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.
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).
As we have consistantly said, those who are corrupt, commit violations of human rights, or disrupt the democratic process should be held accountable. https://t.co/CVZXtfDarY
— Mike “Nzita” Hammer (@USAmbDRC) February 27, 2020
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”.