Congo: military reshuffle signals a political landscape in motion – By Kris Berwouts

KrisBerwoutsIn September 2014, the Congolese government carried out a reorganization  of its armed forces (FARDC). Congo is a huge country covering many local realities, each of which has its own threats, balance of power, conflict potential and economic assets. The Congolese officers in question are individuals who have been trained in military schools or whose experience is the result of the years which they served in rebel movements, defending or attacking the nation. Many have, over the years, made a serious attempt to provide some rule of law, but many others are notorious violators of human rights considered by many Congolese citizens as being as much a part of the problem as the solution.

All of the officers grew up in a context where bad governance had sunk to such low levels that we had to invent new words such as ‘kleptocracy’ and ‘auto-cannibalism’ to describe Mobutu’s state – a heritage which has proved very difficult to leave behind.

The army remains a colourful  mélange after several waves of integration, each time a new phase of the armed conflict was concluded with another unworkable peace agreement. The challenge to transforming the FARDC into a truly unified, disciplined, transparent and competent institution remains a priority.

The Metamorphosis of 2013

The metamorphosis of the FARDC in 2013, which lead to victory in the war against M23, was a significant event in the fortunes of the current government. This metamorphosis started two days after the fall of Goma on November 20, 2012, when Major-General Gabriel Amisi was replaced as Chief Commander of the Congolese land forces by Lieutenant-General Francois Olenga. Amisi, better known under his nom de guerre “˜Tango Fort’, had gained a bad reputation because he had made a fortune using his position for large-scale corruption and illicit exploitation of minerals. He also committed serious  human rights abuses, including involvement in the Kisangani massacre in May 2002. The UN Group of Experts on the DRC reported that General Amisi had been responsible for selling weapons and ammunition to rebels and criminal groups.

A second important step towards victory was when in February 2013, 1o3 commanding officers were called back from the east to Kinshasa on the pretext of a military seminar and kept there. All of them were considered to be much more involved in business activities around the army than in military operations and many were suspected of lacking loyalty to the national cause.

The replacement of General Mayala by General Bahuma as Commander of the military region that covers North Kivu was also very important. This laid the foundations for the military victory in November 2013.

Since then, the two officers who facilitated that victory have died. Colonel Mamadou Ndala was killed during a military operation in January 2014, and General Bahuma died last August. The September reshuffle not only brought back Amisi and Mayala in to key positions in the army (Amisi becomes commander of the Defense Zone which covers Kinshasa, Equateur, Bas-Congo and Bandundu, and Mayala is now second in line in the land forces), but many of the 103 who were kept in Kinshasa since February, have been redeployed in different positions accross the country (except North Kivu).

Congo has not been able to capitalise on the momentum of the military victory to consolidate the 2013 metamorphosis.

Old Wine in New Barrels

The most striking thing about the reshuffle is that the army has a new structure. The ten military regions (basically covering the different provinces) have been regrouped in to three defense zones. The fact that the newly created Defense Zones go beyond the provincial borders should stimulate faster decision making, less ad-hoc strategic planning and more efficient deployments.

This more centralized and streamlined structure is a rational decision. But Congo seems to have missed the opportunity to overcome some of the lingering diseases its army continues to suffer from. We have already mentioned Mayala, but we also see, for instance, the promotion of Jean-Claude Kifwa, a notoriously corrupt officer who has enriched himself through the ivory and gold trade, protected by his friendship and family ties with President Kabila. He will lead the second Defense Zone covering Katanga and the two Kasais.

In the same way that bad governance is not tackled, neither is impunity. Many generals with very poor records on human rights have been appointed or kept in key positions.

Another element of continuity is the survival of General Didier Etumba in his position of Chef d’Etat Major Général of the FARDC, commanding the army, the navy and the air force, as well as the three Defense Zones. He has been in this position for many years but in moments of crisis he has never given the impression of effective strategic or decisive leadership.

A Fragile Balance

Congo may have an unstable period ahead. Recently, armed groups intensified their activities in the east – it is unclear what will happen with the FDLR now that their voluntary disarmament is losing its credibility, and there are reports of re-emerging M23 forces (these are based on rumour rather than fact). But most of all, the several possible scenarios associated with the 2016 elections are occupying minds in Kinshasa and elsewhere.

Kabila will have difficulty keeping all the antagonistic forces within his patronage networks satisfied. Together, they make up his regime, but they are in permanent internal competition. He needs them all. Politically, Kabila is walking on egg-shells, and this is one of the main reasons why, one year after he announced it, he has not managed to install a new government.

The army reshuffle has served Kabila’s home province of Katanga well with General Banze elevated to Chief of Staff of the land forces, General Mbala becoming Etumba’s deputy and General Kifwa leading the second Defense zone. Many of the Katangans in top positions are Balubakat; Kabila’s own community. Relations with “˜his own’ people are sensitive, especially after the incidents caused by followers of the self-declared prophet Mukungubila on December 30th 2013, which functioned as the Katangan community expressing its worries about the position of the Balubakat in the Presidential firmament. This reshuffle should not give them any reason to complain.

A particularly delicate dimension is the space foreseen for Kinyarwanda-speaking officers, since the integration of former rebel groups such as RCD and CNDP in to the national army. General Bisengimana is already Chief of the National Police and now the Rwandaphone community has obtained some interesting positions in the army. General Rwabasira Obed becomes a Deputy Chief of Staff of the land forces and the Rwandaphone community now  provides the commander for two military regions.

South Kivu is traditionally another regime stronghold. This was the case at least until Kabila’s former right hand man, Vital Kamerhe, chose to run his own race as an opposition leader. But South Kivu still holds important positions in the army. Two generals who are known as good soldiers are worth mentioning: Delphin Kahimbi  becomes the general commander in charge of Security and Intelligence (DEMIAP) and Prosper Nyabiolwa, an icon in Bukavu, becomes Deputy Chief of Staff in Charge of Operations.

General Pacifique Masunzu is an interesting case; a munyamulenge who joined the RCD in 1998 but decided at an early stage of the war that he did not want to fight for a Rwandan agenda. He left the RCD and fought side by side with patriotic Mai Mai groups. After the war, he became an important element in the regime’s strategy to build confidence with the Banyamulenge.

Masunzu was commander of the military region of South Kivu for many years and has now been sent to Katanga as the new commander of the Kamina military base.  It remains to be seen what the impact will be of his departure in a province which remains vulnerable, as the Mutarule massacre recently made clear.

Strengthening the fortress?

Some observers are considering the reshuffle as a proactive reinforcement of Kabila’s control over potentially troubled areas, such as Kinshasa, the Bas-Congo and Tshisekedi’s Kasai provinces.  By putting these provinces in Defense Zones controlled by generals who have the President’s full confidence, this may be an indication that the the regime anticipates unrest related to the forthcoming electoral cycle. However, I tend to agree with Christoph Vogel when he suggests that this view is somewhat premature.

We know how much the international community dislikes the idea that Kabila will try to extend his presidency beyond its constitutional limit of 2016, but we also know that Congo’s partners are aware how narrow their leverage is. By appointsing generals such as Tango Fort and Jean-Claude Kifwa, who are widely seen as obstacles on the road to a unified, efficient and disciplined army,Kabila is making it clear that pleasing the international community is not among his priorities.

An Empty chair

There are three other important issues I would like to mention:

General Olenga is no longer involved in military operations. He will now lead the president’s military cabinet. There is a lot of speculation on the question of whether this will increase or decrease his influence. The fact that he will no longer be directly involved in the operations might be compensated by a higher involvement in strategic issues and his direct access to the president. This move might also be the logical consequence of his advancing age (65).

One crucial figure who has not appeared on the list is John Numbi who used to be one of the key people in the president’s inner circle. He played an important role in the violent suppression of the BDK unrest in the Bas-Congo in 2008 and was in charge of the Umoja Wetu campaign. He was suspended after the assassination of human rights activist Floribert Chebeya in June 2010, but remained influential in the wings. It is likley that at some point he will be rehabilitated (which many expected to occurr in this reshuffle).

And finally there is the empty chair: General Banze has led the Garde Républicaine for many years but now has been promoted Commander of the land forces. Many observers see this as Kabila’s reward for a loyal soldier and fellow mulubakat. So far, he has not been replaced at the Garde Républicaine. The GR is a distinct unit within the army which falls directly under Kabila’s authority and as such is a capstone of the regime and Kabila’s personal security. The fact that Kabila, at a time when he is having difficulty reconfiguring the power balance of his regime, has not managed to appoint a new commander in this most crucial position, is a point worthy of further discussiion. That is unless Kabila wants Banze to combine both top jobs – making him by far the most influential person in the armed forces.

Kris Berwouts has, over the last 25 years, worked for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Until 2012, he was the Director of EurAc, the network of European NGOs working for advocacy on Central Africa. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa.

This article has been written with the support of the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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