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A “Deal with the Devil” in the Heart of the Great Lakes
A “Deal with the Devil” in the Heart of the Great Lakes
Opposition supporters gather under a billboard of Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) leader Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo before a rally organised by political opposition parties in Kinshasa on July 31, 2016. Eduardo Soteras / AFP
Briefing 140 / Africa

DR Congo: The Bemba Earthquake

The ICC’s acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba comes at a critical point in DR Congo elections. President Kabila and his opponents will have to recalibrate strategies ahead of Bemba’s likely return. Outside powers should keep pressing Kabila to stand down and allow opposition candidates to participate.

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What’s new? On 8 June Jean-Pierre Bemba, a charismatic Congolese leader and fierce rival of President Joseph Kabila, was acquitted by the International Criminal Court’s appeals chamber of a 2016 war crimes conviction. His likely re-entry into Congolese politics will shake up the campaign ahead of elections slated for December 2018.

Why does it matter? Bemba has the profile to contest the presidency. For President Kabila, whose attempts to retain power face stiff domestic and international opposition – or for a successor Kabila anoints – Bemba represents a threat. But his return will also complicate the Congolese opposition’s efforts to unite behind a single presidential contender.

What should be done? International actors need to maintain pressure for elections at the end of 2018 without Kabila. If Kabila stands aside and prospects of a genuine contest for power improve, credible polls and commitments by contenders to avoid inflammatory campaign language and pursue post-election grievances peacefully will be critical.

I. Overview

On 8 June 2018, Jean-Pierre Bemba, a charismatic Congolese leader, was acquitted by the appeals chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) of war crimes charges relating to actions of his troops in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003. On 12 June, after a hearing on a related case of witness tampering, he was provisionally released from the court’s custody. Bemba’s arrest on an ICC warrant in 2008 removed one of President Joseph Kabila’s fiercest rivals, and his dramatic acquittal could reshape the political landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as the country prepares for elections slated for December 2018.  

Bemba has the profile to mount a serious bid for top office. He remained politically active in detention, as far as the conditions of his custody would allow, and it seems very likely that he will seek a political comeback. His return to the DRC could force President Kabila, whose attempts to stay in power have met stiff domestic and international opposition, to shift his calculations in the prospective presidential contest. For Kabila, or a successor he picks from his inner circle or the ruling majority, Bemba is a political threat, but his return could also present an opportunity to split the opposition vote. Similarly, Bemba’s release creates major challenges and opportunities for Kabila’s rivals.

International actors must remain focused on persuading Kabila to stand aside and for elections to take place in December, as scheduled. If Kabila does step down, Bemba’s re-emergence could increase the chances of a genuinely competitive vote. This would be a positive step; indeed, stability in the DRC hinges on a transition of power. That said, a more competitive contest could also prove a flashpoint for violence and will make it all the more important that Congolese citizens and politicians regard the vote as credible.

II. Who is Jean-Pierre Bemba?

Jean-Pierre Bemba (often called “the chairman” by his supporters in a reference to his business past) was born in 1962 near Gemena in Sud-Ubangui province (part of the former Equateur province) to a family close to long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Having flourished in his family’s business empire, in 1998, as Mobutu fell from power, he established the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). Part political party, part armed group, the MLC allied itself with Uganda and occupied most of the north of the country in the subsequent civil war. After the 2002 Pretoria power-sharing agreement, he became, in July 2003, one of four vice presidents in the transitional government. In the first round of the 2006 presidential elections, he came in second with 20 per cent of the vote, but lost the run-off with 42 per cent to Kabila’s 58 per cent. He scored strongly in the west, north, Kasai and Kinshasa. As influential opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi and his party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS), boycotted the 2006 elections, Bemba was the uncontested candidate of the west as Kabila dominated in the east.

In January 2007, Bemba was elected senator for the MLC, through an indirect vote by Kinshasa provincial deputies. That March, intense fighting erupted in Kinshasa between Bemba’s loyalists and government troops, and was only ended when the Angolan military intervened in support of Kabila. Bemba found refuge at the South African embassy and negotiated his departure to exile in Portugal in April. A year later, he was arrested on an ICC warrant in Belgium.

During his imprisonment in The Hague, Bemba remained president of the MLC and senator, and even hoped to run in the 2011 presidential election. But shorn of its figurehead, his party haemorrhaged support, losing 42 of its 64 seats in parliament in the 2011 elections.  

In March 2016, Bemba was convicted by the ICC and sentenced to eighteen years in prison on two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes. Later the same year, the court also convicted him of witness tampering. Bemba seemed to be out of the DRC’s political game, facing several more years in prison and total exclusion from running for elected office as a convicted war criminal – a provision in Congolese electoral law.

On 8 June 2018, however, ICC appeals judges ruled the prosecution had not proven Bemba’s responsibility in crimes committed by soldiers under his command and ordered his release. Despite his acquittal, Bemba was not immediately freed because he is still awaiting final sentence in the separate case in which he was found guilty of influencing witnesses in relation to the principal case. Regarding the charge of witness tampering, Bemba has already served over 80 per cent of the maximum sentence of five years, given that he was served an arrest warrant in November 2013. The court thus called a status conference in his case on 12 June, and provisionally released him until his final sentence is decided on 4 July 2018.  

A return to custody appears unlikely, and even were that to happen and Bemba to serve the maximum sentence, he would be out in time to participate in the electoral campaign, which starts 22 November 2018.

[The] ICC appeals court’s unexpected decision comes at a critical juncture ahead of the Congolese elections scheduled for the end of 2018 and will at least have an important symbolic impact.

This ICC appeals court’s unexpected decision comes at a critical juncture ahead of the Congolese elections scheduled for the end of 2018 and will at least have an important symbolic impact. Many Congolese who interpreted Bemba’s 2008 arrest as part of the then significant international support for Kabila will see the release of the president’s rival in the context of mounting foreign pressure on Kabila to stand down and a sign that Kabila has fallen out of favour with the outside world. The ICC ruling came on the heels of very clear messages by Angolan President Lourenço, during a visit to French President Emmanuel Macron, that he should respect the Saint Sylvester agreement of December 2016 and not stand for a further term in office.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N˚139, Increasing the Stakes in DR Congo’s Electoral Poker, 8 June 2018, for further details on mounting Western and African pressure on Kabila. See Crisis Group Africa Report N˚257, Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo, 4 December 2017, for background on the Saint Sylvester deal.Hide Footnote

Bemba’s party, the MLC, has been weakened by Bemba’s decade-long absence. Several senior members have left to join either the government or other opposition parties. However, the MLC is still one of the major opposition formations and has one of four opposition representatives – with Nadine Mishika Tshishima, who is deputy quaestor (deputy head of finances) – in the electoral commission (CENI). From his cell in The Hague, Bemba kept tight control over the party but there is little doubt it would have suffered further losses in the forthcoming elections without his release. As provincial and senatorial elections were not held in 2011, Bemba remains a senator and as such enjoys parliamentary immunity as well as freedom of movement. This affords him some protection against efforts by the Congolese authorities to use legal challenges, as they have done against Moïse Katumbi, to stop him contesting the vote. Bemba will still have to register in-country as a voter to be allowed to participate in the election as a candidate.

III. A Transformed Political Landscape

The DRC’s opposition is in flux as its leaders attempt to negotiate alliances, with deadlines for nominations of candidates only a month or two away (June for provincial, and July/August for presidential and legislative elections). Opposition parties are operating under constraints, as the government continues to impose restrictions on political freedoms, clamp down on their meetings and harass several opposition leaders.

The situation remains fluid, but thus far two opposition blocs are emerging through a process of slow negotiation. Since March, Bemba’s MLC, led on the ground in the DRC by Secretary General Eve Bazaiba, the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), led by Vital Kamerhe, and former Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito have been working toward a joint platform. Eve Bazaiba is the only woman in a prominent role in the DRC’s political imbroglio. Muzito, in growing dissidence with his party the Unified Lumumbist Party (PALU), and Kamerhe have complementary political bases – in the west and the eastern Kivus, respectively – but prior to Bemba’s release, it was not clear whether the three parties would jointly launch a bid for the presidency.  

The second bloc comprises Moïse Katumbi, former governor of Katanga province, and Félix Tshisekedi, the new leader of the UPDS, which remains the biggest opposition party. Katumbi’s recently launched alliance Ensemble had its first major rally in Kinshasa on 9 June. Both leaders have recently held talks with international partners and have discussed a possible electoral pact and prospects for uniting behind a single presidential candidate. It remains unclear whether Katumbi will be able to run, as he is facing numerous legal challenges, including claims that he has forfeited his Congolese citizenship. Tshisekedi, who remains untested, is trying to follow the footsteps of his father, Etienne, who passed away in February 2017. He has a functioning but divided party and lacks the resources to wage a nationwide campaign.

If the 2006 vote is any guide, Bemba could expect to gather strong support.

If the 2006 vote is any guide, Bemba could expect to gather strong support in main urban areas – in particular Kinshasa – as well as in his home turf in the north-western former Equateur province (which was divided in 2015 into five provinces: Equateur, Tshuapa, Mongala, Nord-Ubangui and Sud-Ubangui), and in Kongo Central province. To expand his natural base, Bemba will almost certainly have to leap aboard the DRC’s merry-go-round of political alliance building.  

Coalition building is important for parliamentary and provincial elections as parties will have to meet the respective electoral thresholds (they need 1 per cent of votes nationwide to qualify for parliamentary seats and 3 per cent of provincial votes for provincial council seats). But the focus, inevitably, will be on Bemba’s potential impact on the opposition’s bid for the presidency. The DRC’s single-round presidential vote (introduced in 2011) – whereby the winning candidate just needs more votes than any other candidate, rather than having to win more than 50 per cent, to prevail – puts pressure on the opposition to unite behind a single strong candidate or risk splitting its vote. But while forming alliances for parliamentary and local elections will be relatively straightforward, moving from those alliances to an agreement on a single presidential candidate will be tough – if not impossible – and Bemba’s return makes it all the harder.  

Moïse Katumbi has already stated his intention to contest, and if he can overcome legal obstacles and return to the country, it seems unlikely he would stand aside. An alliance between Katumbi and Félix Tshisekedi may not be impossible but it is still unclear that either candidate would stand aside to back the other; both will face pressure from their supporters to contest. Bemba also has a strong national stature and is as well placed as Katumbi to attract allies and position himself at the centre of a countrywide coalition. While the leading opposition figures are young enough to fight another day, the DRC’s centralised winner-takes-all politics makes executive office overwhelmingly attractive and many believe that once another contender is ensconced in the presidency, it could be many years before they have another good shot at the top office. That a number of opposition leaders maintain the aura of being presidential hopefuls to strengthen their hand in intra-opposition negotiations further complicates efforts to arrive at a consensus.  

Furthermore, several of today’s opposition leaders are former allies who subsequently fell out or changed sides. Their often opportunistic past trajectories could make alliance building easier, but it also means they may first have to overcome some bad blood. UNC leader Kamerhe, in opposition since 2010, was a key strategist of Kabila’s victory over Bemba in 2006, but he also found a compromise when he brokered, as speaker of parliament, Bemba’s exile in 2007. Olivier Kamitatu, now the director of cabinet for Moïse Katumbi, previously enjoyed strong personal ties to Bemba – before becoming his number two in the MLC – but split with him shortly before the 2006 elections to form his own party and side with Kabila. Another close Katumbi ally, former rebel leader Mbusa Nyamwisi, also has a difficult past with Bemba – they were on opposing sides in a bloody war in the north east in 2002 and 2003.  

Bemba’s return to the scene could also reinvigorate the networks of former Mobutu loyalists in politics, business and the security services, to whom he was allied before his arrest. Under the de facto leadership of Senate President Kengo wa Dondo these forces thus far have failed to challenge Kabila. That could change if they rally around Bemba.

IV. A New Challenge to Kabila?

The DRC still faces a worrying number of uncertainties as the candidacy deadlines loom. Which opposition leaders will be able to run? Will the government contrive legal obstacles to Bemba’s return, as it has for Katumbi? Will any opposition leader stand aside to avoid a split opposition vote and, if so, which leaders? And, last but not least, is Kabila willing to cede power and not contest the vote?  

The president’s intentions remain unclear at this late stage. Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala’s 12 June statement that Kabila would respect the terms of the Saint Sylvester agreement and stand down was important, but not the first time a senior figure has indicated this without the president providing subsequent confirmation; nor is Tshibala from Kabila’s inner circle.[fn]“Congo President Kabila will not seek third term – DR Congo PM”, Reuters, 12 June 2018.Hide Footnote If the president does find a way to run, then opposition politicians would likely boycott the vote.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Increasing the Stakes in DR Congo’s Electoral Poker, op. cit.Hide Footnote If, on the other hand, Kabila stands aside for another candidate from the ruling majority, Bemba may be able to mount a serious challenge, despite an enormously skewed playing field and the government’s control of state resources.  

His return may induce a shift in the ruling majority’s tactics, however. Rather than working to exclude Kabila’s most potent rivals, it may instead relax its obstruction and let even Katumbi run. This would increase prospects of an opposition vote splintered among different major candidates, each largely relying of votes from their respective regional strongholds. Kabila’s anointed successor could then exploit the government’s control of state resources and the national reach of its newly created Common Front for Congo, which includes the majority and several of its allies in the government of current prime minister, Bruno Tshibala, to mobilise votes across the country.

Citizens in eastern DRC (including Katanga) may have concerns about Bemba, a strong candidate in the west, winning the presidency.

The government may even be tempted to stimulate further communal tensions in the provinces to prise apart opposition candidates and make alliance building harder. A particularly dangerous move, for example, would be to stoke friction in Haut-Katanga and Lualaba provinces, where tension is already high between “native” Katangese and “newcomers” Kasaians, in an attempt to drive a wedge between Tshisekedi (whose base is in the Kasai) and Katumbi (Katangese) in the event that they form an electoral alliance. Citizens in eastern DRC (including Katanga) may have concerns about Bemba, a strong candidate in the west, winning the presidency. They fear that people from the west could take revenge on the Swahili speakers from the east, associated with the Kabila regime since 1997. In short, there are multiple possibilities countrywide for unscrupulous politicians to play communities against one another.  

It is unclear at present how a Bemba bid for the presidency would sit with regional leaders. On the one hand, Bemba’s stature makes him a realistic alternative to Kabila, at a time when leaders in central and southern Africa are increasing diplomatic efforts to persuade the president to stand aside, fearing that the crisis in the DRC would worsen if he refuses, and that instability could spill into neighbouring countries.  

On the other hand, some regional leaders may regard Bemba warily, given his mixed record in the region. At times during the DRC’s civil war, his troops fought Rwandan and Angolan troops or proxies – Rwanda and Angola are the very two countries spearheading African pressure on Kabila. As a former close ally of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Bemba may pull Uganda back into a prominent role in the DRC’s crisis. That said, some distance from regional powers could play well among a domestic audience eager to see a candidate with more perceived independence from “meddling” neighbours.

V. Conclusion

Six months from the December 2018 elections, the ICC appeals chamber’s unexpected decision has sent a shock wave through Congolese politics. Bemba has yet to announce his next steps, but on 9 June, a day after his acquittal, the MLC announced the organisation of a party congress on 12 and 13 July. Bemba’s plans are likely to be made public on that occasion, if not before, as Bemba will have to register as a candidate shortly in order to run for office. For now, it appears highly likely that he will rejoin the political fray: winning the presidency would represent the culmination of his long struggle to gain power in the DRC.  

Ideally, of course, Kabila will step aside and permit opposition leaders to run. Any attempt by the president to extend his tenure would likely provoke a major political crisis. But even if Kabila stands down and opposition candidates contest the vote, serious risks would remain, particularly given that such a vote would open up real competition. International actors, particularly the African leaders whose pressure has been instrumental in moving electoral preparations forward thus far, should continue their push for Kabila to stand aside, for the government to allow opposition politicians to stand and for a credible vote. If the president decides not to run and elections go ahead on a competitive basis, African and Western powers should urge Congolese leaders and political parties to commit to peaceful and non-inflammatory campaigns and the United Nations mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) should redouble efforts to react swiftly to outbreaks of violence or unrest.

Nairobi/Brussels, 15 June 2018

A man walks on cocoa beans drying in the sun in Beni, DRC, December 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Nicolas Delaunay
Our Journeys / Africa

A “Deal with the Devil” in the Heart of the Great Lakes

Dans l’est de la RDC, les cycles de violence s’enchaînent depuis bientôt 30 ans. Les experts de Crisis Group, Onesphore Sematumba et Nicolas Delaunay, se sont rendus à Béni, au Nord-Kivu, peu après le début d’une opération ougandaise contre les Forces démocratiques Alliées, un groupe islamiste basé dans la région.

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Scattered laughter breaks through the patter of Congolese rumba at Inbox, a restaurant in the centre of Beni, a major town in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North Kivu province. I make some small talk, too, amid the hubbub, but then the conversation turns serious. The man I’m speaking to, a member of the local administration and a long-time contact of mine, looks down at the plastic table between us, contemplates his beer and grimaces lightly. I have just asked him a “ticklish” question.

The date is 13 December 2021. For the last fortnight, and with Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi’s approval, the Ugandan army has deployed to the countryside around Beni to fight the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist militia originally from Uganda but based in the DRC’s east for many years.

The Ugandan army’s intervention is a direct response to a triple bombing on 16 November 2021 in Uganda’s capital Kampala, which was attributed to the ADF.  Uganda may also be looking to secure its economic interests in Congo – notably the construction of a road that will eventually link Ugandan border towns to Beni, Butembo and Goma in North Kivu, which should boost trade between the two countries. Uganda strengthened its deployment from 1,700 to more than 4,000 troops in the first few months, extending their range to the northern province of Ituri this past February. For Kinshasa, its neighbour’s military support is a boon. The “rapid and robust” response to insecurity in the country’s east that Tshisekedi promised when he assumed office in January 2019 has so far yielded mixed results.

Onesphore (left), talks to Christophe, a cocoa cultivator who was forced to leave his fields. Beni, DRC. CRISIS GROUP / Nicolas Delaunay

My colleague Nicolas and I are in Beni to take the temperature of this town, which counts over 350,000 inhabitants, and to peek underneath the Congolese and Ugandan leaders’ positive portrayals of the military collaboration. We want to know what the people of Beni think about the Ugandan presence in their region. This is the question that now “tickles” my companion at Inbox.

Despite the rosy projections in Kinshasa and Kampala, the Ugandan deployment in the eastern DRC is far from straightforward.  Uganda has a fraught history with North Kivu and, farther north, Ituri. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Ugandan armed forces occupied large parts of these two provinces, engaging in looting, murder and rape, and leaving painful memories among the people. On 9 February, the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest judicial body, ordered Uganda to pay $325 million to the DRC in damages.

I expected Beni’s residents to be angry that Ugandan soldiers were coming back, but I found much milder reactions. “It takes what it takes, says a man Nicolas and I meet on the street. A young civil society representative later adds: “I hope the Ugandans will help us. Another interlocutor, a woman of local prominence, replies with another question: “And why not?”

Do the people of Beni have short memories? I share my astonishment with my companion at the restaurant. He pauses for a moment, then gives me a determined look: “You know, Onesphore, a desperate situation calls for desperate measures. And if we have to make a deal with the devil to defeat the ADF, so be it.

I’m taken aback by his response, but then it starts to make sense. Perhaps naïvely, I had forgotten for a moment that for the past three decades, we have been powerless to quell the violence in the eastern DRC. My contact has reminded me of all that the people of this region have suffered for so long – the death and destruction that has made them so disillusioned with the Congolese government and army that they’ve become fatalistic. It does not matter where the help comes from, as long as it comes.


The town of Beni (not to be confused with the Beni territory that surrounds it) is at the heart of a zone in which several armed groups, including the ADF, operate. The safest way to get there is by air. Onesphore has often driven to Beni, in the province’s grand nord, from Goma, the economic and administrative capital of North Kivu, but the road is difficult and dangerous. Just 10km north of Goma, the tarmac disappears, giving way to 340km of poorly maintained dirt road that turns into a muddy rut when the rains come.

Above: The Rond-point du 30 juin in Beni, a city in the North Kivu province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. December 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Nicolas Delaunay

Travelling on the slippery, bumpy track is a minor inconvenience, however, compared to the other dangers along this vital route for the region’s economy. For years, armed groups have been extorting, racketeering, kidnapping and killing along this narrow road surrounded by a lush forest, an ideal setting for ambushes. Since 2016, provincial authorities have established a military escort system on a long stretch of the road, but with mixed results. It was on this road, some 20km north of Goma and on the edge of the Virunga National Park, that Luca Attanasio, the Italian ambassador to the DRC, was shot dead on 22 January 2021, when the UN World Food Programme convoy in which he was riding was attacked.

So it is on a flight organised by MONUSCO, the UN mission in the DRC, that we travel to Beni to carry out our research and document it in pictures. As we near our destination, the plane window lets us glimpse a patch of reddish earth, laying in the middle of a dense thicket of green.

Over the years, Beni has often been spared the worst of the various armed groups’ depredations. Its city centre is bustling. Motorcycle taxis and trucks rumble by the stalls set up along the main road, which are overloaded with clothing, palm oil and bananas. Sitting on plastic chairs under parasols, money changers swap Congolese francs for U.S. dollars and vice versa, while loudspeakers inform passengers of arriving buses.

Our sense of normality is short-lived, however, as signs of the 30 years of violence that have marked the eastern DRC abound. Alongside the back-and-forth of motorbikes and trucks is a constant stream of Congolese army pick-ups, mounted with guns, and UN peacekeeper armoured vehicles. Here and there, we see graffiti proclaiming: “No to violence!” Other scrawls call for the departure of MONUSCO, which some consider too passive.

“Whenever we produce a lot of cocoa, the massacres increase”, adds a woman farmer we meet in Kipriani, a neighbourhood in northern Beni.

CRISIS GROUP / Nicolas Delaunay

Cocoa beans lie drying on large tarpaulins, their powerful smell another reminder of the pervasive insecurity. Cocoa, which transits mainly through Uganda before being exported outside the African continent for processing, is an integral part of the war economy that has developed around the Great Lakes region’s natural resources. “There is gold in Bunia, coltan in Masisi, cassiterite in Walikale, and then there is cocoa in and around Beni, says Christophe, a farmer who used to grow the plant in Mbau, north of Beni, before armed groups forced him out of his fields. “Unfortunately, the same thing often happens”, he explains. “We work hard to grow cocoa and then the ADF come and take over our crops at harvest time. “Whenever we produce a lot of cocoa, the massacres increase, adds a woman farmer we meet in Kipriani, a neighbourhood in northern Beni.

With Beni the closest thing to a safe haven – here, a very relative term – in the area where the ADF operate, thousands of internally displaced people (IDP) have found refuge there. They often live with family members, friends or acquaintances, as there is no IDP camp in the town. “My three uncles and three aunts were killed in the same house in 2015. The bandits cut them to pieces”, recalls Divine, a 25-year-old woman who survived a massacre. “It was the ADF. They attacked my village a few weeks ago”, murmurs a young man we meet in the dark corridor of a school a few steps from the town hall, his arm carefully wrapped in a sling. “A blow from a machete... but it’s better now.”

The day after we arrive, as if to confirm what everyone already knows, the local media headline a deadly ADF attack near the town of Mangina, about 25km west of Beni.

The daily violence and displacement takes a profound toll on people we meet here in Beni; they feel suffocated under its weight. Aside from the brutality of the massacres they described, what I find striking is the difficulty they have in making medium- or long-term plans: they can do no more than live from day to day. It is as if an entire population is forbidding itself to dream or to envision a future that might be snatched away at any moment by a bullet or a machete’s edge.

For the consequences of insecurity have been vicious. Between 2018 and 2020, the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri experienced the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history, resulting in over 2,200 deaths. At the time, a journalist friend of mine returned deeply affected by what he had seen and heard in North Kivu, where the violence was hindering the health officials’ efforts to respond to this deadly virus. “A blow that worsens the effects of another, as he put it.

Onesphore, who was born in the eastern DRC, sums up the fragility of life here with his usual sense of humour. “We have a saying here: ‘Life expectancy is 24 hours, renewable each day’”.


Violence in the eastern DRC is an extremely complex cocktail, and its main victim is the civilian population. Since the 1990s, armed groups have come and gone in this resource-rich region. Most of these groups, those commonly known as Mai-Mai, consider themselves defenders of their communities in a competition for political or customary power, land resources or access to infrastructure. Add the failings of the Congolese state in providing basic services, the proven links between some politicians and local militias, and the lack of socio-economic opportunity, and you have ideal conditions for the recruitment of young militiamen.

Other sources of violence lie in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, the DRC’s neighbours to the east. Some armed groups, such as the ADF, originated there before retreating to the lawless zones in the eastern DRC – and operating there. But the regional nature of this insecurity goes further: the deep rivalries among these three neighbouring countries – manifested mainly in competition over the DRC’s mineral resources – also fuel violence, while impeding regional and international diplomacy. All three countries have intervened militarily in the eastern DRC in the past. While, officially, they were seeking to thwart rebellions hostile to their governments, they were also waging proxy wars by supporting rebel groups opposed to their rivals.

The human toll of these cycles of violence is extremely high.

CRISIS GROUP / Nicolas Delaunay

The human toll of these cycles of violence is extremely high. Despite some controversy over the method of calculation, the most common estimates hold that armed conflict in the eastern DRC and the related humanitarian crises have resulted in some 6 million deaths since 1998.

When he came to power in January 2019, President Tshisekedi said a top priority was to tackle insecurity in the eastern DRC. After two years with no tangible results, he enacted two key measures. First, in May 2021, he declared a state of siege in North Kivu and Ituri, the two provinces most affected by the violence. Then, from 30 November 2021, he agreed to military cooperation with Uganda.

These two measures have something in common: they illustrate the Congolese authorities’ tendency to favour a military response to insecurity in the east, to the detriment of measures that could resolve land disputes, give youth better economic prospects, prosecute politicians that have ties to armed groups, or build effective and peaceful regional diplomacy.

As a Congolese citizen, I tell myself that, at least, the Congolese authorities have not abandoned the fight to bring security to my region, despite the endless cycles of violence. But the realism imposed by my research into these conflicts’ causes leads me to harsher judgment of our leaders and their stubborn belief that someday they will achieve peace mostly through force of arms. While force has its uses, its victories will remain inconsequential until they are accompanied by measures that get at the root of the problem.

After authorities established the state of siege, army and police officers replaced governors and mayors in Ituri and North Kivu. Residents greeted this measure with the same mix of enthusiasm and resignation that attended the Ugandan soldiers’ arrival. When I visited the town of Bukavu in South Kivu in May 2020, some inhabitants even said they felt jealous that the government had not declared a state of siege in their province, too. Just a few months later, however, this exceptional legal measure had failed to stop massacres in North Kivu and Ituri, and these same people no longer asked for it to be applied where they lived.

The “pooling” of Congolese and Ugandan forces, as it was described by Kinshasa, initially involved a Ugandan military deployment between Beni and the border. This deployment has since been extended to Ituri. The term “pooling” is misleading: in reality, the Ugandan and Congolese troops conduct their operations in parallel. They keep each other informed of their respective actions but do not fight in mixed units. For the time being, their operations have seen only limited success. Several ADF camps have indeed been taken, hostages have been released, weapons seized and rebels arrested. The epicentre of the ADF attacks has even shifted slightly to the north. But the massacres go on.

Moreover, the ADF seem to have made a point of reminding everyone of their striking power, despite the military pressure they face. On 25 December 2021, the day after the capture of Kambi Ya Yua, one of the group’s main camps, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Beni restaurant crowded with customers celebrating Christmas. At least eight people were killed in the attack. That restaurant was Inbox, where I have met with contacts a dozen times.

A sign at the entrance of a hotel in Beni-ville, a city in the North Kivu province of DRC. CRISIS GROUP / Nicolas Delaunay

To top it all off, the Ugandan operations on Congolese territory – which both countries’ armies extended for two months on 1 June – could pave the way for a dangerous proliferation of uncoordinated, and even competing, foreign interventions in the eastern DRC. Since Kampala received authorisation to deploy its forces, the Burundian army has entered South Kivu to hunt down rebels from the Burundian RED-Tabara group. Last February, Rwandan President Paul Kagame raised the possibility of sending his country’s troops to the DRC to fight the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, FDLR), a remnant of the Rwandan Hutu militia that massacred much of the Tutsi minority and many moderate Hutu during the 1994 genocide. Kagame justified his talk of intervention with allegations of links between the FDLR and the ADF. More recently, he has accused the Congolese army of working with the FDLR to fight another militia, the March 23 Movement (M23).

As I was saying: a complex cocktail...


We sit in the town hall’s waiting room under the gaze of Félix Tshisekedi, whose portrait hangs on the wall. We are patiently waiting for the police colonel who, by the terms of the state of siege, is standing in for the mayor. Silence reigns inside the building, occasionally interrupted by the clatter of boots as soldiers and police officers come in, and the echoes of a distant market street.

A police officer inspects our papers, including the document from the information ministry authorising us to film and take photos. “That’s a nice bit of paper you’ve got, but it’s not the right one. You should have gone to the defence ministry, not information. We’re under a state of siege here, remember?”

Two days later, after several meetings with the mayor, his councillors and the intelligence services, it seems that our papers are in order after all.

One of our contacts gives us some perspective on the situation when we meet one evening in our hotel bar: “It’s their way of reminding you that they’re in charge during the state of siege. We tell him how surprised we are to see Beni’s town hall so quiet. As Onesphore remembers it, the building used to swarm with visitors on administrative errands or seeking a favour from the mayor. “People are suspicious now. They don’t trust the police or the army”, he explains. “That’s why there’s no one there”.

Indeed, the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or FARDC, are also a piece of the puzzle of violence in the east. The population, the UN, diplomats and human rights organisations often accuse the military of collaboration or even complicity with armed groups operating in their area. These links develop around activities such as mining or running illegal checkpoints. UN investigators and human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have also accused the Congolese armed forces of taking advantage of the region’s instability to carry out extortion, murder and rape of their own.

I choose peace, I support the FARDC”. The faded billboard at the northern entrance to Beni does not fool anyone. Local wits even say its appearance – old and dilapidated – reflects the actual state of relations between the population and the army.

A man sells clothes under a billboard calling for support for the Congolese armed forces (FARDC). “I choose peace, I support the FARDC”, says the billboard, Beni-ville, DRC. CRISIS GROUP / Nicolas Delaunay


The broken ties between the eastern Congolese and the security forces – and authorities more broadly – explain the guarded optimism we found in Beni regarding military cooperation with Uganda. In the end, though, even this faint hope for progress was dashed.

Seeing the reaction of Beni’s inhabitants, I feel I recognise a phenomenon that I have unfortunately observed many times in the eastern DRC. I call it “the transfer of expectations”: the Congolese are so tired of their army and government’s ineffectiveness that they no longer expect much from them, preferring to place their trust in foreign actors. But if these actors, too, let them down, then they will hold those “venus d’ailleurs” to account.

On 20 November 2012, the M23, a Congolese rebel movement backed by Rwanda and Uganda, attacked Goma, the town in which I have lived for 32 years. After putting up weak resistance in the northern part of city, the Congolese army retreated to Minova, a town 50km to the west. Like thousands of other Goma residents who crowded along the roads, I watched in stupefaction as the columns of tanks and soldiers moved westward, leaving the city at the rebels’ mercy. “This is a politicised war, some soldiers said to justify their departure when questioned. They were referring to the supposed links between the rebels and certain politicians or officers, which apparently dissuaded front-line troops from fighting the M23. And yet the next day, when several hundred young people demonstrated against this “strategic withdrawal”, they gathered in front of the UN base in Goma. They demanded explanations from the Uruguayan peacekeepers, not from the fleeing Congolese leaders and soldiers.

The population’s hostility toward MONUSCO is also understandable. The Congolese people see soldiers marching through their streets who are better armed and trained than the FARDC, but who carry out few military operations (there are exceptions, such as the Force Intervention Brigade that was created in 2013 after the M23 took Goma). Anger at MONUSCO’s perceived indifference is fermenting in the streets of Butembo, Beni and Goma. Young people from citizens’ movements and pressure groups have mounted demonstrations against MONUSCO, even blocking the passage of its convoys or pelting them with stones. In response, MONUSCO tirelessly repeats that the population’s security is first and foremost the responsibility of the Congolese defence and security forces. The peacekeepers can support the Congolese forces, the UN mission says, but cannot replace them.

A UN-armoured vehicle is stationed in a street of Beni-ville, in the Eastern DRC’s North Kivu province. CRISIS GROUP / Nicolas Delaunay

Does “the transfer of expectations” onto foreign forces mean that Congolese have definitively turned their backs on their leaders? No, as some events show.

The Beni town hall, where we met the mayor, is brand new. It was inaugurated barely a year ago to replace the old town hall, which was burnt down in November 2019 by demonstrators protesting the authorities’ failure to end violence. Of course, I would never condone demonstrations that take such a turn for the worse. But I tell myself that if Congolese still take their frustrations out on the government from time to time, it means that they have not completely given up hope that the authorities will one day manage to mitigate their problems. And that is as it should be, because while external actors can help in many ways, it is up to the Congolese to build peace if they want it to last.

Until that day comes, life in the eastern DRC continues to unfold to the rhythm of various cycles: hope and despair; bursts and lulls of violence; ill-conceived negotiations that end in failure; elections that give rise to new violence; regional tensions that heat up and cool down. And so on.

Although the ADF was the centre of attention when we visited Beni in December, another rebel group is now making waves in North Kivu. The M23, which retreated in 2013 shortly after it captured Goma, resurfaced at the end of 2021 in Rutshuru, a territory about 100km north of Goma and bordering Uganda and Rwanda. Thought to be moribund, the group caught the military authorities off guard. Since November 2021, it has carried out numerous attacks on the Congolese army, forcing civilians to flee their homes. On 13 June, the M23 even took control of the Bunagana post on the DRC-Uganda border. At the same time, diplomatic tensions have intensified in recent months, with Kinshasa accusing Kigali of supporting the M23, while Kigali accuses the FARDC of cooperating with the FDLR in fighting the M23.


These cycles of which Onesphore speaks, and the eastern DRC’s inability to break out of them, come up in every encounter, in every conversation we have during our research in Beni.

On the last day of our visit, this research takes us along a road in the city’s south, where every passing truck, car or motorbike raises clouds of dust, irritating the eyes and lungs. Leaning against the counter of his shop, a dark and cramped room of a few square metres on the ground floor of a concrete building, Ibrahim recounts how, a few years ago, at the age of 17, he joined a Mai-Mai group.

With no vocational prospects, and appalled by the proliferation of violence, he thought – naïvely, by his own admission – that he could help change things by joining a militia. “I saw the mess this country was in and I felt disappointed, says Ibrahim, who claims to have given up fighting for good now that he has a job selling drinks.

Ibrahim, a former member of a so-called maï-maï armed group, leans on the counter of his small drinks shop in Beni, DRC. CRISIS GROUP / Nicolas Delaunay

What about the grievances that drove him to join an armed group? “Well, the situation is still the same”. He says it timidly, but his judgment brooks no appeal. He points out that he found his job through a Congolese NGO that helps rebels demobilise and then, in a second phase, rebuild their lives, so as not to take up arms again. Indeed, while not unusual, Ibrahim’s reintegration is the exception rather than the rule. The Congolese government launched a new disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program in the east in March. It remains to be seen whether it will be more successful than previous ones, whose effectiveness has been minimal.

“The DDR programs are neither well-designed nor well-funded, so obviously many demobilised young people return to the bush sooner or later”, says Noëlla Muliwavyo, a Beni civil society leader and member of the African Association for Human Rights, a Congolese NGO. “Take, for example, the way we treat the communities in which we want to reintegrate ex-rebels. We don’t prepare the communities for it. We don’t communicate with them. We don’t give them any resources. And then, overnight, without any explanation, we bring a former rebel into a community that has suffered a great deal from violence, that has seen many of its members killed. How can you expect this to work? How can you expect this community to welcome that person?”

In general, our contacts in Beni deplore the fact that the state is not addressing the root causes of the eastern DRC’s conflicts, the factors that drive so many young people to take up arms. As long as the state does not provide adequate responses to land disputes between communities, to ties between armed groups and politicians, or to the lack of economic opportunities, rebel groups and militias will continue to find willing young recruits. At the same time, some of the people we speak to regret that the Great Lakes countries are unable to end the dangerous power struggles that have fuelled instability in the eastern DRC for too long.

Onesphore had warned me before I arrived in the DRC. The numerous issues linked to insecurity in his country’s east are completely intertwined, forming a tapestry whose complexity is sometimes difficult to grasp. And yet I leave Beni convinced that although the violence in the eastern Congo has brought the region to its knees, it will not yield.

Before boarding the plane back to Goma, I ask Onesphore if our life expectancy has been prolonged by another 24 hours. In a burst of laughter, he replies: “One day, we will do better than 24 hours”. In the meantime, he says: “You must understand that humour is our form of resilience. It is our way of making an unbearable daily reality a tiny bit bearable, in the hope that one day, things will be better”.


Analyst, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi
Senior Communications Officer for Africa