After a period of apparent quiet in the Grand North – the area that runs down from the Rwenzori Mountains to the bottom of Lake Edward and into Virunga National Park – insecurity is making the headlines again with reports of attacks, kidnappings and people fleeing villages around Oicha. This has been blamed on the ADF rebel group which has a leadership of radical Islamic Ugandans.
Last January the Congolese army, FARDC, launched Operation Sukola against the ADF after a high-profile victory against M23 near Goma. Prior to this MONUSCO had been preparing to take on the rebels by scoping logistics, organising awareness programmes in various towns and villages and intelligence activities. The sudden launch of Sukola forced their hand before these activities were completed.
A very high-level diplomatic source told me that in Kinshasa it was presented as a ‘fait accompli’ along the lines of: “you take the FDLR we’ll take the ADF.”
I warned at the time that any purely military campaign against the ADF risked the probability that many of the local fighters would just melt back into the communities from whence they came. In Beni this was evident from the beginning of the military operation.
Only recently, three families consisting of about 30 people were arrested in Beni town and accused of being connected to the ADF. Weapons and home-made bombs were allegedly found which were put on display to the public along with the defendants.
Another four combatants captured by the army were also recently exhibited to journalists although they have yet to face any trial. The parading of captives and former hostages has been elevated from public reassurance to a form of political posturing that defies all the ethical considerations enshrined in the Geneva Convention.
Prior to Operation Sukola the levels of insecurity in the region were extreme, international organisations had long ceased to operate except in a very limited form through local partners and kidnappings were a growth industry. Thus a wave of new-found patriotism swept Beni and despite the murder of Colonel Mamadou Ndala, the operation had local support.
The operation also saw a clampdown on the media – local journalists were bullied and harassed and ‘exclusive’ access was mostly granted only for highly glossed reports that came via a relative of the governor of North Kivu.
One local journalist, Germain Kennedy Muliwawo, who did manage to go out on a patrol, was killed in an ambush by the rebels.
The army lost around 300 soldiers with over 400 wounded and claimed to have killed over 500 ADF combatants. While the troop figures are probably more or less correct, the number of dead combatants has been disputed both locally and by the Group of Experts. Either way, everyone agrees that the ADF command-and-control remains intact.
But it is not all bad news and Sukola certainly had an effect on the ADF as long standing operational bases were attacked and dismantled and the rebels were forced further and further back into the bush in widely dispersed groups.
Security around Kamango and Eringeti improved considerably and local people from Mbau and Oicha breathed a sigh of relief.
Then suddenly, during the last few weeks, nine people were killed in a spate of attacks and kidnappings around Oicha. This caused the flight of approximately 90,000 people who ended up sheltering in schools, churches and houses in Beni and Butembo.
Thanks to over-zealous security rules imposed by foreign NGOs, humanitarian assistance was nowhere to be seen and as always local NGOs and Beni Territory administrators coped alone.
New attacks in Ngadi near the military airport at Mavivi have also been attributed to the ADF without raising questions. Ngadi was the place where Colonel Mamadou was murdered and the victims came from the village which was home to witnesses in the court case which is being held right now.
This was accompanied by shrill civil society press releases, repeated by the media without question, that the ADF was responsible. This is highly unlikely and emphasises the dangers of focusing on rebel groups as discrete entities.
First of all, despite not being paid for the last three months, FARDC is still continuing with Operation Sukola. General Leon Mushale, commander of the Third Region, recently came to Beni to assess the security situation.
On top of this, military security while stretched across a huge area and suffering that came from national changes recently imposed by Kinshasa, is still very strong.
The Tanzanians from the Force Intervention Brigade are highly visible on the roads between Mbau and Komango. The ADF are deep in the forests far from both Eringeti and Oicha.
But what is also visible in Oicha are the large groups of unemployed young men hanging around aimlessly with little or nothing to do. These young men are the fodder for the fragmented local Mai Mai groups that are often formed by disgruntled ex-soldiers and manipulated by local politicians.
Sometimes these groups of young men organise to protect their villages but too often economic necessity and the entangled politics of the region suck them into the networks of militias that shift and change sometimes on a weekly basis.
All the hallmarks are present, including the type of weapons used – machetes – that indicate it was one of these networked Mai Mai groups that has been responsible for the recent attacks. They operate between Lubero and Rwenzori and right across the Grand North. They function as a call-out service for local politicians, bigger Mai Mai groups and local gangsters.
In the last few nights there has been fierce fighting between FARDC and Mai Mai in the Samboko area which is near all locations of the recent attacks.
Hilaire Kombi is a leader of one of these groups and while he is currently going through the disarmament process, many of the militia that operated with him are still running rackets across Beni and Lubero. At various times they’ve linked up with others including Mai Mai Morgan and splinter groups of the ever-present Lafontaine.
The over-emphasis on the ADF not only results in these networks being overlooked but also masks the way that both the ADF and other militias operate in the community. The divisions between them are porous, shift all the time and sometimes cross national borders.
While the ADF has a very solid nucleus that operates according to its own self-defined Tablighi influenced vision, like a set of Russian dolls it is highly compartmentalised. This enables the rebels to maintain a multi-level network that provides it with sources of finance and support that extend to the transnational.
Despite having a Command Group that operates outside the DR Congo, for over 25 years the ADF has been locally embedded and a provider of employment via its various semi-legitimate business operations.
While we know the ADF shifted a gear in the last few years into a hardened, well-financed and regulated outfit, these local businesses – taxis, shops and so on – continued. This is where the logic of a military solution collapses.
Meanwhile, the return of the displaced villagers has been hampered by a shortage of incoming funds into the bank in Beni and a petrol drought attributed to a strike that has seen prices rocket to $5 a litre.
Local NGOs have made representations to FEC – Congolese Federation of Enterprises – requesting that the all-powerful ‘petrol dons’ withdraw their strike action in order to enable transport for those that wish to return to their homes.
The only people able to access cash from the bank have been local elites and the unpaid soldiers have resorted to eating the crops that were grown by the ADF before they were chased away. This is how soldiers end up disturbing communities.
Failure to understand the ADF and the broader landscape within which it operates has meant that past opportunities for surrender and amnesty were blocked and political solutions to the complex currents of instability in the Grand North ignored.
The ADF is a well-run and supported rebel group which is still active – but not anywhere near Oicha. There are many interests at stake in the region which are bypassed both by Kinshasa and other actors whether for political expediency or otherwise.
Like a many-headed hydra these failures will continue to stalk both Congo and Uganda as instability is used as a political and economic tool. Oil extraction on the borders just adds to the mix.
The security situation in the region is highly fragile. Despite a call from Beni civil society groups for a strike to demand action against these new attacks high-profile military operations will not repair that fragility.
Caroline Hellyer is a freelance journalist, political analyst and conflict media trainer @digitaldjeli