An estimated 70 militia groups are active in eastern DRC, with a spate of clashes in recent months. As the tally of displaced people rises, UN and government forces seem unable to shift the balance of power.
Storm clouds are gathering menacingly once more in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)'s troubled east, threatening to rain down more conflict and misery.
Sources in the United Nations (UN) mission in the DRC say that combatants of the Rwanda-backed anti-government Mouvement du 23 mars (M23) militia are circulating in the Nord-Kivu provincial capital of Goma but reckon they currently pose little threat. However, the government's often tense relationship with the UN could begin a new phase this year, with spillover effects for conflict in the Kivus.
M23 troops took control of Goma in 2012, but UN and Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) soldiers beat them back. At present, say UN sources, there is no indication that the Rwandan government is interested in offering its support to a fresh armed insurgency.
Instead, the Rwandan government appears far more concerned about developments in Burundi, where the government accuses Kigali of giving succour to, and arming, an anti-government militia that aims to topple Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza.
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has denied the claims, but stories circulate nonetheless in Rwanda of Burundian refugee camps where there are no young men,the likely reason being that they have been whisked off to military training camps, as has happened for years to young men from camps of Nord-Kivu Tutsi refugees in Rwanda.
The Congo Research Group, a think tank, reckons that at least 70 armed groups are active in eastern DRC and that around 1.6 million people are displaced in Nord- and Sud-Kivu. There has been a spate of clashes in recent months in the north of Nord-Kivu near the town of Lubero, where militias drawn from Nande and Hutu communities have been attacking villagers, resulting in few casualties but significant displacement. The UN mission and community leaders say that politicians are manipulating the violence.
There has been continued violence too around Beni, to the north of Lubero, which the FARDC and, initially, UN forces have habitually blamed on the Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF), a militia reported to be fighting for an Islamic government in neighbouring Uganda.
Research and analysis by the UN Group of Experts, which the UN's DRC mission now seems to agree with, suggests that the real reason for much of the fighting around Beni is ethnic factionalism within the FARDC, again mostly pitting Hutus against the Nande.
The UN peacekeeping mission and the FARDC are in theory conducting joint operations against the ADF. In practice, say insiders, they work "in parallel". "They do their thing", explains one UN source, "and we do ours."
In early February, the UN and the FARDC announced the resumption of joint operations against the pro-Hutu Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). The FARDC suspended joint operations in 2014 in protest at UN complaints about the presence of two FARDC commanders previously implicated in serious human-rights abuses.
New mission commander
The FDLR is a shadow of its former self. It counts fewer than 2,000 combatants, according to most estimates, but has nonetheless retained a fighting capacity.
In late December, the UN mission appointed a new force commander, Lieutenant General Derrick Mbuyiselo Mgwebi, a South African. Two months earlier, Maman Sidikou of Niger was appointed the new political head of the UN mission. Sidikou took office in January but has so far kept a low profile, in marked contrast to his predecessor, the Twitter-obsessed Martin Kobler, who now heads up the UN's Libya mission.
Sidikou has been well received by both UN and government senior staff but he faces a new crisis, as Kinshasa requested in March that the number of blue helmets be cut in half to 10,000 by the end of the year. ●