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Flares are launched by DR Congo Police forces during a demonstration in Goma on 19 September 2016. AFP/Mustafa Mulopwe
Briefing 123 / Africa

Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The “Street” and Politics in DR Congo

Angry demonstrations hit Kinshasa in September as President Kabila’s aim to stay in power beyond a 19 December constitutional deadline became clearer. Regional and international actors must use diplomatic and financial levers to bring about credible democratic elections and to reverse the DRC's worsening spiral of violence.

I. Overview

Demonstrations in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), turned violent on 19 September 2016, when the Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) should have launched the constitutionally-required presidential election process. Protests were expected as a political dialogue launched on 1 September had failed to agree on what to do about the delay. This has accentuated the risk of violent popular anger in urban centres and of a heavy-handed security response. A risk also remains that political parties, including the ruling majority coalition (henceforth “the majority”) and the opposition that looks to the street to force President Joseph Kabila to step down, will seek to manipulate that anger. Depending on loosely organised popular revolts to force political change is a tactic that could spiral out of control. To prevent more violence, Congo’s partners need to use diplomatic and financial tools to focus the actors, particularly the majority, on the need to move rapidly to credible elections. They also need to use their leverage and public positions to minimise violence while the political blockage continues.

Map of Democratic Republic of Congo. CRISIS GROUP

Throughout the DRC’s history, political actors have expected the power of the street to change seemingly deadlocked political situations. As in past periods of popular revolt, there is now a merging political crisis and economic downturn. The promise of democratisation has accentuated the country’s fragmentation since the 1990s, and the popular legitimacy of political parties and civil society organisations, with the exception of the Catholic Church, continues to shrink as their numbers grow. Public frustration is exacerbated by pervasive poverty and chronic violence. The government’s control increasingly rests on largely dysfunctional security forces in which issues of command and control increase the risk for excessive use of force. Protest is a legitimate form of political expression by a population understandably frustrated by the failure to adhere to the constitution and hold elections on time. The primary responsibility for ensuring that protests take place peacefully lies with the government. However, protests to succeed must be part of a coherent political strategy; no actors should use them to inflame tensions.

Ten years after the generally successful 2006 elections, the DRC faces another deep crisis. President Kabila’s attempt to stay in power beyond his second and last constitutionally-permitted term, which concludes on 19 December, is unravelling more than a decade of progress. Less than three months before his mandate ends, the majority hopes to retain power by forcing a long delay of the vote (glissement), while the opposition vies to lead a “transition”. With the end of Kabila’s mandate near and in the absence of a consensus agreement, the risk of further violent confrontation increases.

To reduce the potential for urban violence in the coming months:

  • The African Union (AU), UN and other international partners will have to support further inclusive political dialogue with a focus on the post-19 December arrangements and directed toward getting to credible elections within a tight, specified timetable. Domestic actors will have to climb down from their maximalist positions and engage in this dialogue in good faith.
     
  • Short of resolving the political deadlock, they will also need to take measures to reduce the risk of violence, while allowing for legitimate peaceful protest. Political parties have a large responsibility not only to work toward elections in good faith, but also to avoid further inflaming tensions. The government must maintain media freedoms, balanced by holding accountable state actors and opposition politicians alike.
     
  • From the internationals’ side, more forceful and coherent diplomacy, even, for example, the threat of removing UN peacekeepers, in particular the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), could help advance the dialogue. Building police capacity to manage protests peacefully, using the good offices of the UN and the diplomatic corps and judiciously threatening targeted sanctions on those who inflame tensions could help reduce the risk of violence.

This briefing is based on fieldwork in Bukavu, Goma, Lubumbashi and Kinshasa and is part of a series of publications on the DRC’s broader electoral process.

II. Current Political Context

Over the five years since Kabila’s 2011 re-election, Congolese political debate has focused on 2016 and the end of his second mandate.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 225, Congo: Is Democratic Change Possible?, 5 May 2015; 239, Katanga: Tensions in DRC’s Mineral Heartland, 3 August 2016; and statement, “A Nuanced but Firm Political Approach for DR Congo’s Decisive Autumn”, 15 September 2016.Hide Footnote  The opposition and civil society, including the Catholic Church through its national managing body, CENCO have consistently supported the constitution’s presidential term limit and electoral timetable.[fn]CENCO is the national episcopal conference of the Congo, including all the country’s Catholic bishops.Hide Footnote  Huge demonstrations in January 2015 to protest against apparent government attempts to delay the elections showed that this position has wide support. However, with elections still some way off and the ruling majority showing no signs of being willing to relinquish power, the situation has become blocked.

The opposition comprises historical opponents of Kabila, led by Etienne Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), as well as others who were once with Kabila but now oppose him, such as Vital Kamerhe’s Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) and newer arrivals who split from the majority in 2015: the G7 group of seven parties that left the majority and Moïse Katumbi.[fn]Katumbi is the high-profile former governor of Katanga who broke from his former ally president Kabila in 2015 and declared his intent to run for president in May 2016.Hide Footnote  Politicised youth and civil society organisations have increasingly joined the political debate. While attempts at opposition unity such as the “Citizen Front 2016” faltered, they were succeeded in June 2016 by the Rassemblement, which brings together the UDPS, G7 and Katumbi, as well as a number of other parties, but not the UNC.[fn]In full: “Le Rassemblement des Forces Politiques et Sociales de la RDC acquises au changement”.Hide Footnote

Politicised youth and civil society organisations have increasingly joined the political debate.

To agree on the management of the country post-19 December and the organisation of the elections, most Congolese actors as well as the international community agree to the principle of political dialogue. The first such attempt to address electoral questions was launched in September, facilitated by the AU, but the Rassemblement refused to take part, demanding release of political prisoners and a stronger international mediation role. CENCO did participate but stated its concerns about lack of inclusivity early on.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition and CENCO officials, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote

On 19 September, when the electoral process should have started, the opposition held a protest march that continued for two days despite violence from the start. The UN Human Rights Council estimated the toll at 53 dead and over 100 wounded.[fn]Rassemblement communiqué, 13 September 2016. Crisis Group email correspondence, Kinshasa-based Congolese official, September 2016. The opposition considered its death toll to be 50. “RD Congo: La solitude du chef”, Jeune Afrique, 25 September 2016. Violences à Kinshasa: l’ONU dénonce ‘un usage excessif de la force’”, Radio Okapi, 29 September 2016.Hide Footnote  While the AU-facilitated dialogue stagnates, international pressure has been rising on the majority and opposition alike. In a major meeting in Kinshasa on 4 October, the Rassemblement laid out its vision for a dialogue, indicating a more conciliatory approach.[fn]Final report of the Rassemblement meeting, Kinshasa 4 October 2016. “Congo: Reynders veut une date pour les élections”, Le Soir, 5 October 2016.Hide Footnote An anxious population is watching, uncertain about joining any future opposition call for mobilisation that could result in further violence, but angry enough to “spontaneously” erupt given the right political or social trigger. It remains unclear whether, in case of a major confrontation, the security forces will remain unified behind the majority.

III. The “Street” in Congolese History

Street protest is a vital part of Congolese political life, especially as people have few other channels to express views and dissatisfaction. It was particularly important on the eve of independence in 1960, during the aborted democratisation period of the early 1990s, at the beginning of the Second Congo War (1998-2003) and in both rounds of democratic elections (2006 and 2011). However, popular protest movements have rarely achieved their desired ends. More often they have been manipulated for political gain or been unable to shift political dynamics. Protests also have had a dark side. State actors have often used and sometimes instigated violent street movements to discredit foes and allow poorly paid security forces to loot, as under Mobutu in 1993. Their agents have frequently used disproportionate force, and destruction has been particularly bad when discipline breaks down. Large, protest often results in riot and looting and can manifest ugly xenophobic attitudes, whether anti-Rwandan in the civil war or against Chinese businesses lately.

The street is an easily sparked powder keg. Violence is omnipresent in the rapidly-growing cities, often exacerbated rather than restrained by a still-militarised style of policing, and the presence of the army and politicised intelligence service.[fn]Kinshasa’s population is estimated to have grown from nearly 2.7 million in 1984 (the last census) to over eleven million. “Democratic Republic of Congo”. Police reform, part of the wider security sector reform (SSR) launched after the 2003 war, emphasises “community policing”, but implementation and training remain problematic. Crisis Group interview, senior Congolese officials, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote  The mostly pauperised urban population lives a precarious existence characterised by daily struggle. Families have little to no reserves, must make hard choices, for example what child to send to school, and depend on mostly informal solidarity networks to make ends meet.[fn]“This poverty is such that the population is driven to asking what the state does for it”, Crisis Group translation of Senate President Kengo Wa Dondo’s 15 September speech opening the second parliamentary session of 2016. Crisis Group interview, womens group representative, Kinshasa, September 2016. On informal networks, see Michel Lusamba Kibayu, “Portrait des quartiers populaires a Kinshasa: un territoire, une identite, Institute d’études du développement, Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), 2009.Hide Footnote

Congo urbanised rapidly under colonial rule, and by 1957 23 per cent of the population, particularly migrant labour, lived in major industrial and transportation hubs.[fn]For more, see Crawford Young, Politics in the Congo (New Jersey, 1965), pp. 204-231.Hide Footnote  Urban growth continued even after the economic recession in the late 1950s, but fed by a rural exodus and increasing numbers of people born in cities.[fn]City dwellers, physically disconnected from their area of origin, created new social institutions such as “tribal organisations” and unions. Ibid, p. 214.Hide Footnote  The colonial state, nicknamed bula matari (the breaker of rocks), maintained a firm grip through its force publique, despite periodic uprisings.

Independence was precipitated by massive riots in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) in January 1959. While the immediate trigger was a football match, the underlying factors were similar to other periods of popular revolt: violent security services, poor living standards and a single political idea, in this case independence, rapidly gaining ground. Under President Mobutu Sese Seko’s one-party state (1965-1990), political protest was mostly by students. His 1968 decision to abolish their unions in favour of his party youth wing led to violent protest in 1969. Frequent student protest also accompanied the end of the one-party state in 1990, including a May incident when students humiliated members of parliament by abducting them and cutting their hair. The infiltration of state agents at the University of Lubumbashi (UNILU) in 1991 resulted in a massacre of up to 100 people on the campus and cuts in international aid.[fn]Charles Didier Gondola, “Tropical Cowboys: Westerns, Violence and Masculinity among the Young Bills of Kinshasa”, Afrique & histoire, vol. 7 (2009), pp. 75-98; Young, Politics, op. cit., pp. 152-153. Jean Abemba Bulaimu, Hubert Ntumba Lukungwa, Mouvements etudiants et évolution politique en République Démocratique du Congo, Tôme 1: 1971-1991, Cahiers du Centre d’Etudes Politiques (Kinshasa, 2004). Gauthier de Villers, Jean Omasombo, “When Kinois Take to the Street”, in Theodore Trefon (ed.), Reinventing order in the Congo (London, 2004), p. 141. “Zaïre, a country study”, Area Handbook Series (Library of Congress, 1994), p. 246. Crisis Group interview, academic, Lubumbashi, June 2015.Hide Footnote

Street protest is a vital part of Congolese political life, especially as people have few other channels to express views and dissatisfaction.

The aborted 1990s democratisation process prompted the mushrooming of political parties and social organisations in and around the National Sovereign Conference (CNS).[fn]The CNS, inspired by events in other Francophone African countries, lasted from 1991 to 1992 and consisted of a wide-ranging review of the country’s history in an attempt to set the stage for a better future. While it produced some valuable discussion, it was undermined by Mobutu.Hide Footnote  The period also saw hyperinflation and political deadlock, leading to mutinies and widespread looting, initiated by military units then followed by the population. Kinshasa was most severely hit, first in September 1991 (followed by similar incidents in other provinces) and again in January 1993. The latter transgressions, by Mobutu’s Special Presidential Division (DSP), were particularly violent, with up to 500 casualties. The economic impact was disastrous.[fn]Average inflation in 1990-1995 was 3,616 per cent. David Van Reybrouck, Congo, the Epic History of a People (New York, 2015) p. 430. René Lemarchand, “The Democratic Republic of Congo: From Collapse to Potential Reconstruction”, University of Copenhagen, September 2001. Gauthier de Villers, Zaire: la transition manqué 1990-1997 (Tervuren, 1997), p. 29. de Villers, Omasombo, “When Kinois Take to the Street”, op. cit., p. 147.Hide Footnote

The period’s largest popular mobilisation was the 16 February 1992 “March of Hope”, or “March of the Christians”, mainly organised by Catholic parishes and lay organisations, rather than the church hierarchy. This mostly peaceful procession was unauthorised and violently repressed by DSP troops, with at least 35 casualties.[fn]Mwamba Bapuwa,  Phillippe Dorlodot, Marche d’espoir: Kinshasa 16 février 1992 (Paris, 2000). Van Reybrouck, Congo, op. cit., p. 403.Hide Footnote  This and subsequent unrest had a profound impact on political consciousness, especially in Kinshasa, though it did not precipitate desired change: Mobutu only left power in 1997, as his regime crumbled under pressure of a foreign invasion.

In response to the violence, the opposition increasingly reverted to journées ville morte (one-day general strikes), which aimed to bring public and economic life in the cities to a halt. However, precarious social conditions meant that many people could not afford to observe them. Another phenomenon was the emergence of the parlementaires debout (street debaters).[fn]de Villers, Omasombo, “When Kinois Take to the Street”, op. cit., p. 146. Crisis Group interviews, journalist, local communities in neighbourhoods (cités), Kinshasa, July, September 2016. Parlementaires debout, groups of mostly men debating current affairs, perform an important role as conduits between the population and political parties, making sense of and contributing to radio trottoir (pavement radio) in a country where access to media is limited. Camille Dugrand, “‘Combattants de la parole’: parlementaires-debout et mobilisation partisane à Kinshasa”, Politique Africaine, no. 127 (2012), pp. 49-69.Hide Footnote

The First Congo War (1996-1997) and Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s seizure of power put democratisation on hold for a decade. He tried to replace representative democracy with Popular Power Committees (CPP), but they amounted to little as his regime did not capture popular imagination. Motivated by strong anti-Rwandan sentiment and nationalist fervour at the start of the Second Congo War (1998-2003), the street rose in August 1998, mobilising self-defence groups to help defend Kinshasa. Citizens called it “a liberation through their own hands”, but it did not translate to greater governmental legitimacy.[fn]de Villers, Histoire du Politique au Congo-Kinshasa (Louvain-la-Neuve, 2016), p. 161; de Villers, Omasombo, “La bataille de Kinshasa”, Politique Africaine, no. 84 (2001), pp. 17-32.Hide Footnote

The elections represented hope for development and an end to a decade of conflict and destruction.

Joseph Kabila assumed the presidency after his father was assassinated in 2001. In line with the peace agreement that ended the Second Congo War, he started a transition in 2003 and voter registration in 2005 that reignited democratic aspirations. The voter card, also an identity card, became an important symbol, but the public’s enthusiasm was not shared by politicians in the transition government. Election delays announced in 2005 caused riots in January, May and June. The main actors were the Catholic Church, which played a calming role, and the exiled Etienne Tshisekedi, who agitated public opinion and whose UPDS party boycotted the voter registration and electoral process.[fn]Gérard Prunier, From Genocide to Continental War (London, 2009), pp. 303-304.Hide Footnote  Rioting in Kinshasa resulted in several casualties but did not derail the process. The elections represented hope for development and an end to a decade of conflict and destruction.

While the 2006 election was widely considered credible, there was short but intense urban warfare between the military factions of the two main candidates, President Kabila and Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) leader and Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba.[fn]The fighting also included street children (shégués) in units under Bemba’s command. Gérard Gerold, “RD Congo, analyse comparative des violences électorales (2006-2011)”, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, 2013.Hide Footnote  Angolan troops intervened in support of Kabila in Kinshasa, and fighting was stopped in the capital by the presence of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) and the European Force for the DRC (EUFOR RD Congo).[fn]Crisis Group interview, DRC diplomat, Pretoria, April 2015; Claudia Major, “EU-UN cooperation in military crisis management: the experience of EUFOR RD Congo in 2006”, European Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), September 2008.Hide Footnote

The 2011 election had a very different dynamic. Though militias were gone, at least in urban areas, so too was much hope and confidence. An unpopular Kabila kept tight control over CENI. His main opponent, Tshisekedi, was confrontational, calling for his followers (combattants) to “terrorise” the police. CENI declared Kabila the victor, but Tshisekedi symbolically took the oath of office in his Kinshasa headquarters. However, his expected call for an uprising never came, turning some militants against his party.[fn]Theodore Trefon, Congo Masquerade (London, 2011), p. 29. Crisis Group Report, Congo, op. cit. “RDC: Etienne Tshiskedi appelle à la violence et à la terreur, Agence France-Presse, 11 November 2011. Clashes in Kinshasa between Tshisekedi’s followers and pro-government militants on the election eve led to at least ten deaths. “Le bilan des tensions à Kinshasa s’alourdit: environ 10 morts et 40 blessés”, Radio Okapi, 27 November 2011. Crisis Group interview, Congolese analyst, Nairobi, September 2016.Hide Footnote  The street responded relatively calmly.

IV. Grievances and Strategies for Mobilisation

A. Socio-economic Grievance, Political Catalyst

The grievances that drive protest movements in the DRC are broad, but centre on living conditions and political freedom. A 2011 report analysing their perceptions concluded that Congolese “were generally pessimistic about the current state of their country”. The most prominent grievances are unemployment, corruption and lack of access to education, electricity, roads and transport. Rising inflation, a consequence of economic crisis, further worsens precarious living conditions.[fn]Democratic Republic of Congo, Nationwide Baseline Perception Research Report, May 2011, pp. 1-3 (non-attributed document, in Crisis Group’s possession). Crisis Group interviews, youth and community associations, civil society representatives, Masina and Lingwala municipalities, Kinshasa, September 2016. See also Gérard Bisambu (ed.), “Verbatim des populations Congolaises”, Agir pour des Elections transparantes et apaisées (AETA), March-April 2016. Crisis Group interview, Lingwala community association, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Violent crime is another scourge in Kinshasa’s heavily populated poor neighbourhoods (cités). Most notorious are the often violent, machete-wielding Kuluna urban gangs. After 10pm people rarely go into the sparsely lit streets.[fn]Krossy Mavakala Kalunseviko, Etude de la Perception du Phénomène Kuluna par les Habitants de la Commune de Kinshasa (Kinshasa, 2013). The gangs are associated with combat sports (boxing, wrestling); members are called jeunes sportifs or Pomba. Crisis Group interviews, citizens, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote  In 2013, police launched the violent Operation Likofi to tackle the gangs. Popular reaction to abuses was mixed, as Kuluna activity dropped for a considerable period. Politicians, in particular the majority’s Peoples’ Party for Reconstruction and Development (PPRD), reportedly use Kuluna to sow disorder during protests.[fn]“Report of The United Nations Joint Human Rights Office on Human Rights Violations committed by Agents of the PNC during Operation Likofi in Kinshasa between 15 November 2013 and 15 February 2014”, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), October 2014. Crisis Group interviews, citizens, Kinshasa, March 2016. Crisis Group interview, youth group representative, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Socio-economic frustration and the fact that Kinshasa’s population has never identified with the regime contribute to hostility toward specific communities. This is particularly true for Swahili speakers, originating from the East and thus identified with the current regime.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society member, Kinshasa, September 2016; Kris Berwouts, “The Rise of the Street: The Population of Kinshasa as an unpredictable Actor in the Electoral Process”, Africa Policy Brief no. 16, Egmont Institute, July 2016, p. 3. From the outset the regime has been identified with the Kivus and Katanga, both predominantly Swahili-speaking areas.Hide Footnote  Joseph Kabila has never connected to the capital’s people and does not speak the city’s language, Lingala.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Congolese citizens, Kinshasa, March, July, September 2016. “Pourquoi les Kinois n’aiment pas Joseph Kabila”, SlateAfrique.com, 27 April 2012. Kabila polled 14.7 per cent in Kinshasa in the 2006 first round, 32 per cent in the run-off against Bemba; and 30 per cent, versus 64.1 per cent for Etienne Tshiskedi in the single 2011 round.Hide Footnote  During the January 2015 riots, Chinese-owned shops in the cités were targeted and plundered. Hostility towards the Indo-Pakistani community is based on economic competition but is also due to media coverage of attacks on Congolese living in India.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, youth group representative, Kinshasa, March 2016; Congolese small business owner, Kinshasa, September 2016. Chinese companies operate many mines and are building infrastructure in several cities, and there are many small Chinese businesses that compete with “local” businesses, contributing to some hostility. “RDC: les commerces indiens sous protection policière à Kinshasa”, RFI, 9 September 2016. Congolese resent Indians and Pakistanis for operating succesful small businesses, undercutting market prices. Crisis Group interview, Congolese researcher, Kinshasa, July 2016.Hide Footnote

The state’s inability to address continuing insecurity in the East is a permanent source of tension. Agitation about the wars and disturbances there (1,500km from Kinshasa) has remained limited elsewhere, except during the take-over of Goma in 2012 by the rebel M23, whose Rwandan support touched a very raw public nerve, and the ongoing security crisis in Beni (North Kivu).[fn]Unknown assailants in Beni have killed over 600 civilians over two years. Attacks are mostly attributed to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), but research also implicates military units, former Rally for Congolese Democracy-Kisangani/Movement for Liberation (RCD-K/ML) and community self-defence groups. “Qui sont les tueurs de Beni”, Congo Research Group, March 2016. For more background on the ADF, see Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°23, Eastern Congo: The ADF-NALU’s Lost Rebellion, 19 December 2012.Hide Footnote  Violence in Beni appears to many to show government indifference and failure of the armed forces and has sparked political mobilisation in the cities in North Kivu (Beni, Butembo, Bunia and Goma). Social movements, such as Lucha (see below), and political actors from the East are outraged. Many use social media to protest. Showing how lack of trust in the broader political process and more local concerns often interweave, some fear the government may use the Beni situation to delay elections.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society, youth groups and local researchers, Goma and Bukavu, March 2016. “#JesuisBeni: les Congolais mobilisés pour en finir avec les massacres au Kivu”, Le Monde Afrique, 17 May 2016. Crisis Group interview, civil society representative, Kinshasa, September 2016. The majority’s UDCO party leader stated as much regarding election delay in a recent interview. Jean-Claude Masangu, “Dialogue: L’aboutissement espéré est qu’on puisse avoir des élections apaisées prochainement”, Digitalcongo, 12 September 2016.

For most in Kinshasa, Kabila has become the symbol of stagnation and societal ills. In the current political climate, traditional civil society, new youth organisations and the radical political opposition have found a degree of unity in their stance against him, but there is little agreement on the way forward.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local community groups, youth activist, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote

B. The Politics of Mobilisation

Society is highly fragmented, with more than 500 political parties and a myriad of social organisations and platforms claiming to represent it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Congolese researcher, Kinshasa, September 2016. This complicated the September 2016 dialogue, which ever more civil society organisations tried to join. Crisis Group interviews, civil society member, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote  The credibility and foundation of most parties is very shallow, even that of the few big ones, the majority and opposition alike, such as PPRD, UDPS and the Unified Lumumbist Party (PALU). It is notable that many calls for mobilisation from parties since January 2015 have gone largely unheeded. Tshisekedi, the historic opposition leader, seems to be the only politician capable of mobilising large numbers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Masina and Lingwala municipalities, Kinshasa, September 2016. See also Berwouts, “The Rise of the Street”, op. cit., July 2016. For an analysis of Congolese political parties, see “Les Partis Politiques Congolais en Question”, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung/Centre d’Etudes Politiques, 2013. Christophe Rigaud, “RDC: l’opposition montre les muscles à Kinshasa”, Afrikarabia, 31 July 2016.Hide Footnote

1. The churches

The Catholic Church, with its clerical, lay and educational structures, has deep roots in the DRC.

The Catholic Church, with its clerical, lay and educational structures, has deep roots in the DRC. Since the 2011 elections, Cardinal Monsengwo and the Church more generally have criticised regime attempts to extend its time in power. The Church softened its vocal stance somewhat in early 2016, when it cancelled a repeat of the 1992 “March of the Christians”, and is currently actively involved to help increase the inclusiveness of the dialogue and negotiate an agreement between government and opposition over the terms that would allow dialogue to continue with the necessary popular legitimacy.[fn]CENCO stated that the events on 19 and 20 September, after which it suspended its participation in the dialogue, demonstrated the dialogue’s lack of popular support. CENCO communiqué, 1 October 2016.Hide Footnote  In mid-2016, it launched a long-planned, massive civic and voter education program, focusing on dialogue and non-violence. As an important moral voice, it can, to a limited degree, calm the public, but it is not monolithic and has to find consensus between its various organisations and constituencies. Other faith-based organisations such as the Kimbanguist, protestant and charismatic churches, generally are considered closer to the majority but have limited political impact.[fn]“RDC – le Cardinal Monsengwo: Dieu, Kabila et lui”, Jeune Afrique, 22 December 2015. Crisis Group interviews, CENCO officials, Kinshasa, March, July, September 2016. “Guide de l’Animateur et de l’Animatrice de Proximité pour la Première Campagne d’Education Civique”, Projet d’Education Civique et Electorale de la Cenco, May 2016. Bishop Fridolin Ambongo, CENCO deputy president, is the public leader of the more assertive, principled line. Crisis Group email correspondence, Kinshasa-based diplomat, September 2016; Crisis Group analyst interview in previous capacity, senior clergy, Kisangani, September 2015. Crisis Group interview, Congolese researcher, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote

2. Youth movements

Youth frustration with lack of employment and effective governance has led to the rise of a new type of social organisation, typified by Lucha (Lutte pour le Changement), a group formed in Goma in May 2012. Starting as a protest against the lack of drinking water there, it is creative in its social action and protest and has since taken a more political stance, drawing the ire of North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku, who called it “tomorrow’s terrorists”. It is loosely and flatly structured, using mostly social media to fight for better governance, but it has significant leadership problems and shallow roots nationally, so has difficulty coordinating positions countrywide.[fn]Kris Berwouts, “‘La Lucha’ – Goma’s own brand of Indignados”, African Arguments, 13 January 2014. Crisis Group interviews, Lucha members and sympathisers, Goma, March 2016; Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote  Its internal workings are not clear and an international civil society observer called it “almost a sect”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international civil society observer, Kinshasa, June 2016.Hide Footnote

In April 2014, Lucha helped create Filimbi (whistle), which held its first meeting in March 2015 in Kinshasa. It was inspired by other successful African youth movements, in particular Y’en a marre (Senegal) and Balai Citoyen (Burkina Faso).[fn]Those movements resisted attempts by the Senegalese (Wade) and Burkina Fase (Campaoré) presidents to circumvent term limits.Hide Footnote  Security forces arrested participants, and government spokesman Lambert Mende said its members were “terrorists”.[fn]“‘Questions et Réponses’ sur Filimbi à l’attention des membres du Parlement de la République Démocratique du Congo”, Kinshasa 2 April 2015 (document in Crisis Group’s possession). “DRC: Treated Like Criminals: DRC’s Race to Silence Dissent”, Amnesty International, 26 November 2015; Laurène Rimondi, “RDC: Filimbi, la nouvelle génération de citoyens qui ébranle le pouvoir”, Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP), 17 August 2015.Hide Footnote  Several Filimbi leaders, including coordinator Floribert Anzuluni, are now based abroad.

Relations between Lucha and Filimbi have been uneasy. Lucha remains a loosely-organised middle-class movement, largely based in Goma, while Filimbi is mainly composed of well-connected Kinshasa youth.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, youth activists, Lucha, Filimbi, several other civil society organisations, Brussels, February 2016; Goma, March 2016; Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote  When President Kabila met unexpectedly with Lucha in Goma on 18 August 2016, Filimbi said on social media that it would never have done so.[fn]“‘Non, Filimbi ne rencontrera jamais Kabila’, affirme Ben Carbone”, Politico, August 2016. Crisis Group social media interaction, Filimbi leadership, Nairobi, August 2016. Lucha appointed a representative from a list of political prisoners to be released for the preparatory talks, but he continues to be held. Crisis Group email correspondence, Lucha, August 2016.Hide Footnote  Lucha maintains discreet contacts with senior officials, mainly to secure release of its members, reportedly in exchange for a more conciliatory attitude toward the political dialogue. Government repression has increased both movements’ visibility and legitimacy. Amnesty International has campaigned for release of the activists, whose incarceration has paradoxically facilitated their numbers: the Kinshasa Lucha chapter was founded in the city’s prison.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and analysts, Kinshasa, March 2016; Lucha, Goma, March 2016; Kinshasa, September 2016; “Dismantling dissent, DRC’s repression of expression amidst electoral delays”, Amnesty International, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Lucha’s and Filimbi’s reach beyond Goma and Kinshasa remains shallow. Other youth groups lead a more discreet existence. During the January 2015 protests and subsequent ones in Lubumbashi, Goma and Kinshasa, many youths confronted the security forces, and they reportedly remain organised in Kinshasa, at least in part based on those experiences. Some may be willing to escalate violence; in January 2015, a number of people targeted regime symbols, including ransacking the evangelical church attended by Kinshasa police Chief Célestin Kanyama.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, youth and civil society activists and Congolese researcher, Goma, March 2016; Kinshasa, March, July, September 2016.Hide Footnote  Politicians’ telephone numbers circulated on social media, and several received threats. During the 19 September 2016 Kinshasa riots, protesters burned properties of officials close to the majority, including its party representatives.

Groups such as Lucha insist on non-violent protest and try to capture the imagination with initiatives such as a proposal to mobilise 50,000 volunteers to support CENI’s election preparation work.[fn]“Alternance dans les délais constitutionnels: L’ultime solution”, communiqué Lucha, 14 September 2016.Hide Footnote  However, their followers may find it hard to avoid being pulled into the increasingly heated and polarised climate.

3. Communication

The “Yebela” Rally Cry

People sing the "yebela" rally cry during an international football match on 4 September 2016. The song is summarised as “Watch out, everything has a beginning and an end; soon your mandate is over”. YouTube/CONGOKIMIATV

The widely used protest rallying cries are “yebela” (“know-it”, ie, that your mandate is about to expire) and “telema” (“arise”, “stand-up”). The latter has been adopted by “Citizen Front 2016” and chanted at several public occasions, including a 4 September international football match.[fn]The “yebela” rally cry originates from a song first used during a 2015 football match with Congo-Brazzaville. The song is summarised as “Watch out, everything has a beginning and an end; soon your mandate is over”. Berwouts, “The Rise of the Street”, op. cit., July 2016. The Citizen Front 2016, begun in December 2015, was the first attempt to create a platform bringing social and political actors together. Crisis Group interviews, citizens, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote  Both are prominent social media hashtags. Social media has some reach in Kinshasa, but the most potent communication is by word of mouth and SMS, by which rumours and information spread rapidly through the sprawling city and country. During the January 2015 protests, authorities shut down mobile internet and SMS communications.

Because of the formal media’s limited independence, reach and capacity, opposition parties, especially the UDPS, spread more complex messages through groups such as the parlementaires debout, which are linked to their militants (combattants). The distribution of paper tracts remains the main way to call for mobilisation. The opposition considers official media rebuttals of these free publicity. In a city where music is omnipresent, songs, often challenging dire social conditions, are another important form of communication. Many are recorded in small studios in the cités and distributed around bars.[fn]

The DRC has an abundant media landscape, mostly in Kinshasa, with many publications, TV and radio stations. But most are owned by politicians and used for personal ends, which can include spreading confrontational messages and insulting foes. Several TV stations, including both owned by Moïse Katumbi, had their licences revoked in January 2016.[fn]The official reason for revoking the licenses of the two stations, Nyota TV and Radio TV Mapendo, was non-payment of taxes.Hide Footnote  Some opposition groups maintain internet websites with hate messages and xenophobic opinions, such as accusations that Kabila is Rwandan, language often used at opposition protests.[fn]Marie-Soleil Frère, “Le paysage médiatique congolais. Etat des lieux, enjeux et défis”, October 2008. “Congo: Une bataille électorale périlleuse”, Congo Research Group, August 2016, p. 27; Michael Fleshman, “RDC: les medias défendent la démocratie”, Afrique Renouveau, April 2007. Candide Okeke, “Le Rwanda Tire Les Ficelles: Mike Mbongo l’oeil et l’oreille de Ruberwa au sein de la dynamique de l’opposition”, Apareco, June 2016. Ann Garrison, “Congolese protest election delay: Non Kabila Rwandais”, 24 January 2015.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group interview, UDPS official, Kinshasa, September 2016; Marie-Soleil Frère, Elections et médias en Afrique centrale (Paris, 2009).The UDPS particularly maintain strong links with these groups at several locations in Kinshasa. Crisis Group interviews, youth group, Masina municipality, young musicians and studio owner, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote

4. The challenge of sustaining protests

Between late January 2015 and July 2016 opposition rallies and protest marches remained limited in scope, usually fewer than 10,000 in Kinshasa.[fn]There were also protests in Bukavu, Goma and Lubumbashi. Security forces have been permanently deployed throughout Lubumbashi to stamp down on protests.Hide Footnote  The cancelled February 2016 “March of the Christians” could have been different. A 31 July opposition rally organised immediately after Tshisekedi’s return to Kinshasa was the largest since the 2011 elections. No violent incidents were reported, because neither side wanted to risk a confrontation (see Section IV.B).

In 2016, the opposition has increasingly reverted to calling for ville mortes. The first, to replace the “March of Christians”, was generally well observed in cities like Kinshasa and Bukavu but failed in strategically important Lubumbashi, where the majority’s intimidation tactics limited its momentum. Several others were well observed, but the opposition seems to be aware this tactic must be used sparingly, as few people can afford to miss a day’s work. On 5 September, coinciding with the start of the school year, an école morte (school strike) was generally well observed, in particular in the cités, but some students stayed away because parents were not ready for them to begin school due to high fees, and others feared trouble. While many agree with the opposition that education is a pressing social issue, they worry about using children in the political struggle.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, businessman, Lubumbashi, March 2016; Congolese academic, Kinshasa, September 2016; community and youth groups, Masina and Lingwala municipalities, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Several traditional parties and social organisations have called on people “to take responsibility” (se prendre en charge), often associating this with Article 64 of the constitution, which gives them responsibility to protect the constitution. The call also relates to the general absence of credible institutions and services that requires the public to care for all daily social needs. This has led to the creation of new social groups unaffiliated to parties or other large organisations.[fn]Kibayu, “Portrait des quartiers populaires a Kinshasa”, op. cit. The slogan is complemented by others, such as “the fear has changed sides” and “the force of a united people is larger than an atomic bomb”.Hide Footnote

The current context has already shown its potential for violence, including between the militants of parties participating in the dialogue and those not. As a result, those taking part in the dialogue neither want the participants list published nor wear their badges in public.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society participant in the dialogue, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote  There has also been a recent spread of violent incidents, including attacks on symbols of the state, some in response to local situations, others inspired by the political deadlock.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society representative, Kinshasa, September 2016. “DRC opposition calls for more protests despite recent deaths”, The Guardian, 23 September 2016. Recent incidents occured in Kasumbalesa (Haut-Katanga), Kananga (Kasai central) and Kavumu (South Kivu). “RDC: le temps des jacqueries”, La Libre Belgique, 24 September 2016.Hide Footnote

V. The Regime’s Response

A. The Majority Fights Back

The majority’s strategy has oscillated between using its control over state resources and repression and a more conciliatory dialogue. Wielding the stick and carrot, it has effectively exploited divisions among key opposition leaders.[fn]The government was in talks with the UDPS until the latter allied with Moïse Katumbi and the G7, the Rassemblement. UNC leader Vital Kamerhe did not join that platform and participated in the dialogue that started on 1 September. The Rassemblement then considered him part of a new majority, “the majority of the Beatrice hotel” (where the preparatory talks were held). Crisis Group interview, opposition politician, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Repression has increased markedly in 2015-2016, with particular focus on youth movements and the new opposition formed by majority dissidents, G7 and Moïse Katumbi. The UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC (UNJHRO) documented 260 cases of “restriction of political space” in 2015 and 563 through 31 August 2016, most in Haut-Katanga, Kinshasa and North Kivu provinces. Several demonstrations were banned, had routes changed and/or were met with violence. The tactic that led CENCO to cancel the “March of the Christians” was to schedule majority rallies at the same time as opposition meetings. While demonstrations in Kinshasa were largely peaceful, at least until 19 September, several in Goma, Beni and, particularly, Lubumbashi turned violent. With Katumbi and several Katangese G7 parties joining the opposition, Lubumbashi’s political importance has increased.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Katanga, op. cit.; “Dismantling dissent”, op. cit.; “Analysis of the violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms linked to restrictions to the democratic space documented in August 2016”, UNJHRO document (undated). Crisis Group interviews, CENCO official, March, September 2016. Violence erupted in Lubumbashi during April and May protests, when Katumbi was being prosecuted on trumped-up charges. “RDC: manifestations de l’opposition, la situation dans le pays”, Radio Okapi, 26 May 2016. See also, Crisis Group Report, Katanga, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Two factors informed the government’s temporary “softer” approach during Tshisekedi’s return on 27 July and the opposition rally on 31 July: the U.S. decision in June to sanction General Kanyama, the Kinshasa police commander, and preparations for the dialogue.[fn]The conciliatory stance included Kanyama meeting with Tshisekedi on arrival, to prepare his drive into the city. Crisis Group interviews, UDPS official, Kinshasa police commissioner, Kinshasa, September 2016. Dialogue preparations included releasing some political detainees and Kabila’s surprise meeting with Lucha activists in Goma. “Compte-rendu de notre rencontre avec le Président de la République, Joseph Kabila”, Lucha Facebook page, 19 August 2016. The U.S. sanctioned Kanayma for police violence against Congolese civilians. “Treasury Sanctions High-Ranking Government Security Official …”, Press Center, U.S. treasury department, 23 June 2016.Hide Footnote  In response to the oppositions’ “yebela” cry, the majority has used, less visibly, the call “wumela” (“stay longer”). The PPRD, Kabila’s party, has a new secretary general, Mova Sakanyi, and its offices, derelict a few years ago, are bustling with activity and sporting bold new banners. However, local inhabitants claim most visitors to them are paid per diem.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Congolese academic, Kinshasa, July 2016; Lingwala municipality community group, Kinshasa, September 2016. The office banners include: “… the President of the Republic remains in office (Art. 70 of the Constitution, Art. 2)”. Similar messages appeared on billboards in Tanganyika province during the president’s visit in late June 2016.Hide Footnote

The majority has also recruited youths, reportedly from the urban gangs, to disturb other parties’ rallies, as during the 2011 elections. It has also been reaching out to youth groups, such as motorcycle taxi riders (wewa), by distributing free helmets and other gifts. This increasingly important form of transport also functions as an information network and is useful during protests, as it does not depend on the main avenues. Reportedly, the gifts have not bought much allegiance among wewa in Kinshasa, however, partly because many come from the Kasaï provinces, Tshisekedi’s political base.[fn]Habibou Bangré, “La Nouvelle Opposition en RDC: Les Mouvement Citoyens de la Jeunesse”, Observatoire de l’Afrique australe et des Grands Lacs, IFRI, March 2016, p. 18. Crisis Group interview, youth activist, Kinshasa, September 2016. “RD Congo: la ligue des jeunes du PPRD, un bloc 100% pro-Kabila”, Jeune Afrique, 26 May 2016.Hide Footnote

The government has increased its sovereignty and non-interference discourse, which is also nourished by an increasing degree of paranoia. From the majority’s perspective, the regime is facing an internationally-supported campaign to undermine it, including recent decisions about targeted sanctions and U.S. court proceedings detailing alleged corruption. After the U.S. sanctioned Kanyama, a Congolese National Television (RTNC) show denounced foreign interests wanting to keep control of the country. U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Thomas Perriello was verbally assaulted at Kinshasa airport on 18 September.

RDC, Affaires Sanctions Ciblées: Suivez la Réponse de la RTNC et du Gouvernement

The sanctions were called “the new version of the chicotte [a colonial-era whip]”. YouTube/john imagenews

The regime also continues to push back on the political role of MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission, which despite some limited redeployment into urban centres, remains focused on armed groups in the East. Concerned about its image and even active efforts at regime change, the government does not support any MONUSCO move to cities outside the Kivus. Despite appearing composed and combative, however, many senior officials and ministers, sources indicate, are obtaining visas and hiding valuables lest protests escalate. Some Western embassies no longer issue them long-term visas.[fn]“RDC, Affaires Sanctions Ciblées: Suivez la Réponse de la RTNC et du Gouvernement”, YouTube Video, 3 July 2016. The sanctions were called “the new version of the chicotte [a colonial-era whip]”. “Alarm Over Protests and Harassment of the U.S. Special Envoy in the DRC”, press statement, U.S. State Department, 19 September. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Congolese politicians and officials, Kinshasa, July 2016.Hide Footnote

B. A Very Thin Blue Line: Repression and the Security Forces

UNJHRO and Amnesty International reports point to increased repression by the Congolese National Police (PNC) and domestic intelligence service (ANR). The armed forces (FARDC), in particular the Republican Guard (GR), have been deployed to help police quell unrest, particularly during the January 2015 protest and again on 19 September 2016. The presidency tightly controls the ANR, GR and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the PNC, mostly bypassing civilian structures in the process, and also uses the judiciary against its opponents. Its Maison Militaire, led by long-time Kabila confidant General François Olenga, has a central role.[fn]UNJHRO, op. cit.; “Dismantling dissent”, op. cit.; Crisis Group email correspondence, Kinshasa-based lawyer, September 2016; security expert, Nairobi, October 2016. “U.N. Criticizes Congo for Response to Deadly Unrest”, The New York Times, 22 September 2016. The judiciary is involved in suits against the G7 and Katumbi. “RDC Congo: une juge de Lubumbashi affirme avoir subi des pressions pour faire condamner Katumbi”, Jeune Afrique, 27 July 2016; Crisis Group Report, Katanga, op. cit. Olenga is also key in the military’s logistical network, via long contacts in Eastern Europe.Hide Footnote  The military’s 2014 organisational reform put loyal officers at the head of key military regions: Maj. General Gabriël Amisi (now sanctioned by the U.S.) in Kinshasa and Jean-Claude Kifwa, the president’s nephew, in Lubumbashi. Former police commander, Lt. General John Numbi was also recently sanctioned by the U.S. for his role in repression in the former Katanga province.[fn]“FARDC: la liste des officiers généraux et supérieurs nommés à la tête des grandes unités militaires”, Forum des As, 19 September 2014; Crisis Group email correspondence, local analyst, September 2016. Maj. General Amisi, sanctioned by the U.S. in September 2016, also chairs the popular Kinshasa football team, AS Vita Club, which gives him a strong profile, but not necessarily popularity. “Treasury Sanctions Two Individuals for Threatening the Stability and Undermining …”, Press Center, U.S. treasury department, 28 September 2016. “RD Congo: Foot, business & politique”, Jeune Afrique, 7 August 2016.Hide Footnote

The PNC has been responsible for most human rights violations. Its failure to respond in January 2015 and September 2016 led to the GR’s deployment in Kinshasa. Lessons learned after 2015 included the installation of video surveillance equipment in several sensitive locations.[fn]UNJHRO, op. cit. The 19-22 January 2016 protest was preceded by violently repressed smaller incidents. The intensity and spread were surprising. Police were ill-equipped so quickly used firearms, further fuelling the protest. Crisis Group interview, civil society member, Kinshasa, September 2016. Social media showed that several video installations were destroyed during the 19 September 2016 riots.Hide Footnote  In the increasing tension during the September dialogue, riot control units were visibly stationed at key locations and major transport axes in Kinshasa. MONUSCO and others have provided crowd control training, and the PNC has purchased non-lethal riot control equipment (such as water cannons). However, in the first days of the September riots, the water cannons were reportedly hardly used; instead, the government escalated the response role to the armed forces, as the police had difficulty coping.[fn]Crisis Group observation, Kinshasa, September 2016; interview, UN official, Kinshasa, September 2016. “Kinshasa: la police présente de nouveaux véhicules anti-émeute”, Radio Okapi, 14 September 2016. Crisis Group email correspondence, diplomat, September 2016. “Kabila chez le Pape, Kinshasa sous le choc”, Le Soir, 27 September 2016. The national police officials and Kinshasa police commissioner Crisis Group interviewed just before 19 September expressed confidence they could handle demonstrations without the military.Hide Footnote

The PNC has been responsible for most human rights violations.

Police morale is poor, undermined by low salaries and bad housing conditions (the intervention police mostly live in barracks). Their social position is seriously undermined by their tendency to harass and extort. People have intimidated policemen and their families living in the cités.[fn]Crisis Group interview, youth activist, Kinshasa, September 2016.Hide Footnote  Targeted sanctions on officers, such as those imposed by the U.S., may deter abuses and sap morale, though hardliners such as General Kanyama have wide support in the service.

FARDC is deployed mostly in the East. The division-size GR is in urban centres, notably Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, and strategic locations such as airports. It has heavier weapons than other forces, which are lightly armed, if at all. GR in Kinshasa reportedly received police training recently, and there are persistent rumours they have PNC uniforms, but there are loyalty concerns. GR, including those at sensitive locations, have a reputation for petty corruption, as rank and file salaries are not much higher than those of other FARDC units. Because many GR are from Katanga, there are also fears its unity could be weakened by the defection of Katangese parties and politicians from the majority.[fn]See also, Crisis Group Report, Katanga, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Commanders allegedly warned the government in January 2015 of a limit to what the military could do. In a demonstration of the lack of trust between elements of the security forces, several military and PNC camps in Kinshasa were searched by GR and military police for weapons and looted goods after the massive September 2016 protest.

The ANR has increasingly been used as a secret police. This very powerful institution is present countrywide and is a highly centralised parallel administration. It has focused on youth groups, such as Lucha, and operations against the parties and individuals that have left the majority. For example, it blacklisted and harassed businesses and interests associated with Katumbi. The rival military intelligence service (Etat-Major Renseignement) on occasions has zealously engaged in political repression, most notoriously when it arrested opposition politician Martin Fayulu.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, businessman, Kinshasa, September 2016; diplomat, Kinshasa, March 2016. “RDC: Retour sur l’arrestation et la libération du député Martin Fayulu”, RFI, 14 February 2016.Hide Footnote

The increased capability and use of sticks and carrots against the opposition indicate a centrally-managed strategy. But competition between services, some haphazard actions and messy execution of repression point to considerable command and control problems that could allow violence to escalate quickly. The September 2016 protests ended a period of relative calm, and the regime is now likely to react more vigorously against the instigators of protests.[fn]There are already indications of people involved in the September protests disappearing. Crisis Group email correspondence with Kinshasa-based activist and diplomat, October 2016.Hide Footnote

VI. Conclusion: The Way Ahead

With rising political tension, the unpredictable variable is the urban population, which reappeared as a major political factor with the January 2015 protest. Since then, civil society and opposition parties have tried to rally public support to push the government to respect the constitution and organise elections, but they and the regime have only limited control over the largely impoverished, frustrated population, and the potential for violence was again demonstrated on 19-20 September. The most comprehensive way to prevent protest and urban violence is to break the political deadlock. Broad consensus between political and social actors is urgently needed. This was an important part of CENCO’s argument when it suspended its participation in the political dialogue.[fn]CENCO communiqué, 20 September 2016.Hide Footnote  The dialogue as launched had merits, but did not inspire the necessary confidence.

Since the violence of September, Angola and South Africa are increasingly concerned about the capacity of the Congolese security forces to control the situation, and they have met at senior levels to discuss the DRC crisis.[fn]“Angola: Message du Président sud-africain à son homologue angolais”, ANGOP, 3 October 2016; “RDC: sommet international en Angola pour trouver une sortie de crise”, RFI, 6 October 2016Hide Footnote  Major international actors, including these regional powers, have to increase their involvement and use all their diplomatic and financial tools to help Congolese negotiate an agreement that ends political polarisation and concentrates on organising elections with a specified, tight timetable.[fn]Crisis Group statement, “A Nuanced but Firm Political Approach”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Compromise is also required on who governs after 19 December and with what powers. Internationals can use good offices, targeted sanctions, the threat of withdrawing UN troops, especially the FIB, and other coercive measures to push needed compromises. The government’s recurring declarations that it wants MONUSCO to withdraw are mainly for domestic political reasons. In the field, MONUSCO’s logistical support of FARDC remains important. The FIB, mostly composed of troops of allied countries (Tanzania and South Africa), provides a reassuring security tripwire in the East at the sensitive border with Rwanda.

The opposition demand to lead a two-year transition and the majority desire for a seemingly endless extension of the current regime both lack legal and political foundation. Insisting on them would only polarise opinion and make violence more likely. An agreement requires nuance, flexibility and the active buy-in of regional and continental actors that have sat on the sidelines too long.

Measures are needed, as the parties negotiate, that can reduce the risk of violence and lessen the impact of polarising messages.

Both sides continue to engage in uncompromising language, inspiring hate and violence, delegitimising protests and potentially generating hard-to-control public rage. Measures are needed, as the parties negotiate, that can reduce the risk of violence and lessen the impact of polarising messages. Sanctions should target those from regime and opposition alike who call for and orchestrate violence.

It is vital in the difficult months ahead to protect media freedoms. Credible outlets such as RFI and Radio Okapi should be supported, not closed in times of unrest, but free expression must be balanced with responsibility. All leaders have primary responsibility not to disseminate inflammatory messages. Institutions tasked to monitor media, such as the Superior Audiovisual and Communication Council (CSAC), should be strengthened and grassroots mechanisms re-activated or initiated to monitor and discourage provocative pronouncements.[fn]Created in 2011, CSAC is meant to ensure fair accesss for parties, associations and individuals to official information and media but is seriously under-resourced and lacks political weight. “Congo: Une bataille électorale périlleuse”, Congo Research Group, August 2016, p. 27.Hide Footnote  Diplomats, the UN and other internationals must engage with the urban communities to discourage violence and carry the core message that political protest is legitimate but encouraging and manipulating violence is not.

There should be increased monitoring of and support for the police and other security forces. This is an area for the UN, which is engaged in capacity building, and the EU and other bilateral partners that have engaged in SSR programs and could build on experience and trust. No social movement has the leadership or following to manage a non-violent popular revolution. As tensions spiral ever higher, ways out will become fewer, hence the critical need to work in parallel toward a political solution and reduction of the scope for violence in the short term.

Nairobi/Brussels, 13 October 2016

VII. Terms and Acronyms

ANR National Intelligence Agency.

CENI Independent National Electoral Commission, led by Corneille Nangaa since November 2015.

CENCO National Episcopal Conference of the Congo.

CNS National Sovereign Conference.

CPP Popular Power Committees.

CSAC Superior Audiovisual and Communication Council.

DRC Democratic Republic of Congo.

DSP Mobutu’s Special Presidential Division (elite unit in the army during Mobutu regime).

EU European Union.

EUFOR RDC European Force for the DRC.

Filimbi “Whistle”, an activist youth group.

FARDC Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

G7 Opposition group formed by majority dissidents ACO, UNADEF, UNAFEC, MSDD, ARC, MSR and PDC.

GR Republican Guard, elite unit of the Congolese armed forces.

Kuluna Urban Gangs.

Lucha Lutte pour le changement, youth movement.

M23 March 23 Movement.

MLC Movement for the Liberation of Congo.

MONUC UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1999 to July 2010.

MONUSCO United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since July 2010.

PALU Unified Lumumbist Party, political party, allied to the majority.

PNC Congolese National Police.

PPRD Peoples’ Party for Reconstruction and Development (majority).

Rassemblement Opposition platform, created near Brussels in June 2016, led by the UDPS and supported by Moïse Katumbi.

RTNC Congolese National Television.

SSR Security Sector Reform.

Telema “Arise” or “Stand-up”, an opposition cry.

UDPS Union for Democracy and Social Progress, opposition political party led by Etienne Tshisekedi.

UN United Nations.

UNJHRO UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC.

UNC Union for the Congolese Nation (opposition).

UNILU University of Lubumbashi.

Wewa Motorcycle taxi riders.

Wumela “Stay Longer”, a cry of Kabila’s partisans.

Yebela “Know-it”, that is that your mandate is about to expire, an opposition cry.

Burundi's minister of public security, Alain Guillaume Bunyoni (C) visits with other officials a village in north-west Burundi, in the Cibitoke province, where 26 people were killed by attackers coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo in May 2018. AFP/STR
Briefing 150 / Africa

Averting Proxy Wars in the Eastern DR Congo and Great Lakes

Three Great Lakes states – Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda – are trading charges of subversion, each accusing another of sponsoring rebels based in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Outside powers should help the Congolese president resolve these tensions, lest a lethal multi-sided melee ensue.

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What’s new? Tensions are mounting in Africa’s Great Lakes region among Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, all of which allegedly back insurgents based in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). At the same time, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi is considering inviting these countries into the DRC to fight groups they respectively oppose.

Why does it matter? Given their growing animosity, these three countries, if invited into the DRC, could escalate support to allied militias while targeting enemies. The DRC’s neighbours have historically used militias operating there against one another. A new proxy struggle could further destabilise the DRC and even provoke a full-blown regional security crisis.

What should be done? Instead of involving neighbours in military operations, Tshisekedi should redouble his diplomatic efforts to ease regional frictions, building on a recent joint DRC-Angolan initiative and drawing on the UN, U.S., UK and France for support.

I. Overview

Intensifying hostility among states in the Great Lakes threatens a return to the regional wars that tore that region apart in previous decades. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, accuses Burundi and Uganda of backing Rwandan rebels active in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North and South Kivu provinces and threatens to retaliate for those groups’ attacks on his country. In turn, Burundi and Uganda assert that Rwanda supports Burundian and Ugandan rebels in the DRC. At the same time, the DRC’s new president, Félix Tshisekedi, has floated plans to invite Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda to conduct joint military operations with DRC troops against insurgents sheltering in his country, a risky policy that could fuel proxy conflicts. Instead, Tshisekedi should prioritise the diplomatic track he has also launched, together with Angolan President João Lourenço, to calm tensions among his neighbours. The UN and Western governments, particularly those of the U.S., UK and France should throw their weight behind his efforts.

Tensions between Rwanda and its two neighbours, Burundi and Uganda, have escalated over the past two years.

Tensions between Rwanda and its two neighbours, Burundi and Uganda, have escalated over the past two years. In November 2019, Kagame openly threatened to retaliate against his neighbours after an October 2019 raid in Rwanda by a North Kivu-based militia that he alleges is supported by Burundi and Uganda. For its part, Burundi claims that Rwanda backs Burundian rebels, based in South Kivu, that it asserts are behind recent attacks in Burundi. The Burundian and Rwandan governments have deployed troops to their mutual border. Kagame’s longstanding rivalry with his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, has also taken a turn for the worse, with the latter accusing the former of backing DRC-based insurgents against Kampala. Both leaders have purged their security forces of officials perceived as too closely tied to the other, Rwanda has closed the main Rwanda-Uganda border crossing and Uganda has deployed troops to the DRC border. Mounting distrust among the DRC’s neighbours carries grave risks for the DRC, given how their rivalries have historically played out in that country.

Tshisekedi, in office for barely a year, has put a welcome premium on diplomacy to ease tensions. Together with Lourenço, he facilitated discussions in July 2019 between the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents in Luanda. Tshisekedi has also worked to improve DRC’s relations with Rwanda. At the same time, however, he has pursued a plan under which Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda would conduct military operations, under the DRC army’s authority, against insurgencies sheltering in his country. This policy risks fuelling proxy conflicts in the DRC. Instead, the Congolese president should reinvigorate his diplomatic track, bringing in Burundi as well as Rwanda and Uganda. He should invite the UN’s special envoy for the Great Lakes to oversee tripartite talks aimed at easing hostilities. The UN envoy should encourage Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan officials to share evidence of their rivals’ support for insurgents in the DRC as a first step toward a roadmap for the withdrawal of that backing. The U.S., UK and France should use their long-time influence in the Great Lakes to press for de-escalation.

Our interactive timeline provides a chronology of major conflicts in the Great Lakes region between 1998 and 2020.

II. President Kagame Rattles the Sabre as Regional Tensions Mount

On 14 November 2019, Rwandan President Paul Kagame gave a blistering speech in Kigali, insinuating that Rwanda’s neighbours were sponsoring cross-border attacks. Speaking at a swearing-in ceremony for ministers and military officials, and visibly agitated, Kagame addressed Rwandan members of parliament in both English and his native Kinyarwanda. The country has been stable, he said, since his military takeover ended the 1994 genocide, but its security is once again in peril, this time from outside its borders. The president did not name those at fault, but his message was clear: Rwanda’s neighbours were undermining the country’s security and he was prepared to retaliate if need be. “The noises being made, from neighbouring countries … there is not much that I can do about it”, he said. “But anything crossing our border and coming here to destabilise us … we have proven that we can deal with it. We will put you back where you belong. There is no question about it”.[fn]Swearing in of new government officials and RDF leaders”, video, YouTube, 14 November 2019.Hide Footnote

Kagame’s speech came shortly after an attack on Rwanda launched from the eastern DRC. On 4 October, DRC-based fighters killed fourteen people in Kinigi village, a hub for mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda’s Musanze district. Rwandan officials and regional intelligence sources attribute the strike to the 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 genocide.[fn]Crisis Group interview, intelligence source from the Great Lakes, October 2019. See also “Assailants: FDLR was behind Musanze attack”, The New Times, 7 October 2019. According to this report in The New Times, a publication widely seen as close to the government, a group of assailants arrested for alleged involvement in the attack confessed to having joined the FDLR.Hide Footnote  Mounting evidence points to an alliance between the FDLR and the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) rebels.[fn]“Final Report of the Group of Experts on the DRC”, S/2019/479, 7 June 2019; Crisis Group researcher’s interview in a previous capacity, senior captured FDLR officers, Kinshasa, January 2019.Hide Footnote  The RNC, also based in the DRC, is led by Tutsi defectors from Kagame’s government, allegedly including Kayumba Nyamwasa, who once was one of Kagame’s most trusted generals but now is exiled in South Africa.[fn]Nyamwasa denied links to any armed activity. RNC cadres, however, refer to him as their leader. Crisis Group researcher’s interviews in a previous capacity, Nyamwasa and South Africa-based RNC source, July 2018. See also “Rwanda charges 25 men tied to rebel outfit with treason, other crimes”, Reuters, 2 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Kagame’s speech was a reaction to the Kinigi attack and escalating tensions between Rwanda and two neighbours, Burundi and Uganda. Kigali suspects both of sponsoring Rwandan rebels, including the FDLR and RNC, in the eastern DRC. Rwandan officials say they have evidence of recent Ugandan support to the FDLR, whose fighters are concentrated in the DRC’s North Kivu province.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rwandan official, Kigali, June 2019; Nairobi, September 2019.Hide Footnote  They accuse Uganda and Burundi of backing the RNC. Since 2017, RNC fighters have been based in strongholds on the remote plateau of South Kivu province, where they have allied with Congolese Banyamulenge Tutsi militiamen hostile to the Congolese army and Rwanda. Rwandan and DRC officials, as well as local sources, say some RNC fighters have moved from those areas to join up with FDLR units in Rutshuru territory in North Kivu, an area close to the Rwandan and Ugandan borders from which the attacks on Kinigi appear to have emanated.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rwandan and DRC intelligence sources, October 2019. In the same month, Crisis Group received corroborating information from sources in the eastern DRC.Hide Footnote Rwandan authorities believe that Burundian intelligence officials and the Imbonerakure, the Burundian ruling-party youth militia, are embedded with RNC forces.[fn]Crisis Group researcher’s interview in another capacity, senior Rwandan intelligence officer, Gisenyi, August 2018.Hide Footnote

As Rwanda faces a mounting threat on its western flank, it is also concerned by recent attacks on its southern border with Burundi.

As Rwanda faces a mounting threat on its western flank, it is also concerned by recent attacks on its southern border with Burundi. Rwandan and DRC intelligence officials report that Burundi hosts FDLR splinter elements from South Kivu, which it has deployed to its border with Rwanda.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rwandan official, September 2019; DRC intelligence source, October 2019.Hide Footnote  In December 2018, assailants coming from Burundi launched an attack in the Nyungwe forest in south-western Rwanda, another tourist attraction and a popular weekend destination for Kigali residents. The attackers killed two Rwandan civilians and injured another eight.[fn]See, for instance, “Kagame blames neighbours as two are killed in attack”, The East African, 16 December 2018.Hide Footnote  The Rwandan army has since saturated Nyungwe, aiming to reinforce its positions and reassure Rwandans and foreign diplomats alike that the forest is safe to visit.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomat and intelligence source from a European country, Kigali, June 2019.Hide Footnote  Following the attacks, Kagame resurrected an internal security ministry that he disbanded two years ago, appointing a former chief of defence as its head.[fn]“Gen Kazura replaces Gen Nyamvumba as Kagame shakes up top military brass”, The New Times, 5 November 2019; “Police placed under Ministry of Internal Security”, Taarifa Rwanda, 18 November 2019.Hide Footnote

Authorities in Kigali point to the April 2019 arrest of Rwandan rebel Callixte Nsabimana to bolster their accusations of outside interference. Nsabimana, arrested by the Rwanda Investigation Bureau, a crime-fighting body, is a former RNC member who later became spokesperson of the National Liberation Forces, the armed wing of another Rwandan opposition group, the Mouvement rwandais pour le Changement démocratique (MRCD), which partly comprises FDLR splinter elements. During his trial, he pleaded guilty to ordering the Nyungwe attack and admitted receiving support from Burundi and Uganda.[fn]“Proces-Verbal d’interrogatoire Nsabimana Callixte alias Sankara (traduction du kinyarwanda au français)”, Office rwandais d’Investigation, 10 May 2019. According to the record, Sankara was vice president of the RNC Youth in South Africa, information and communication commissioner and journalist for the RNC radio. He left the RNC in October 2017.Hide Footnote  The MRCD, however, suggested in a press release that Rwandan intelligence obtained Nsabimana’s confession through coercion.[fn]“The appearance of Major Callixte Nsabimana”, MRCD, press release, 23 May 2019.Hide Footnote

UN reports partially support Kigali’s claims of Burundian and Ugandan ties to Kagame’s armed rivals.

UN reports partially support Kigali’s claims of Burundian and Ugandan ties to Kagame’s armed rivals. In December 2018, the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, which reports to the Security Council, concluded that the P5, a group of Rwandan opposition factions including the RNC, were working with rebels in the DRC with the aim of toppling Kagame’s government. The experts reported that the P5 received weapons and other support from Bujumbura, a claim Burundian authorities denied.[fn]“Midterm Report of the Group of Experts on the DRC”, S/2018/1133, 18 December 2018.Hide Footnote  In the same month, two prominent FDLR members, the group’s spokesperson Ignace Nkaka, known as La Forge, and its deputy intelligence officer Jean-Pierre Nsekanabo, were arrested at Bunangana, North Kivu, on the DRC-Uganda border. Both men were extradited to Kigali via Kinshasa. Interviewed by officials of the UN mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) in the Congolese capital before their extradition, they said they had met RNC members and a Ugandan minister in Kampala.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former UN officials involved in interviewing Laforge and Nsekanabo, December 2019.Hide Footnote  A Ugandan official admitted to Crisis Group that the minister may have met La Forge and Nsekanabo, but in a private capacity.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Ugandan official, Doha, December 2019. La Forge and Nsekanabo allegedly met with Philemon Mateke, the Ugandan minister of state for foreign affairs and regional cooperation.Hide Footnote

For their part, Burundian officials accuse Kigali of supporting the South Kivu-based Burundian rebel group, RED-Tabara, a claim that Rwanda rejects.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Burundian official, November 2019; Burundian official, January 2020.Hide Footnote  Founded in 2011, RED-Tabara is reportedly led by Alexis Sinduhije, a Tutsi opponent of the Hutu-dominated Burundian government whom the U.S. has sanctioned since 2015 for instigating “armed rebellion”.[fn]“Treasury sanctions four Burundian individuals”, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 18 December 2015. Alexis Sinduhije has never officially claimed to be head of RED-Tabara or any other rebel group, but Burundian rebel testimonies suggest that he is in fact the movement’s political leader. A UN Group of Experts report states that combatants, while disagreeing about the group’s exact name, “all agreed that they were fighting for Sinduhije”. “Final Report of UN Group of Experts on the DRC”, S/2016/466, 23 May 2016. On 27 September 2019, an arrested RED-Tabara fighter, Dismas Ndayisaba, identified Sinduhije as RED-Tabara’s leader at a press conference. “La justice burundaise se serait-elle réveillé d’une profond sommeil?”, Radio Publique Africaine, 28 September 2018.Hide Footnote  On 22 October – two and a half weeks after the Kinigi attacks – RED-Tabara clashed with security forces in Musigati, Burundi, leaving at least a dozen dead on each side of the border; RED-Tabara acknowledged that it attacked first.[fn]Tweet by RED-Tabara, @Red_Tabara, resistance movement, 5:53pm, 22 October 2019. On 24 October, RED-Tabara tweeted that it would only communicate via its official Twitter account, stating that “facts attributed to RED that are not confirmed by its official channel concern only its authors”.Hide Footnote  On 16 November, assailants launched another assault on a Burundian military position. At least eight Burundian soldiers died in the firefight ten kilometres from the Rwandan border in the Burundian commune of Mabayi, Cibitoke province, and dozens more are missing.[fn]Burundi is divided into eighteen provinces, the largest local administrative unit, which are subdivided into communes, each of which is composed of several collines. From 3-10 December, the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) deployed a verification mission to investigate the Mabayi attack, conducting fieldwork in Goma in the DRC; Gisenyi and Kigali in Rwanda; and Bugarama, Bujumbura, Cibitoke, Marura and Nemba in Burundi.Hide Footnote  RED-Tabara has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility. On 6 December, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza accused Rwanda of staging the “cowardly” attack, a claim repudiated by Rwandan officials.[fn]On 6 December 2019, President Nkurunziza stated: “Burundi has repeatedly been the victim of armed aggression since 2015. Attacks have come mainly from Rwanda and the DRC. The attackers have been sponsored, trained and militarily equipped by Rwanda, which unfortunately has disrupted the security of some countries in the sub-region in the recent past”. “Discours du Président Pierre Nkurunziza à l’ouverture de la 10ème Session de l’Assemblée de la CIRGL”, Mashariki TV, 6 December 2019.Hide Footnote

These attacks come as political tensions heat up in Burundi ahead of elections scheduled for May 2020.

These attacks come as political tensions heat up in Burundi ahead of elections scheduled for May 2020. As Nkurunziza increasingly depends on the Imbonerakure to repress political opponents, Rwanda points to the youth militia’s growing presence in the eastern DRC, including within RNC ranks.[fn]“Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi”, UN Human Rights Council, 6 August 2019.Hide Footnote  One Burundian official stated that if indeed Imbonerakure units have been deployed in South Kivu, then that would be a defensive move, given Rwanda’s alleged backing of the attempted coup against Nkurunziza in 2015 and the subsequent flight of some putschists into South Kivu.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Burundian official, January 2020. In the wake of the May 2015 coup attempt in Burundi, the country’s foreign minister, Alain Nyamitwe, accused Rwanda of backing the insurrection. See “Burundi’s Nyamitwe accuses Rwanda of training rebels”, BBC, 1 October 2015.Hide Footnote  The official noted that Nkurunziza is determined to forestall any attempt by Burundian rebels to draw on Rwandan support and attack the country in the run-up to elections.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Burundian official, January 2020.Hide Footnote  Burundi has also reinforced military deployments in Cibitoke following the November attack.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Burundian official, January 2019. See also “Cibitoke : mutation des militaires affectés aux postes frontaliers avec le Rwanda”, SOS Médias Burundi, 13 November 2019. The report details deployments prior to the attack, though Crisis Group has received information that more deployments took place afterward.Hide Footnote

III. Rwanda’s Dangerous Rivalry with Uganda

The rivalry between Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has long been among the gravest contributors to instability in the Great Lakes region. Animosity between the two men has sharpened dramatically in the last two years.[fn]Nicholas Norbrook, Parselelo Kantai and Patrick Smith, “How Kagame and Museveni became the best of frenemies”, The Africa Report, 4 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Competition between Rwanda and Uganda traditionally has played out mostly in the DRC, where both have sought to win influence and control turf.

Competition between Rwanda and Uganda traditionally has played out mostly in the DRC, where both have sought to win influence and control turf. During the 1998-2003 inter-Congolese war, the two countries backed competing rebel factions in the eastern DRC and deployed their own forces into the country, with Rwandan and Ugandan troops battling for the city of Kisangani in 2000. After the war, rebel leaders supported by Kigali or Kampala won positions in Joseph Kabila’s transitional government, as their respective fighters were formally integrated into the national army.[fn]“The National Army and Armed Groups in the Eastern Congo: Untangling the Gordian Knot of Insecurity”, Rift Valley Institute – Usalama Project, 2013.Hide Footnote  Informally, however, rebel leaders retained some foreign ties and their command of former fighters within and outside the army.

Rwanda and Uganda have both backed rebellions in the DRC in the past twelve years. The first, in 2008, was led by the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP), whose leader, Laurent Nkunda, was a Congolese Tutsi warlord who had been integrated into the Congolese army. UN investigators subsequently revealed Kigali’s backing for Nkunda’s forces, prompting Rwanda to withdraw its support and arrest Nkunda, who had retreated into Rwandan territory when his rebellion ended, largely due to the withdrawal of Rwanda’s support in the face of international pressure.[fn]“Final Report of the Group of Experts on the DRC”, S/2008/773, 12 December 2008; “Interim Report of the Group of Experts on the DRC”, S/2012/348, 21 June 2012; and “Addendum to the Interim Report”, S/2012/348/Add.1, 27 June 2012.Hide Footnote  Kabila, then the Congolese president, again integrated many rebels into the army; elite army units that Kabila subsequently deployed to the hardest-hit conflict zones in the country often comprised former CNDP fighters.[fn]See “Final Report of the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo”, S/2009/603, 9 November 2009, which details the CNDP units’ integration into the national army and their deployment in the Kivu provinces.Hide Footnote  In 2012, some ex-CNDP units that had integrated into the army broke away, forming the M23 rebel group. This time, Rwanda and Uganda both backed the rebels.[fn]“Final Report of the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo”, S/2012/843, 15 November 2012.Hide Footnote  When Congolese and UN forces defeated the M23 in 2013, followers of one M23 leader, Bosco Ntaganda, fled to and surrendered in Rwanda, while many of those still loyal in spirit to the arrested Nkunda surrendered to Uganda.

Over the past two years, former M23 fighters from both factions have returned to the DRC, fuelling animosity between Rwanda and Uganda.

Over the past two years, former M23 fighters from both factions have returned to the DRC, fuelling animosity between Rwanda and Uganda. In the run-up to the DRC’s 2018 elections, fighters began infiltrating back and embedding themselves in local conflicts in the eastern DRC.[fn]République Démocratique du Congo, Province de l’Ituri, Comité provincial de sécurité, “Compte rendu de l’interrogatoire des 4 éléments M23 et 1 civil, arrêtés à Kadilo/territoire Mahagi en date du 1 Avr 2018”; Crisis Group interviews, armed group member and MONUSCO official, August and October 2019.Hide Footnote  Those hosted by Uganda accused their former comrades who had been in Rwanda of being Kigali’s puppets – and vice versa.[fn]Crisis Group researcher’s interviews in a previous capacity, ex-M23 cadres, June-September 2018.Hide Footnote  UN officials point out that Uganda has allowed the majority of the cohort of more than 1,300 former Congolese M23 rebels who had surrendered to Kampala to leave a military camp near the Ugandan town of Bihanga where they were housed.[fn]In a previous capacity, a Crisis Group researcher visited the Bihanga camp during the course of 2018 and documented that hundreds of ex-M23 fighters were no longer present.Hide Footnote  Some have turned up in hotspots in eastern Congo over the last two years. Although Kigali was once the M23’s main backer, because this faction surrendered to Uganda, Rwandan intelligence officials believe that Kampala is now dispatching them on its own errands.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rwandan intelligence source, September 2019. Crisis Group researcher’s interviews in a previous capacity, several ex-M23 fighters in both Uganda and Rwanda, June 2018.Hide Footnote

Moreover, representatives of Congolese insurgent groups, including ex-M23 cadres, operate freely in Kampala and meet regularly with Ugandan military officials, even as Uganda categorically denies supporting rebels in the DRC or plotting to destabilise either that country or Rwanda.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of Congolese armed group, August 2019; diplomats, Kampala, July 2019.Hide Footnote  These representatives travel back and forth to North Kivu and the troubled Ituri province in the eastern DRC.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kampala.Hide Footnote  Ugandan officials say they are aware of the presence of armed group representatives and ex-M23 fighters in Uganda, but can only take action against those for whom they have evidence of involvement in plots to destabilise the region.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Ugandan official, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Rwandan officials argue that Ugandan officials simply turn a blind eye to armed groups’ activities and that the RNC itself recruits freely in Uganda.[fn]Crisis Group researcher’s interview in a previous capacity, Rwandan official, Gisenyi, August 2018.Hide Footnote

For their part, Ugandan officials accuse Rwanda of supporting the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel movement active in the eastern DRC.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ugandan official, December 2019.Hide Footnote  No independent body has verified the charge, but the accusations in themselves add to tensions. Uganda has beefed up border patrols and deployed the Mountain Brigade, a special army unit, to the Rwenzori mountains at the DRC-Uganda border, looking out over DRC territory that has been at the epicentre of ADF activity over the last few years.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Ugandan official, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Kigali and Kampala have both taken other steps that have contributed to escalating friction. Presidents Kagame and Museveni have purged their security services of officials seen as too closely linked to the other country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Kampala, July and August 2019. See also “Sibling rivalry turns ugly”, Africa Confidential, 22 March 2019.Hide Footnote  Ugandan authorities even arrested the country’s former chief of police, Kale Kayihura, in June 2018, accusing him of working with other police officers and Rwandan agents between 2012 and 2016 to kidnap Rwandan dissidents in Uganda and deport them to Rwanda.[fn]“Uganda/Rwanda: Forcible Return Raises Grave Concerns”, Human Rights Watch, 4 November 2013; “Ugandan officials charged with abducting Rwanda refugees”, The East African, 9 January 2019. Hide Footnote  Acrimony between the two countries reached a high in February 2019, when Kigali closed a commercially important border crossing amid mutual accusations of spying.[fn]“Why a closed border has Uganda, Rwanda at loggerheads”, Bloomberg, 8 March 2019.Hide Footnote  In May and November, Rwandan security forces killed a small number of Ugandans and Rwandans accused of smuggling, drawing the ire of Ugandan officials who believe that the shootings were hostile acts between nations.[fn]“Uganda, Rwanda in row over border killings”, The East African, 26 May 2019; “Two Ugandan businessmen shot dead in Rwanda”, Daily Monitor, 10 November 2019. Crisis Group telephone interview, Ugandan official, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Uganda has rounded up Rwandan nationals for detention.[fn]“Uganda arrests close to 200 Rwandans”, The New Times, 26 November 2019.Hide Footnote

Uganda’s role in Burundi has become a point of contention.

Lastly, Uganda’s role in Burundi has become a point of contention. Rwandan officials criticise Museveni for his failure as East African Community mediator of the inter-Burundian dialogue.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°278, Running Out of Options in Burundi, 20 June 2019.Hide Footnote  They believe that Museveni has preferred to avoid stepping in forcefully to help resolve the crisis in the interest of preserving his relations with President Nkurunziza, whom he needs as an ally against Rwanda.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rwandan official, September 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. Improving Rwandan-DRC Relations

If Rwanda’s relations with Burundi and Uganda are ever more strained, its ties to the DRC, which in the past have alternated between discord and détente, have warmed, particularly since President Tshisekedi took office. But improved Rwanda-DRC relations could carry risks for the DRC’s new president, potentially creating bad blood between him and Kampala.

Since the M23 rebellion ended in 2013, Kinshasa and Kigali have attempted to maintain cordial relations. During his tenure, former president Kabila made sure that his security services cooperated and shared intelligence with Kigali.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, DRC intelligence sources, October 2019.Hide Footnote  Rwandan officials sought to reciprocate, stating in private that they would collaborate with DRC authorities to neutralise armed groups by covert means.[fn]Crisis Group researcher’s interview in a previous capacity, Rwandan official, August 2018.Hide Footnote  The UN investigators’ unearthing in 2008 and 2012 of evidence showing Kigali’s support for the CNDP and M23 provided further incentive for Rwanda to demonstrate that it is cooperating. Rwandan officials still smart from the international outcry that ensued and want to avoid further accusations of backing rebellions in eastern DRC.[fn]Crisis Group researcher’s interview in another capacity, senior Rwandan intelligence official, December 2017.Hide Footnote

Under President Tshisekedi, Kinshasa has if anything tightened its embrace of Rwanda.

Under President Tshisekedi, Kinshasa has if anything tightened its embrace of Rwanda. Kinshasa has shown a newfound appetite to take on the FDLR and some of its splinter groups, which in the past the DRC’s army has often supported as proxies against Kigali. For example, DRC military officials say that increased intelligence sharing has resulted in successful operations against an FDLR splinter group in South Kivu in late 2019, with hundreds of its fighters and dependents surrendering and repatriating peacefully to Rwanda in December.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, DRC military source, January 2020. See also “400 more anti-Rwanda militia fighters captured in DR Congo”, The New Times, 19 December 2019.Hide Footnote

Kinshasa’s closer ties to Kigali have reportedly even entailed the DRC suppressing intelligence that suggests Kigali’s continued involvement in that country.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, DRC intelligence officers, October 2019.Hide Footnote  In private, some DRC officials say Rwandan security forces were involved in the killings of the FDLR’s commander, Sylvestre Mudacumura, in September, and a prominent FDLR splinter leader, Juvenal Musabimana, in November.[fn]Ibid. Regional diplomats and observers say it is likely that the Rwandan intelligence service acquired crucial information about Muducumura’s whereabouts by interrogating La Forge. Muducumura allegedly wore a USB stick containing encrypted FDLR files around his neck. If Rwanda obtained that information, that could explain why it was able to target other rebel leaders after killing Muducumura. Musabimana was killed on 10 November. On 3 December, the Congolese army reported the arrest in Goma of FDLR leader Nshimiyimana Asifiwe Manudi; and on 4 December, an FDLR colonel, Gaspard Africa, was killed in Rutshuru territory.Hide Footnote  Both died in murky surprise attacks in Rutshuru territory of North Kivu. But the DRC’s military authorities, when announcing the deaths, asserted that Rwanda had played no role.[fn]Tweets by Forces Armées RDC, @FARDC_, 2:55pm, 18 September 2019 and 10:06am, 10 November 2019.Hide Footnote

The DRC authorities’ recent withdrawal of arrest warrants for the former M23 faction exiled in Rwanda further illustrates Tshisekedi’s closer relations with Kagame. In a letter to the DRC’s military prosecutor, the coordinator of the DRC government’s national oversight mechanism of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework (PSCF), a 2013 regional peace agreement signed by the DRC and other African governments, stated that ex-M23 combatants should be allowed to return to the DRC, amnestied and reintegrated into the Congolese army and bureaucracy, although the order has yet to take effect.[fn]Letter from Claude Ibalanky Ekolomba to the DRC’s military prosecutor, “Retrait des mandats d’arrêt contre les ex-combattants du Mouvement du 23 mars (ex-M23)”, 20 November 2019. See also “Angry reactions as DRC president rescinds arrest warrants against M23 rebel leaders”, The Chronicles, 23 November 2019.Hide Footnote  This M23 cohort’s leader, Bosco Ntaganda, was tried and convicted of war crimes at the International Criminal Court in early November.[fn]“Bosco Ntaganda sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment”, International Criminal Court, press release, 7 November 2019.Hide Footnote  The faction includes perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities that occurred during the 2012-2013 rebellion. (The status of the larger M23 cohort that surrendered to Uganda and now moves freely in and out of the military camp in that country remains unclear, though some also reportedly hope to receive amnesty and join the army.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ex-M23 cadre, November and December 2019.Hide Footnote )

Absent steps to de-escalate tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, the DRC’s cooperation with Rwanda could backfire.

The DRC-Rwanda cooperation is welcome but could provoke Kampala and Bujumbura to step up support for proxies in the DRC if they perceive Kinshasa’s alliance with Kigali as threatening their own security. Absent steps to de-escalate tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, the DRC’s cooperation with Rwanda could backfire, most likely in the form of violent competition between Rwanda and Uganda on Congolese turf. That, in turn, could provoke a popular backlash whipped up by Congolese politicians who often stir anti-Rwandan and anti-Tutsi sentiment during periods where Rwanda has supported armed insurgencies in the country’s east.[fn]See “Congolese riot over UN ‘failure’”, BBC, 3 June 2004. Thousands of Congolese attacked UN bases in 2004 after Laurent Nkunda captured the eastern town of Bukavu. Kabila was cited as saying that “it is clearly an attack on our country by Rwandan troops”. Rioting also took place in 2008 during the CNDP rebellion. See “DR Congo: More fighting in North Kivu, violence during demonstration in Katanga”, Reliefweb, 16 October 2008. See also “Fighting in Congo rekindles ethnic hatreds”, The New York Times, 10 January 2008.Hide Footnote  Defections could also increase from within the DRC’s army with some commanders or factions persuaded by Rwanda’s rivals to take up arms against the government.[fn]On 9 January 2020, the Congolese army confirmed the defection of Colonel Michel Rukunda, alias Makanika, second in command in the Walikale sector. Before his integration into the army in 2011, Makanika was part of the Republican Federalist Forces, a Banyamulenge rebel group hostile to Kinshasa and Kigali. Tweet by Forces Armées RDC, @FARDC_, 12:04am, 9 January 2020.Hide Footnote

V. Prioritising Dialogue over Military Operations

President Tshisekedi initially sought to use his improved relations with Rwanda to calm regional tensions. Recognising the danger posed by the Rwanda-Uganda rivalry, he invited Presidents Kagame and Museveni together to Luanda for meetings in July 2019 co-hosted by his Angolan counterpart. The meetings resulted in a memorandum of understanding, signed on 21 August in Luanda, in which both parties promised to refrain from “actions conducive to destabilisation or subversion in the territory of the other party and neighbouring countries”.[fn]“Memorandum of Understanding of Luanda between the Republic of Uganda and the Republic of Rwanda”, 21 August 2019. This document was signed by Presidents Kagame and Museveni, as well as the facilitators, Presidents Lourenço and Tshisekedi.Hide Footnote  In December, however, Rwandan and Ugandan officials failed to reach agreement on how to implement the Luanda memorandum and talks collapsed in acrimony. The disagreement partly owes to Rwandan accusations of continued Ugandan support to proxies, but another challenge is that the parties cannot reach agreement on any given mechanism by which to substantiate allegations of links to armed groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Ugandan official, December 2019. The official stated that the talks collapsed due to Kigali’s resistance to create a verification mechanism to substantiate or debunk allegations. Rwanda’s state media reported the talks deadlocked due to Rwanda’s insistence that Uganda continued to support proxy armed groups and conduct arbitrary arrests and illegal detention of Rwandan citizens. See “Rwanda, Uganda talks deadlocked”, The New Times, 14 December 2019.Hide Footnote

President Tshisekedi’s push for the three neighbours to send troops to root out rebels from the DRC is a high-stakes gambit.

Meanwhile, Tshisekedi had begun exploring military options. Reportedly, the Congolese president’s emphasis on such options came mostly at the behest of President Kagame, who is increasingly impatient with threats emanating from DRC.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomat, Kinshasa, October 2019; European diplomat, New York, October 2019.Hide Footnote  In June, the intelligence chiefs of the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania (an ally of Burundi) met in Kinshasa to discuss the neutralisation of insurgents in the DRC’s east. In the following months, military commanders from these countries, joined by officials from the UN’s mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) and the U.S. army, attempted to develop battle plans.[fn]Representatives of the U.S. Africa Command attended the meeting.Hide Footnote  In October, DRC army commanders outlined an arrangement by which neighbouring countries’ forces would launch offensives, overseen by the DRC army, against militias on Congolese territory.[fn]“Document État-Major Intégré”, signed by Célestin Mbala Munsense, Army General, EMG Chief of the FARDC, October 2019.Hide Footnote  But Congolese, Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan commanders failed to advance the proposal at their last meeting, in October 2019, mostly due to Uganda’s reluctance to allow Rwanda to track the FDLR near the Ugandan border. More talks are expected in early 2020.[fn]“Foreign Troops Enter DRC: Why the Goma Meeting Failed”, Kivu Security Tracker, 18 November 2019.Hide Footnote

President Tshisekedi’s push for the three neighbours to send troops to root out rebels from the DRC is a high-stakes gambit. It opens the door to military operations without concurrent political de-escalation, heightening risks that neighbours use armed intervention in the DRC to reinforce their own proxies at the expense of their rivals’. It could even erode the Congolese army’s internal cohesion, particularly given the delicate potential reintegration plans for former M23 rebels, who are susceptible to Rwandan or Ugandan manipulation.

Rather than pursuing military operations, President Tshisekedi should push for further talks aimed at reducing tensions among his eastern neighbours. He should build on the Angola forum to host, with President Lourenço, fresh talks between Rwanda and Uganda, while seeking similar talks between Rwanda and Burundi.

Separately, the UN and the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), an intergovernmental body comprising states in the region which is one of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework’s guarantors, should collect and investigate evidence of support to armed groups in the DRC. Xia Huang, the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes, who has been instrumental in convening the Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence chiefs, should push the DRC’s neighbours to give evidence they have of such support by other governments. Xia should request that they share that evidence with the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, which is mandated by the Security Council to investigate allegations and publish verified evidence, and with the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM) of the ICGLR. The EJVM is mandated under the PSCF’s terms to investigate allegations brought by any regional state.

Amassing evidence of support to proxies in the region and ideally establishing a shared understanding of that support would provide a stronger basis for the PSCF’s guarantors – comprising the UN, African Union and the regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community, in addition to the ICGLR – to push Great Lakes governments to stop fuelling conflict in the DRC. Admittedly, the challenges of verifying regional governments’ support to rebels in that country are great. The UN expert group is minimally staffed and would struggle to explore each and every allegation. The EJVM, which includes security personnel from Great Lakes and other countries on the continent, is also hamstrung by limited personnel and the internal politics of its membership. Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan representatives on the body all likely would face pressure from their respective governments to dilute findings that would reflect badly on their capitals. The UN Security Council would need to maintain pressure on all parties to cooperate with both the expert group’s and the EJVM’s investigations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior UN officials and EJVM staff member, January 2020. Officials reiterate that both the UN’s expert group and the EJVM have mandates for such investigations and would be ready to take on such a role.Hide Footnote

The U.S., UK and France can help.

The U.S., UK and France can help. All three are UN Security Council permanent members that historically have been invested in the Great Lakes region. While they all have appointed envoys for the Great Lakes, they could use them to greater effect by tasking them to work together to support regional dialogue.[fn]J. Peter Pham is U.S. special envoy to the Great Lakes, though also works as Director for the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council. The UK’s envoy to the Great Lakes Sophia Willitts-King is dual-hatted, also working as the Head of the Central and Southern Africa Department at the UK Foreign Office. France’s envoy is currently Sophie Makame, former Ambassador to Uganda.Hide Footnote  The envoys should also ensure that investigations and verifications remain on track and that political pressure is applied on Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda to roll back any support to armed groups they are found to be backing. A collective effort at regional diplomacy based around dialogue and appropriate verification of allegations would also relieve pressure on MONUSCO, which has struggled for years to find a military solution to the problem of rebels from the Great Lakes states sheltering in the eastern DRC.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°148, A New Approach for the UN to Stabilise the DR Congo, 4 December 2019.Hide Footnote

VI. Conclusion

The Great Lakes region is increasingly on edge. Distrust is rife among Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, all of which have connections to insurgents in the eastern DRC. President Tshisekedi’s emphasis on regional peacemaking deserves applause and his cooperation with Rwanda has delivered dividends in tackling Rwandan rebels. But these efforts should proceed alongside diplomacy aimed at stemming the Kigali-Kampala rivalry. More broadly, Tshisekedi should rethink his idea of inviting the three neighbours to participate in military operations in the DRC. Instead, he should seek an agreement that entails, first, the DRC’s eastern neighbours pledging not to back armed groups in the DRC and, secondly, a verification mechanism for investigating allegations of such involvement. This political track should build on the Luanda initiative. Special Envoy Xia’s recent diplomacy means that the UN is well placed to back all this, in line with Secretary-General António Guterres’s pledges to emphasise preventive diplomacy. By upping their diplomatic involvement, the U.S., UK and France can also play useful roles.

Without such efforts, there is a real risk that growing tension will fuel a wider regional security crisis. Were Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan forces given a green light for operations in the DRC, the danger would be all the graver, raising the spectre of an interlocking proxy war wherein each Great Lakes country is backing its rivals’ enemies.

 Nairobi/Brussels, 23 January 2020

Appendix A: Map of the Great Lakes Region

Map No. 4004,1 UNITED NATIONS