“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.

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.