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DRC: Tshisekedi takes a gamble on security in North Kivu and Ituri

By Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala
Posted on Friday, 7 May 2021 18:59

An Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) soldier walks along a road after Islamist rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) attacked area around Mukoko village
A FARDC soldier walks along a road after rebels from the ADF attacked area around Mukoko village, North Kivu province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

As the political storm begins to subside, DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi has launched a vast military operation that aims to “totally eradicate insecurity” in eastern DRC. However, his strategy raises many concerns.

As of 6 May, the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, whose populations have been subjected to attacks by violent armed groups, will come under military control.

Civilian authorities and governments in these provinces will be replaced by officers from the army and national police. In addition, military courts will replace civilian bodies. These measures, which are radical to say the least, were decreed by DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi as part of the state of siege that he decided to establish in these two battered provinces and which are in force for a renewable period of 30 days.

  • General Luboya Nkashama — a former member of the RCD Goma, a Rwandan-backed rebel movement that once controlled the province – has taken over as governor of North Kivu;
  • Divisional commissioner Alonga Boni Benjamin has become its deputy governor;
  • General Constant Ndima Kongba — a former member of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Mouvement de Libération du Congo, which was formerly supported by Uganda —  has been appointed governor of Ituri. He will be assisted by divisional commissioner Ekuka Lipopo.

A counterproductive solution?

“No Congolese worthy of the name should remain indifferent,” said the head of state in a televised address on 3 May. Eastern DRC has become “the point of implosion of rebel movements and armed groups, the point of entry of foreign negative forces, which sow desolation there.”

The army is more of a problem than a solution in the DRC, and this will remain the case as long as it is not thoroughly reformed. -Jean-Jacques Wondo, security analyst

The state of the situation is, in fact, dire. Since November 2019, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in the Beni territory (located in North Kivu) alone, in attacks attributed to the Forces Démocratiques Alliées (ADF), a group that recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Since 2017, in the provinces of Ituri, North and South Kivu (only North Kivu is affected by the state of siege), violence has claimed 4,592 lives, according to the Kivu Security Tracker (KST).

But will the measures introduced be enough? Is there not a risk, as some experts fear, that the level of violence may increase in these regions where animosity between armed groups and regular forces is so great?

According to security analyst Jean-Jacques Wondo, the answer to these questions is obvious.

“The army is more of a problem than a solution in the DRC, and this will remain the case as long as it is not thoroughly reformed,” says the Congolese researcher who heads the think tank Défense et Sécurité du Congo (DESC, specialised in military issues).

“Entrusting the military with the administration of these provinces that have been ravaged by systemic and pandemic insecurity is a bit like putting the cart before the horse, given the state of structural and functional decay in which the Congolese army is in today and the failure of its current command.”

The Congolese president, who had promised in April 2019 during a visit to Beni and Goma to “definitively put an end to the ADF rebellion and all other armed groups”, knows that his possible re-election in 2023 will depend, in particular, on whether he manages to control the security issue in eastern DRC.

In a region where more than 122 armed groups are active and where displaced persons and refugees number in the millions, anger is growing. Since the end of April, hundreds of young people have laid siege to Beni’s town hall to demand more action from Tshisekedi. To no avail, so far.

International efforts

The head of state is working to involve the DRC’s neighbours and even, more broadly, international partners. Tshisekedi has thus been engaged for several months in discussions with his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame with the aim of defining a common strategy.

At the end of March, during a high-level meeting attended by François Beya, Tshisekedi’s “security officer”, and Jean Bosco Kazura, the chief of general staff of the Forces de Défense Rwandaises (RDF), the security officials of the two countries agreed to draw up an operational plan to carry out joint military action against certain rebel groups.

The DRC’s head of state had pledged, at the end of his first year in office, to restore ties with Rwanda, despite the rancour and tension between the two countries.

More recently, on 21 April, following a face-to-face meeting with his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta, Tshisekedi promised that “those who sow terror” would be the target of a “merciless response.”

The two heads of state then announced the imminent arrival of Kenyan troops in the DRC. Tshisekedi had promised “to support our armed forces in alleviating this problem of terrorism and conflict in the eastern part of the country in the most effective way possible,” by deploying Congolese soldiers “in the weeks to come.”

Seven days later, on 27 April, he travelled to Paris to ask French President Emmanuel Macron for assistance. “I am more determined than ever to eradicate it, and I am counting on France’s support,” said Tshisekedi on the steps of the Élysée Palace.

Business and failures

It appears that Thisekedi decided to implement a state of siege in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri in order to achieve the objectives that he had set himself on 24 January 2019, when he was officially sworn into office. However, this initiative was met with mixed reactions from civil society.

Although the Association Congolaise pour l’Accès à la Justice (Acaj) certainly welcomed the head of state’s announcement, it demanded that the Parliament adopt “as a matter of urgency” a law regulating this state of siege, in order “to prevent abuses.”

For its part, the citizen movement Lutte pour le Changement (Lucha) has clearly expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the measure and has asked the President to postpone it in favour of establishing a tripartite dialogue between the government, Monusco and the population. Lucha has stated that the issues that need to be addressed urgently include the “issue of criminal or business officers” and that of “soldiers who have been on duty for too long”.

The latest report by the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) confirms the fears of those who believe that abuses have been occurring. Last March, the UN expressed concern about a “sharp increase in the number of [human rights] violations attributable to members of the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (+127%), particularly in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Tanganyika.”

“In North Kivu and Ituri, several analyses and reports by international experts have proven that the members of the Defence and Security Forces cause more security problems than they solve. And ironically, President Tshisekedi has decided to entrust the administration of these two provinces to the leaders of this army,” says Wondo, who is worried that “a carte blanche [is] being given to the military, who will be able [to commit abuses] under cover of legality.”

In addition to the lack of resources and the failure of part of the military hierarchy, the expert points to “complicity within the army, the passivity of troops in combat and the collusion between certain army and security service officers with the militias of their communities of origin.”

A too extensive state of siege?

In Ituri, the Forces Armées de la RDC (FARDC) are currently conducting two operations.

  • The first, Zaruba ya Ituri (“storm of Ituri” in Swahili), was launched in June 2019 and aims to “disable” the militias operating in the province.
  • The second is to secure the RN27, which links the country to Uganda. It began in April 2020 and is being carried out jointly by the FARDC and the men of the Congolese National Police (PNC).

In North Kivu, the FARDC has been conducting large-scale military offensives since 31 October 2019, following on from Operation Sokola 1, which was launched in January 2014 in the Beni region against the ADF rebels, and Sokola 2, which targets the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). However, while these interventions initially achieved some success, the situation quickly became bogged down to the point where it now seems out of control.

“This is not the right strategy,” says a former governor of one of the eastern regions, speaking on condition of anonymity. According to him, “for the action to be effective, Félix Tshisekedi should establish a state of siege in circumscribed regions, specific areas, especially in Beni.”

The same is true in Ituri, where “some areas are at peace.” There is no doubt in his mind that “the military have advised a state of siege throughout the provinces to make money and they are going to make sure that it lasts a very long time.”

The army’s spokesman Léon-Richard Kasonga attempted to counter this criticism at a press conference on 4 May. The operations carried out under the state of siege will be “within the framework of the orders issued by the President of the Republic”, he said, adding that the military were “being accused of violence without any evidence. The main thing is to protect and preserve the integrity of the territory,” he added.

“It has been 20 years since we last tried to resolve the problem. We haven’t tried a state of siege. There will be no more excuses,” said Patrick Muyaya, the government’s spokesman. “This is a moment when the government and the army will have all the means. Even if we have to use half the budget to finish this war, we will do it!”

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