North Kivu deputies, who had called for this operation on November 4 (in French), now describe themselves as “deeply worried” by how the situation is evolving (in French)

“In fact, this operation had not been prepared,” complained one of them. “It was only launched to satisfy the president who had committed to bringing peace in the east of the country. Some military chiefs never really believed in it themselves.”

President Félix Tshisekedi had publicly announced, on October 10, the imminent start of the “last” offensive against the ADF that would “definitively exterminate them.” To do so, he tried to obtain foreign support, notably from Uganda. He even more broadly attempted to constitute a regional coalition against armed groups in the east, with the creation of an integrated Chiefs of Staff in Goma.

These efforts failed in the face of mistrust between Kigali and Kampala: on October 25, Uganda refused to associate itself with this initiative. Félix Tshisekedi did discuss this problem again with Yoweri Museveni on November 9 in Kampala. Officially, the two men agreed “to work together” against “the negative forces which hold sway in the east of the DRC.” “However, we are aware of no indications that, on the ground, Uganda is assisting the FARDC in this operation,” claimed a MONUSCO official.   

The FARDC are therefore alone on the front. Especially since MONUSCO has not joined in the offensive either. It has only provided occasional support in the form of reconnaissance flights and evacuation of the injured (in French) – some twenty FARDC soldiers have been evacuated to date, according to a UN source.

MONUSCO has also had difficulty in carrying out its mission to protect the civilian population, one of the two main priorities of its mandate (in French). “We’re trying to establish 24/7 patrols, as well as roadblocks to filter movements of people,” explained one of the officials. “But it’s very difficult to monitor individuals who move at night with cold weapons. It even seems that the ADF are using networks already established in towns.”   

The Islamist rebellion has in fact been present in the region since 1995 and has developed strong ties with some local communities. And in turn it seems to have carefully prepared for the FARDC offensive. In September and October, KST observed an upswing in ADF attacks against FARDC positions, with the possible aim of intimidating them and recovering their weapons.

“We have also noticed movements towards Tshabi in the province of Ituri, which would suggest that the ADF have put their wives and children out of harm’s way,” added a UN source. During some of their attacks, the rebels have also targeted specific communities, such as the pygmies, whose members are sometimes employed as trackers for the Congolese army. A prominent family in Oicha was also massacred.

At this price, the Congolese army will perhaps be able to conquer the last ADF strongholds. Maybe this is its objective. It would allow those in power to show some results. A complete victory over the ADF, on the other hand, seems doubtful without a change of strategy.

[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.