In early January 2015 joint operations between UN combat troops and Congolese soldiers against rebels who refused to disarm in eastern DRC were announced, repeatedly, as being imminent. The Congolese army – the FARDC – and MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) shared “a high level of preparedness and team spirit,” according to MONUSCO head Martin Kobler, who described operations against the FDLR as “upcoming”. In the meantime, the UN became unexpectedly sidelined and unilateral military operations against the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) began with the Congolese army attacking rebel positions in South Kivu from February 24, and in North Kivu from February 26.
A Bumpy road towards military operations
From early on, a series of obstacles obstructed the planning of joint military operations. The Rwandan FDLR rebels failed to respond to a six-month deadline for voluntary demobilisation by January 2. International envoys considered the approximately 300 surrendered combatants and smaller stockpiles of arms and ammunition as insufficient to demonstrate effective demobilisation.
Shortly after the deadline passed, MONUSCO’s leadership declared that offensive military operations would follow suit. However, observers and diplomats warned against hoping that success would come quickly, claiming that dismantling the FDLR would be a much tougher challenge than M23 (an armed group defeated in November 2013 by the FARDC and the FIB). FDLR representatives in turn repeatedly underlined that they were not seeking to engage in armed confrontation. One of their leaders stated, off the record, that they “will disperse and hide in the Kivus’ vast forest panoplies” in case of an attack.
On January 29, the FARDC’s chief of staff, Didier Etumba, presented a new operational plan to tackle the militia. As opposed to earlier preparations, this plan did not include the FIB, MONUSCO’s segment tasked with “˜neutralising armed groups’. Instead, the FARDC is to deploy three regiments, only relying on MONUSCO for logistics and supply. The surprising side-lining of the FIB has three potential explanations: either the FARDC is not interested in winning the battle, or conversely it wants to defeat the FDLR on its own, or third, this represents a symptom of the government’s larger discontent with the UN mission.
At the same time, the FARDC’s latest reshuffle in North Kivu saw the appointment of General Fall Sikabwe as the new head of the 34th Military Region in Goma and General Bruno Mandevu – Operational Commander for “˜Sukola II’ (as the anti-FDLR operation is called). Both appear on a red list curated by MONUSCO’s Joint Human Rights Office to monitor abuses by the FARDC.
These announcements have cemented long-looming tensions between Kinshasa and the UN. Senior MONUSCO officials reacted with disappointment. Leading mission staff commented that the situation was causing “a major headache” and it was like “opening a door without knowing what is behind”. Subsequently, the UN demanded that the DRC government replace the commanders in question as a pre-condition for any type of support. The Congolese government though, rejected concomitant concerns in a government communiqué. On February 15, President Kabila warned diplomats and UN officials against meddling in domestic affairs such as army appointments. It remains unclear, however, whether the nominations are meant to obstruct joint FARDC-MONUSCO operations.
Trading responsibility – a game of political chess
MONUSCO’s intermittent retreat from supporting anti-FDLR operations has sparked a wave of criticism against the UN’s peace-enforcement agenda. While observers endorsed the mission’s tough stance on human rights, others suspect that this is a welcome excuse for the UN to disengage from dismantling the militias. It also raises an important question concerning the future of offensive peacekeeping. In a few weeks, the FIB’s mandate is to be renewed by the Security Council.
The Congolese army and government have a long history of aiding and abetting the FDLR and its predecessor groups. Kinshasa’s political landscape is notoriously divergent on the issue. While some feel that Kigali should negotiate with the FDLR – as Kinshasa did with M23 – others agree that a military campaign against the DRC’s most longstanding rebel threat would be justified. A third faction however, is against dismantling the FDLR as long as it can serve as a tool to balance threats with the DRC’s neighbours. The propagators of this scenario remember the FDLR as a close ally during the wars between 1998 and 2003.
Within the MONUSCO–FARDC strategy, a few variables remain unsolved. Several senior FARDC officers told IRIN that despite their general esteem for MONUSCO’s human rights monitoring, they were puzzled to hear about General Mandevu being red-listed. An expert on Lubero, where the FDLR maintains key positions, he is known for his hard stance against the Rwandan militia.
So far, no details on Mandevu’s alleged abuses have been published. MONUSCO’s human rights due diligence is, according to Baptiste Martin writing in Conflict Trends “Known as the Conditionality Policy [with] regular screening of commanders of the army or police units requesting or receiving support. Commanders reasonably suspected of having committed serious violations, either directly or on their watch, will have support denied or suspended.” Critics claim that the vetting lacks precision and recently in Ituri MONUSCO has worked with Sikabwe through a waiver.
After refusing to respond to the UN’s call and replace the commanders, communication minister Lambert Mende recently invited MONUSCO, “to carry out its own operations”. Some FARDC officers in turn, as an analyst noted under condition of anonymity, “were expressing their reservations about the idea that they would be sent to fight without the support of MONUSCO, especially in regard to logistics”.
Military capacity of the FDLR & humanitarian consequences
In the meantime, FARDC soldiers have been redeployed from western Rutshuru territory and northern Masisi into the FDLR’s heartlands in North Kivu. In South Kivu, the FARDC launched attacks aimed at the residual FDLR units in the highlands of Uvira territory from February 24. From Lemera, the Congolese army advanced westwards under the command of the Deputy Provincial Commander General, Esperant Masudi. The UN is not involved.
Weeks before the current manoeuvres, local sources already indicated increased movement among FDLR units. The group, reduced to less than 1500 combatants, is anxious. Its main leaders are divided: FDLR chief Sylvestre Mudacumura, Operational Commander Pacifique Ntawuguka (Omega) and President, Victor Byiringiro (Rumuli), stand for divergent ideologies and factions. The militia’s South Kivu units have been isolated since 2013. Religious indoctrination and a tight hierarchical command seem to be the only thing holding the rebel outfit together.
Tensions between Kinshasa and the UN, and the ensuing political chess game around the incipient offensive, diverted attention from humanitarian aspects, such as potential displacement and contingency planning. “Large-scale operations will trigger a rise of IDP numbers”, a Congolese researcher pointed out. This adds to concerns by observers and aid organisations, raising the danger of “increased displacement in areas which are already overwhelmed by the needs of displaced people on a massive scale.”
Adding to the scepticism, the UN’s current side-lining in operational terms is reminiscent of earlier anti-FDLR operations Umoja Wetu and Kimia II, where peacekeepers had been reduced to logistical support with limited oversight. According to one Congo analyst, this “doesn’t mean the FARDC will automatically misbehave, but the historical precedent suggests there would be reason to worry.”