Attacks in Beni, Congo: Behind the Violence – By Fidel Bafilemba and Jasper Kubasek
Since October 2014, communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s northeastern Beni territory have been terrorized by brutal killings that have claimed about 300 civilian lives. The attacks have been characterized not only by their magnitude, but also by their excessive brutality, including beheadings, mutilations, rape, and the targeting of women and young children. These events have disjointedly hit various news headlines, and there are various narratives examining the sequence of attacks spanning the past three months.
Two aspects of this crisis have yet to be thoroughly addressed by popular media, largely because of the uncertainty that still surrounds them. Who is really behind the slaughter of so many innocent civilians, and why are they perpetrating it? The Congolese government and several media outlets have quickly attributed the violence to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group that has been based in eastern DRC for nearly two decades. More than three months have passed since the attacks began, and the ADF have yet to claim any responsibility for any of the violence, though widely-held views that the ADF are playing some part remain.
In its most recent report, the UN Group of Experts acknowledges what appears to be a heterogeneous combination of perpetrators, but also expresses concern for the lack of understanding of what has motivated this violence. A more in-depth understanding of local political dynamics and structures in the area has the potential to add critical context to this unprecedented series of massacres.
Leadership in anti-ADF offensives and the relationship between FARDC and ADF
Revived military operations against the ADF set for the first quarter of 2014 were meant to be led by Colonel Mamadou Ndala, a Congolese military officer and local hero credited for his integral role in helping bring an end to the M23 rebellion. However, Ndala was assassinated on January 2nd, 2014, and the trials revolving around his tragic death culminated in a controversial verdict on November 16th, 2014 in Beni in the midst of the continued massacres. Congolese army (FARDC) Lieutenant Colonel Nzanzu Birotsho was found guilty of playing an essential role in assisting the ADF in assassinating Ndala, providing intelligence and supplies in exchange for money. Birotsho was the former head of military intelligence in North Kivu, and the verdict affirmed fears that there were corrupt ties between the FARDC and ADF at a high level.
Many local observers were disappointed by the trial and its verdict. Goma-based citizens’ youth movement, LUCHA, tweeted, “we expected truth and justice, but we got a cynical fabrication that they called a proceeding.” A Congolese civil society activist in Beni called the case “a total travesty of justice.” He said, “It’s impossible that Birotsho staged all this without his superiors knowing it. He’s just a scapegoat!”
The investigation into Ndala’s assassination was initially spurred by the death of Major General Lucien Bahuma, Ndala’s immediate senior commander, and the outcry that surrounded it. After Ndala was assassinated, Bahuma had taken the lead in anti-ADF operations. He led an aggressive and initially successful campaign against the ADF until his own unexpected death, reportedly of a stroke after falling ill in Uganda where he had been meeting with his Ugandan counterparts to assess the anti-ADF operations. The deaths of these two high-profile FARDC leaders in close succession prompted some to speculate that foul play was involved in both instances.
Bahuma’s replacement, General Akili Muhindo, aka as Mundos, was criticized for being passive in his role as leader of anti-ADF operations as these attacks seemed to become normality. Bendera Undelema, a traditional chief in Eringeti, went as far as to accuse Mundos of working with the ADF, “He’s playing both sides.” Meanwhile an expert who requested anonymity told AFP that since Bahuma’s death, “nothing [had] been done against the ADF-NALU.” Military spokesmen have denied such allegations.
There have been other aspects of the government’s response to the massacres in Beni that merit a concern that some elements of the FARDC have been collaborating with the perpetrators of the recent violence. In a number of these attacks, the reported death tolls have varied significantly from source to source. Congolese MP Daniel Kambale has claimed that, “the military doesn’t want us to give the real figure,” while an administrative official, who requested to remain anonymous, explained to AFP, “Provincial authorities and the military apply pressure to prevent publication of the real tolls to hide the reality and their incompetence.”
Following one of the more severe attacks that took place on November 20th, which resulted in a reported 50-100 people dead, government troops allegedly refused anyone, including relatives of victims, entrance into an area described as a mass grave site. According to a Human Rights Watch investigation of killings, the army sealed off the massacre site for several days from both civilian and UN peacekeepers.
The Human Rights Watch investigation also describes a number of instances during which FARDC troops were hesitant to react when called for help. One witness quoted in the report recalls an attack during which a woman and child pleaded with a group of soldiers to respond to an on-going massacre happening just 200 meters away. The soldiers remained idle.
Furthermore, according to UN officials, the FARDC resisted efforts by the UN to coordinate civilian protection, refused to allow them to accompany them on certain patrols, and on two occasions appeared to have led the UN to fake massacre sites instead of real ones. Such misdirection shows that there have been intentional decisions made by FARDC leadership to hinder transparency efforts and shun assistance in a time where both are desperately needed. That there is undoubtedly an incentive within the upper echelon of FARDC command to make these decisions is gravely concerning.
The mystery surrounding who is responsible for attacks has also prompted accusations from government officials against local citizens. The series of attacks, along with increasing unrest in the area prompted Lambert Mende, spokesperson of the Congolese government, to posit that it is not just the Ugandan rebels, but that, “…some Congolese people, at all levels, are implicated.” A prominent civil society activist in Beni, has claimed that the army has been involved in racketeering and selling uniforms to ADF; and witnesses have said that the perpetrators of the recent attacks were wearing FARDC uniforms.
Another theory circulating contends that the upsurge in violence may be linked to the large population of unemployed youth in Beni, highlighting that demographics’ vulnerability to manipulation by Mai-Mai groups and corrupt current or former soldiers. One article explains that the young men, “organize to protect their villages, but too often economic necessity and the entangled politics of the region suck them into the network of militias that shift and change sometimes on a weekly basis.”
Political tensions and economic incentives.
Increasing political tensions play a role in the theories of responsibility as well as the government’s response to the attacks. The region of Beni is one of DRC’s fiercest opposition strongholds, although North Kivu’s governor, Julien Paluku, broke away from the opposition party in 2011 and is now a strong ally of President Kabila. Paluku has made notable public statements about the violence of late. First, he said the ADF was intentionally attempting to pit the local population against the forces put in place to protect them, then shortly after publically blamed the RCD-KML opposition party, for inciting the massacres.
Paluku was propelled to the governorship of the North Kivu province in 2006 after being elected as a local MP on RDC-KML electoral list. He broke away from the party in 2011 to be the electoral campaign director in North Kivu province for President Joseph Kabila. Paluku has been publicly adamant in blaming Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi for the attacks, a long-time Ugandan ally who also happens to be his ethnic relative and former mentor. This accusation may have appeared in response to Nyamwisi’s earlier accusation that FARDC General Mundos was actually the one behind the massacres. Both sides expressed offense and denied the opponent’s accusations in public statements, here and here.
These political tensions are evident among the actions of the local population as well. In Beni, a statue of Nyamwisi’s older brother, Enoch Nyamwisi Muvingi, once stood looking out over Main Street. Likewise, a newer statue of Kabila stood in a nearby area. On November 2nd, a group of outraged young Congolese protestors taking a stand against the recent massacres ripped down the statue of Kabila. Five days later on November 7th, the statue of Muvingi was defaced during curfew hours. According to a Beni-based activist group that the Enough Project spoke to, the destruction of Enoch Nyamwisi Muvingi’s statue was a reprisal by the ruling majority. This sequence is quite symbolic of the heightened political tensions that now appear to be interwoven throughout the story of increasing violence.
Finally, as with the majority of conflict dynamics in eastern Congo, the control of natural resources – particularly minerals including gold – is a critical factor in Beni’s latest violence and political controversy. Conflict gold and illegal logging both have played significant roles in financing the ADF, providing revenues that feed back into mafia networks both in DRC and in Uganda. A large percentage of that gold is traded through Uganda and the United Arab Emirates, according to multiple UN Group of Experts reports. The regions of Beni and Butembo are significant hubs for these illicit activities.
As noted above, armed groups’ involvement in illicit trade in Beni is not a new phenomenon. In October of 2013, the Enough Project found that during the M23 rebellion, M23 commander Sultani Makenga had worked to build alliances with armed groups and businessmen throughout the Beni and Lubero territories. Former FARDC Major Hilaire Kombi had proven to be a lucrative and strategic ally for the M23 in this regard. As it turns out, Major Kombi eventually deserted the Congolese army in June 2012 with the support of the very same Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi mentioned above.
Recalling the trial examining Mamadou Ndala’s death, it is also valuable to note that Major Kombi was a friend and ally of Colonel Birotsho, both of them having been mentored by Mbusa Nyamwisi. While Kombi himself is now in the midst of the disarmament process, many of the armed combatants he colluded with still run racketeering operation throughout the region.
As political tensions have increased, key figures of the majority party such as the Mayor of Beni, Nyonyi Bwanakawa, Governor Julien Paluku, electoral commission chairman Apollinaire Malu Malu, and archbishop Melchisedech Sikuli have reportedly become increasingly hostile towards opposition members, including Mbusa Nyamwisi. Rather blatantly, Paluku replaced local opposition chiefs with new ones from his own ruling majority party on November 12th, legitimizing the change with claims that the prior chiefs had been collaborating with the ADF.
Furthermore, the Congolese intelligence agency ANR has made numerous high profile arrests in relation to the massacres, sometimes flying the accused to Kinshasa. Commonalities among these high profile individuals have been belonging to the political opposition and holding a position of economic power. Congolese human rights activists have told the Enough Project that many have been arrested simply for belonging to the wrong party, expressing fear that the trend will extend to Butembo, another stronghold of the opposition.
Speaking to Deutsche Welle about the massacres, parliamentary deputy Claudel Lubaya asked, “If they [the ADF] are a Ugandan group, then why do they never attack the Ugandan state, but always target Congolese institutions and in particular the Congolese population instead?” The complex and volatile dynamics of the region have created a situation in which various players could gain or lose significant political and economic power pending on what truth underlies these massacres.
The notions that corrupt players, government, military, or otherwise, may have employed the ADF or other armed groups to create a potentially beneficial destabilization of the region is conceivable. Given the enormous potential for increasing their control over the resource-rich region by complying, ADF, or some combination of armed groups, could be agreeable to such a partnership.
In late October 2014 a parliamentary report determined that the “enemy [is] unidentified, although it might loosely be described as ADF.” On December 20th, at the conclusion of the social dialogue for peace and security in Beni, the president of civil society in North Kivu, Thomas D’Aquin Muiti, described the perpetrators as a hybrid of ADF, lost local children and infiltrators and traitors among the FARDC. While progress has slowly been made to uncover the truth of these horrible attacks, the specific identities of the perpetrators remain unclear.
Transparent investigations must transform these vague accusations into names and evidence. For the sake of the victims, their communities, and the security of the region, accountability must replace impunity. Furthermore, a brief examination of these dynamics suggests that the truth is far more complex than a single armed group working alone – a complexity that stands to add to the potential for political fallout and the growing tension between citizens and their governors.
Fidel Bafilemba is based in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, as an Enough Project field researcher. He has a long history of working in human rights and education.
After graduating from Wesleyan University, Jasper Kubasek was an Enough Project Policy Intern focusing on conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.