Pulling Back from the Brink in the Congo
Pulling Back from the Brink in the Congo
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Supporting Dialogue and Demobilisation in the DR Congo
Supporting Dialogue and Demobilisation in the DR Congo
Briefing 18 / Africa

Pulling Back from the Brink in the Congo

The crisis provoked by the struggle in late May and early June 2004 for control of Bukavu, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's strategically sensitive South Kivu province that borders Rwanda, is a stark reminder that the political transition agreed in May 2003 is not synonymous with peace.

I. Overview

The crisis provoked by the struggle in late May and early June 2004 for control of Bukavu, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's strategically sensitive South Kivu province that borders Rwanda, is a stark reminder that the political transition agreed in May 2003 is not synonymous with peace. Instead, it should be seen as another phase of the war that began in 1998, cost the lives of millions, and has never been conclusively ended[fn]The present situation results from a series of agreements concluded over the past five years, including: the Lusaka ceasefire agreement 1999, Pretoria and Luanda agreements 2002, and the Sun City agreement April 2003 (Inter-Congolese Dialogue).Hide Footnote

The Congo[fn]The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is referred to in this briefing as "the Congo" for reasons of familiarity and convenience. It is not to be confused, of course, with the Republic of Congo, with its capital of Brazzaville.Hide Footnote is in transition from a country ravaged by a major war to what is intended to become a reunified polity legitimised by democratic elections. This is meant to happen through a process outlined in several agreements that were mediated by South Africa and concluded among the Congolese and external belligerents in what was both a civil and an international conflict. However, that process has not yet reached the crucial stage at which all concerned have concluded that the benefits of peace outweigh the illusory gains of further fighting. The political transition mapped out in the Sun City agreement must be pursued with more resolution and more resources if genuine elections are indeed to be held in 2005 and Central Africa is to achieve a degree of stability.

The Bukavu crisis has dramatically shown that peace-building in North and South Kivu remains an urgent priority.[fn]A detailed ICG report on the Kivus is in preparation.Hide Footnote  The Congo's wars of 1996 and 1998 both started in the Kivus. There will be lasting peace in the country only if it has a strong foundation there. To a large extent, the intertwined conflicts that are still brewing in these eastern provinces are not different from others in the rest of the country, almost all of which was left destitute and ridden with ethnic antagonisms and communal rivalry over land and natural and mineral resources by 32 years of Joseph Mobutu's repressive and divisive politics. But these rivalries have reached no higher levels of violence than in the Kivus. This is due partly to local characteristics (land scarcity, high population densities) but mainly to the influence of the conflicts in the neighbouring states of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

As many other Congolese provinces, the Kivus are home to communities that straddle international borders. The Kivus' neighbours, however, have all suffered from disastrous civil conflicts and, in the cases of Rwanda (1994) and Burundi (1972), genocide. The fear of extermination and the ideology of genocide, which crossed into the Kivus, give them their potential for extreme violence. Between 8,000 and 12,000 Forces Démocratiques de Libérations du Rwanda (FDLR),[fn]Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a generic term for the politico-military movement of Rwandan Hutu rebels.Hide Footnote  Rwandan Hutu rebels, still roam the hills of South Kivu with no significant national or international effort to disarm them.[fn]ICG Africa Report No63, Rwandan Hutu Rebels in the Congo: A New Approach to Disarmament and Reintegration, 23 May 2003. The FDLR was entirely formed in the Congo, with strong backing from President Laurent Desiré Kabila, the father of the current president. It gathered in remnants of the ex-FAR (Forces Armées Rwandaises), which was the former predominantly Hutu Rwandan army, and the Interahamwe -- the name in Kinyarwanda means "those who pull or work together" -- a militia established by the former Rwandan government. The two shared responsibility for the 1994 genocide. A large majority of the FDLR rank and file fighters, however, are second generation Rwandan Hutus, who were too young to have taken part in the genocide. To considerable international scepticism, the movement has attempted to distance itself from the genocidal ideology of the ex-FAR and Interahamwe, professing commitment to international humanitarian law and claiming it is opposing an autocratic regime in order to restore democracy, not wipe out an ethnic minority.Hide Footnote Although these fighters no longer have the strength to represent a genuine security threat for Rwanda, they offer it both a real incentive and an ideal excuse to remain deeply involved in the political affairs of the two Kivus through the manipulation of frightened Rwandophone communities and periodic threats of military intervention. It is widely acknowledged that Rwanda's governing elite has developed important commercial interests in the Congo that alone may be sufficient to motivate continuing involvement in its internal affairs.

Moreover, it is only in the Kivus that national and regional forces opposed to the current peace process have the opportunity to confront one another and the Kinshasa government and ultimately weaken the transition. Spoilers -- Congolese and non-Congolese alike -- who have nothing to gain from a successful transition concluded by free and fair elections regularly manipulate the acute ethnic and political tensions in the Kivus to contest some of its key components such as the territorial reunification of the country, the transfer of tax revenues to Kinshasa, the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR process[fn]ICG has attempted to popularise the simpler term DR to identify all aspects of the post-conflict process of disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration, rehabilitation and repatriation of former combatants. For consistency with what appears to be the developing international consensus, it will henceforth use the term DDR as shorthand for these concepts.Hide Footnote ) of militias and the creation of a national army under a unified command.

Since the beginning of the transition, dissenting elements of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), a rebel group strongly backed by Rwanda during the civil war, have resisted reunification. The most important of these, RCD-Goma, fears that despite the large gains it made during the inter-Congolese negotiations, it would be the ultimate loser.[fn]The original RCD split into a number of groups. Only the RCD-Goma faction remains a significant factor in the current situation although the RCD-ML and the RCD-National are also represented in the transitional government.Hide Footnote  Simultaneously, anti-RCD extremists in Kinshasa did everything they could to frustrate the former Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC, the RCD's military wing) soldiers and humiliate them, as if they had lost the war. Finally, discontent with the poor performance of the government of transition has contributed to loss of momentum in the peace process.

At the end of 2003, Rwanda resumed military support to several Kivu militias, generally promoted a rebellious environment in Goma and Bukavu, and thereby gave some of its old allies the belief that they could maintain the status quo. Despite some DDR progress in the past few months, including the voluntary return of a few key Hutu rebel leaders, Kigali has given the impression that the restoration of effective Congolese sovereignty generally or Kinshasa's authority in the Kivus specifically is not in its interest in the present political context.

The crisis is far from over. None of the problems that rocked Bukavu in February 2004 and degenerated into a more direct confrontation in May-June that shook the very foundations of the Congolese peace process have been solved. Goma could easily become the next centre of turmoil, and Bukavu could fall again to the renegades.

The international community and its principal representative, the UN Mission for the Congo (MONUC), have failed to develop a strategy that could radically change the environment of political competition. The agonisingly slow transfer of MONUC military resources to the east -- not yet completed -- has not had the desired stabilising effect as it has not been backed up by the pro-active initiative to disarm the rebellious elements that has been awaited for more than a year.

Coming a year after the transition began, the May-June Bukavu crisis was a wake-up call for all parties to the peace process and the international community. Unless peace-building in the Kivus receives new priority and resources, a repetition could destroy the peace process before any elections can be held. The transitional government must demonstrate that it is capable of finding political solutions, while taking the necessary decisions, for example on the law on nationality and amnesty. At the same time, MONUC's shortcomings, which were evident during the crisis, need to be overcome, and it must implement its mandate more assertively.

The international community should put pressure on Rwanda to cease all military involvement in the Congo, whether through its own armed forces or through arming or otherwise encouraging Congolese surrogate forces. Rwanda should recognise that this peace process is the best security pledge it can expect, and accordingly let it proceed.

Kinshasa/Nairobi/Brussels, 7 July 2004

Commentary / Africa

Supporting Dialogue and Demobilisation in the DR Congo

Rising violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has the Great Lakes region on edge. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group explains what the EU and its member states can do to help bring stability to the area.

The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is experiencing an alarming uptick of violence. Fighting between the Congolese military and the March 23 Movement (M23), which resurfaced in November 2021 after suffering defeat in 2013, has surged. So, too, have attacks on civilians and camps for internally displaced people by other armed groups. The bloodshed has the entire Great Lakes region on edge and is creating friction beyond the DRC’s borders. Of greatest concern, the M23’s attacks have opened a rift between the DRC and Rwanda, with Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi labelling the rebel commanders “terrorists” who receive financial and logistical support from Kigali. 

Complicating matters is that the Congolese president has turned to some of his neighbours for support in tamping down insecurity in the east. Bent on rooting out the armed groups, in late 2021, Tshisekedi gave Ugandan and Burundian troops permission to carry out operations on Congolese soil. He then used the DRC’s accession to the East African Community (EAC) in March 2022 as an opportunity to ask the bloc for help. By way of response, the EAC agreed in April to establish a joint force composed of regional troops to battle militias in the east. But the force left out a key player: citing Rwanda’s alleged interference in the DRC’s affairs, Tshisekedi insisted that the country be excluded from the force, angering Kigali. 

So far, plans to stabilise the eastern DRC remain a work in progress. The new force has yet to fully deploy and is likely to face funding challenges. Meanwhile, diplomatic and demobilisation efforts meant to complement the military track show some promise but have yet to make substantial progress. 

The European Union (EU) and its member states should take the following steps in working to address instability in the eastern DRC: 

  • Refrain from providing financial support to the regional force – which some EAC states have already requested – pending greater clarity on its performance and the sufficiency of human rights safeguards.
  • Building on talks between Kinshasa and a select number of armed groups that were held in Nairobi in the spring, work with the DRC’s regional partners to develop plans for the next round of negotiations, focusing in particular on which militias should be included and for what purpose; in addition, provide financial and technical support for those negotiations. 
  • Provide support for DRC demobilisation efforts by pressing for greater clarity on links between the Nairobi political track, the EAC regional force’s mission and the DRC’s nascent community-based national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program. Ideally, groups that participate in the dialogue and express interest in demobilising would be given an opportunity to do so through the program. The program also requires donor support, which the EU and member states should provide if satisfied with anti-corruption safeguards and other criteria.
  • When evidence emerges that the DRC’s neighbours have violated its sovereignty – as was the case when a UN confidential report recently reached findings of Rwandan involvement with the M23 rebels – condemn the violations through bilateral and multilateral channels and underscore the threat that instability in the DRC could grow into a regional conflagration.

Turmoil in the Great Lakes

M23 rebels have once again taken up arms in the eastern DRC, a resource-rich area that has long been the battleground for overlapping conflicts involving regional powers and armed groups. The M23 is principally fighting the Congolese army, with hostilities centred in North Kivu province. This conflict has driven more than 170,000 people from their homes since the rebels re-emerged in November 2021, having previously been defeated and signed a peace deal in 2013. At first, the M23 mainly targeted Congolese soldiers, but since June the group has also been making civilian victims. MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, has expressed its concern about the M23’s sophisticated firepower and its own limited capacity to ward off the group. In a September interview with France 24 and RFI, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said “the M23 is a modern army with heavy weapons, more advanced than MONUSCO’s equipment”.

Along with the M23 insurgency, other armed groups have also intensified attacks on both military and civilian targets. Notable among them is the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan outfit whose biggest faction has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and whose members kill locals and loot or burn down villages. In late August, for instance, suspected ADF fighters killed at least 40 civilians in North Kivu. Meanwhile, the Coopérative pour le Développement du Congo (CODECO), a loose association of militias of mostly Lendu ethnicity operating in Ituri, has killed dozens of civilians and terrorised many more since the year began in a spate of raids on camps sheltering displaced people.

A confidential UN report … included evidence of continuing ties, indicating that Rwanda has helped reinvigorate the M23.

The stakes are high for Tshisekedi, who plans to seek a second term in office in 2023 polls and has repeatedly pledged to end the turmoil in the east. He has sought outside assistance to make good on his promise. In late 2021, Tshisekedi permitted Ugandan and Burundian troops to enter the country to fight, respectively, the ADF and RED-Tabara, a Burundian rebel group based in the DRC. Tshisekedi pointedly did not seek Rwanda’s assistance, at least partly because he believes that Rwanda is behind the M23’s abrupt reappearance. Rwanda (along with Uganda) did indeed back the group from when it first emerged in 2012 until Congolese and UN forces defeated the movement a year later. As Crisis Group has noted elsewhere, a confidential UN report leaked in August included evidence of continuing ties, indicating that Rwanda has helped reinvigorate the M23.

Tshisekedi’s decision to allow Ugandan and Burundian troops into the DRC but not Rwandans infuriated Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has rejected Tshisekedi’s accusations concerning Kigali’s links to the M23. Kagame alleges that, to the contrary, it is Kinshasa that is cooperating with the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a remnant of the Hutu militia responsible for the 1994 genocide. While some evidence suggests that the Congolese army works with the FDLR in some capacity – the leaked UN report says some army commanders cooperated with a coalition of armed groups, including FDLR members, in fighting the M23 – Kagame’s frustration at being left out likely has other dimensions as well. He may be concerned that Rwanda will be boxed out of access to the eastern DRC’s natural resources, in particular gold, and that the Ugandans will extend their sphere of influence in the region at Rwanda’s expense.

The DRC-Rwanda dispute escalated further after Tshisekedi’s decision to seek support from the EAC in April. The EAC answered that request by deciding to form a joint force composed of regional troops to battle armed groups in the eastern DRC. But Tshisekedi insisted that Rwandan soldiers be excluded from the force, riling Kagame further. Kagame’s sense of grievance – coupled with his conviction that Kinshasa is aiding the FLDR and fuelled by economic interests – may tempt him to order a unilateral incursion to target the FDLR, which he still considers a threat, or to back another proxy.

Meanwhile, components of the regional force are beginning to deploy, but the full force has not yet taken the field. In August, the Congolese authorities reported that a Burundian contingent had entered the DRC under EAC auspices. In late September, the Kenyan defence forces started deploying materiel and troops. South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda are also to send contingents to fight alongside Congolese forces.

A Risky New Force

Aside from the costs of alienating Rwanda, the EAC deploying a regional force carries other significant risks. The force’s draft battle plan says the bloc is to assemble between 6,500 and 12,000 soldiers with a mandate to “contain, defeat and eradicate negative forces”. The new forces will for the most part be joining forces from those countries that are already on the ground either by invitation of the Congolese (in the case of Burundi and Uganda) or as part of the UN peacekeeping mission that operates in the DRC with a civilian protection mandate (in the case of Kenya and Tanzania).

The presence of so many foreign forces in the eastern DRC could spell trouble. In the past, the DRC’s neighbours have repeatedly undermined stability in the east by arming proxy fighters and helping themselves to mineral wealth, such as cobalt, coltan and gold. Some – for example, Burundi and Uganda – may well continue to push their own agendas, even when their troops are placed under joint force command, as appears to be the plan. The force’s deployment could also energise armed groups unhappy with an influx of foreign soldiers, escalating levels of violence, including against civilians. Nor is it clear how the new force will coordinate with MONUSCO, which has an overlapping territorial writ but a different mandate focused on civilian protection. Finally, the EAC has never before deployed a peacekeeping or enforcement operation, much less put in place safeguards for protecting civilians, raising considerable concerns about human rights violations by the troops themselves. 

Funding shortfalls are one reason the joint force has not yet fully deployed. According to the draft battle plan, which outlines the force’s objectives and rules of engagement, each country is to pay for its own soldiers. Some governments will likely struggle to bear the costs, especially if the operation drags on. Kenya has reportedly already asked EU member states, as well as China and the U.S., for money for men and materiel. 

Foreign powers have options beyond funding the EAC regional force to support stabilisation efforts in the eastern DRC.

But foreign powers have options beyond funding the EAC regional force to support stabilisation efforts in the eastern DRC, notably a recently initiated diplomatic track. Back when the bloc’s seven leaders agreed to the joint force, they launched a round of Kenyan-mediated talks with Congolese militia leaders in Nairobi. The first round was scrambled hastily together by the Congolese and Kenyan authorities in April and involved only about twenty of roughly 120 armed groups, excluding among others the M23 branch loyal to its military commander Sultani Makenga (the most active of the group’s two factions) and outfits considered to be foreign such as the ADF and FDLR. The Congolese are discussing a second round but have not scheduled it.

The DRC’s demobilisation strategy is another part of the picture. Launched in April but yet to hit its stride, it focuses on returning former fighters to their communities and helping them build livelihoods outside the military, rather than integrating them in the army or granting amnesties, as previous demobilisation programs did. This demobilisation effort is at least theoretically linked to the EAC’s diplomatic and military tracks. According to the draft concept of operations, the joint force is mandated to support Tshisekedi’s demobilisation efforts, suggesting that the EAC expects armed groups to either commit to demobilising through the Nairobi political track or become targets for the regional force. But the concept offers no detail about how this would play out in practice. 

What the EU Can Do

Given all the uncertainty surrounding the EAC regional force, the EU and member states should hold off on providing its support through the European Peace Facility or other channels pending information about the force’s performance, impact on the eastern DRC’s stability and respect for human rights. On the whole, given the long record of proxy warfare in the area and its harm to the civilian population, the bar for funding the force should be relatively high. Instead, the EU and its member states should support Tshisekedi’s and the EAC’s non-military efforts to stabilise the east, including through dialogue and demobilisation. 

As concerns dialogue, the EU should offer technical and financial support to a second round of Nairobi talks with armed groups active in the eastern DRC. As a threshold matter, EU and member states with strong relationships in the region should work with Kinshasa and EAC states to encourage progress toward a second round and help develop a framework for a meaningful process beyond individual rounds of talks. Fundamental questions, such as which groups should be included and specific topics and goals of the process, still require fleshing out. The EU could also support efforts to establish the Office of the Inter-Congolese Peace Dialogue, which will support the Nairobi talks and oversee implementation of the EAC heads of state agreements on peace and security in the DRC. 

The EU and member states should ... help Congolese authorities breathe life into Kinshasa’s disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy.

The EU and member states should also help Congolese authorities breathe life into Kinshasa’s disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy, which although promising is still in the very early stages of implementation. This line of effort should be of particular interest to Brussels given the EU’s new strategic approach in support of DDR. One way they can help is by encouraging greater clarity on how demobilisation efforts are linked to both the joint force’s mission and the Nairobi political track. There should be incentives for armed group members who wish to come off the battlefield to enter the demobilisation program, including the offer of an alternative to armed activity. 

Financial and technical support will also be important. Donors have been reluctant to foot the bill because previous demobilisation efforts were largely donor-driven, lacking local buy-in, tainted by alleged embezzlement and unsuccessful in permanently dismantling any armed group. Government officials and military officers alike have treated the programs as sources of patronage. The new initiative, however, is designed to send former fighters home to civilian life and help them develop alternative livelihoods rather than integrating them in the army, as previous programs did; diverting them to unarmed vocations may help them sever their links to armed group chains of command. Against this backdrop, the EU should consider providing financial and technical support to the plan to the extent it is satisfied with the adequacy of anti-corruption safeguards and if, as the program rolls out, it assesses that it holds out sufficient hope of genuinely offering low-level insurgents a viable future.

Finally, the EU and its member states should more directly address the challenge to peace and security created by neighbouring countries’ support for DRC rebels. The findings of the confidential UN report regarding Rwandan involvement with the M23 and other sources addressing alleged Ugandan support, for instance, should be the basis for Brussels and member state governments to relay clear messages to Kigali and Kampala condemning violations of Congolese sovereignty and underscoring the threat that instability in the DRC could grow into a regional conflagration. Member states represented on the UN Security Council can urge the Council to reinforce these messages from New York. Standing visibly behind the principle of territorial integrity is particularly important at a time when European states are condemning Russia’s transgressions in Ukraine. They should make clear that violations of this core principle of the UN Charter are to be condemned wherever they take place – in Europe, Africa or elsewhere.

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