An Uneasy Alliance in Eastern Congo

 

The human cost of Operation Kimia II—the ongoing joint offensive by the Congolese army and United Nations peacekeepers against Rwandan rebels in eastern Congo—outweighs its benefits. To prevent this crisis from deteriorating further, and to ensure that those military gains that have been achieved can be secured, the Congolese government should suspend new offensive operations and work vigorously with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, or MONUC, and international donors to put in place a more effective counterinsurgency approach.

The human cost of Operation Kimia II—the ongoing joint offensive by the Congolese army and United Nations peacekeepers against Rwandan rebels in eastern Congo—outweighs its benefits. Although Kimia II has led to gains in the fight against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, by forcing the rebels to abandon a number of the lucrative mining areas that help sustain their insurgency, efforts to protect civilians during this offensive have been woefully inadequate. A spike in atrocities against civilians has worsened an already dreadful humanitarian situation in North and South Kivu provinces. Since military operations against the FDLR began in January 2009, 800,000 people have fled their homes—the highest number of newly displaced in any African conflict. At least 600 civilians have been killed, and thousands of women and girls raped by rebel groups and government forces.[1]
 
To prevent this crisis from deteriorating further, and to ensure that those military gains that have been achieved can be secured, the Congolese government should take two immediate steps. First, it should suspend new offensive operations and focus on consolidating control over those areas that have already been cleared of the FDLR. Second, it should work vigorously with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, or MONUC, and international donors to put in place a more effective counterinsurgency approach that combines military pressure on FDLR leadership with greater incentives for FDLR rank-and-file militia members to lay down their arms and repatriate to Rwanda.
 
Operation Kimia II: Why it is failing
 
The motivation for Kimia II is generally sound and appears to represent a legitimate effort by the Congolese government to address the regional security threat posed by the FDLR as part of a broader diplomatic initiative to mend relations with Rwanda. The Congolese government frequently collaborated with the FDLR in the past, but that dangerous alliance—one that the Rwandan government has consistently invoked and exploited as a pretext for its disastrous intervention in eastern Congo—seems, for now at least, to have been terminated. While the strategy may look sound on paper, it has foundered because of the obvious shortcomings of Congo’s ill-disciplined and often ineffectual army. This has been the worst of both worlds for civilians: they face predatory behavior from Congo’s abusive and haphazardly integrated national army, yet are not protected from predictable and devastating reprisal attacks from the FDLR.[2] Moreover, military operations have not been pursued in tandem with a better resourced effort to disarm, demobilize, repatriate, resettle, and rehabilitate combatants.
 
The ongoing effort between the Congolese and Rwandan governments to reach diplomatic rapprochement is driving the changing political and military dynamics in eastern Congo. In January, after removing the warlord Laurent Nkunda as leader of the National Congress for the Defense of People, or CNDP, Rwandan troops crossed the border to conduct joint operations with the Congolese army in North Kivu province as part of operation Umoja Wetu. Though billed as an operation to hunt down the FDLR, the larger strategic objective for the Rwandans, who were facing censure from important donors for its support to the CNDP, was to demonstrate that it could partner with the Congolese government and behave responsibly in eastern Congo. Ultimately, the Congolese and Rwandan forces involved in Umoja Wetu engaged in only limited combat with the FDLR. The operation pushed the FDLR away from a number of mining areas and other strategic locations, and replaced them with Congolese army units that included former CNDP fighters that had quickly integrated into the Congolese army.[3]
 
Many of Kimia II’s structural weaknesses date back to this so-called “instant integration” process. What was achieved at a political level translated poorly, or not at all, back down to a military-operational level. Indeed, genuine military integration (particularly of former enemies) is a long, difficult process even with the most professional assistance. In eastern Congo, this “integration” took place with no planning, little outside support, and in the middle of ongoing military operations. Cohesive fighting units could simply not be cobbled together from former adversaries that just weeks earlier been engaged in heavy combat against one another.
 
Most of the “integrated” CNDP commanders retained their previous military ranks, and parallel chains of command quickly developed within many of the integrated units involved in Kimia II. As an organization led predominantly by Congolese Tutsis and backed by Rwanda, CNDP presented itself as a defender of Tutsi communities against ethnically motivated attacks by the Hutu-led FDLR. However, the Congolese army frequently collaborated with the FDLR to fight the CNDP. Throwing these two military forces together was destined to be an uneasy mix at best, and as one Congolese observer put it to Enough, “How can anyone expect the Congolese army to kill their brothers?”
 
Predictably, ex-CNDP fighters are leading most of the combat operations in Kimia II while other Congolese army units watch from the rear. The strengths of the CNDP were always the weaknesses of the national army—shared ideology and comparatively greater discipline on the battlefield. Though the Congolese army, the CNDP, and all other armed groups in eastern Congo are guilty of atrocities, CNDP forces were clearly the superior fighting force during the clashes that ultimately threatened to reach Goma, the capital of North Kivu, in August and September 2008. Moreover, the mostly CNDP forces on the frontlines receive the bulk of the material support provided by the government, feeding resentment on the part of other elements within the army. These divisions threaten to further divide what is already a fractured fighting force.[4]
 
Integration also occurred without proper monitoring or vetting, allowing known human rights violators to swap one uniform for another. Bosco Ntaganda, a former CNDP commander wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, is the most notorious example, but not the only one. The continued impunity throughout the chain of command virtually ensures that the laws of war will not be respected. Following integration and the start of Kimia II, some 52,300 Congolese troops (roughly one-third of the national army) are now deployed in the Kivus.[5] The effects of rampant impunity are amplified within such a highly militarized environment and within the thorny context of counterinsurgency operations. While both Congo and Rwanda will likely continue to cooperate in offering up war crimes suspects that are seen as having no political or military value, they will also likely continue to shield those suspects for whom they have immediate use.
                                                                                                   
Perhaps the greatest challenge in counterinsurgency is navigating the complex relationship between insurgents and local populations. Many within the FDLR, including the leadership, have been in eastern Congo since 1994, when they fled after committing genocide in Rwanda. For the past 15 years, the FDLR have preyed upon Congolese civilians, but they have also married Congolese women, raised families, and established themselves within communities in eastern Congo. In an effort to convince the local population to turn against Kimia II, the FDLR have made the intimidation, cooption, and punishment of Congolese civilians a central component of their strategy. A high-ranking Congolese army officer involved in Kimia II described to Enough the pattern of FDLR reprisal attacks: When the Congolese army advances, the FDLR melt into the forest and allows the army to pass, then they return to attack civilians. In some cases, the FDLR are aided by those elements within the Congolese population as well as those within the army who may still retain ties to the FDLR.
 
Another significant problem is the failure of the Congolese government to pay soldiers adequate and timely salaries. This is due principally to corruption and embezzlement of funds by senior government officials and high-ranking army officers, as well as the considerable logistical challenges created by a rapid and ill-planned integration of new troops into the ranks. Some army units have been paid infrequently or not at all during the operation, eroding the will to fight and leading to increased predations against the local population.[6] The European Union military mission, or EUSEC, has played a lead role in efforts ensure that Congolese troops are paid. However, absent the political will in Kinshasa, EUSEC technical support has failed to adequately address this fundamental problem within the Congolese security sector. Even when units are paid, the salaries are inadequate to disincentivize looting. Integrated units taking part in Kimia II that have been paid their $50 per month salaries are still preying upon the population they are supposed to protect.
 
The government also failed to budget for the unanticipated operation, and the amount allocated for salaries did not take into account the integration of over 20,000 troops in the national army. The rapid integration of the CNDP and others into the Congolese army and redeployment of these new units also created significant confusion, which some senior level commanders used to steal soldiers’ pay.[7] Frequently, Congolese commanders cannot accurately say where precisely troops are deployed, how many they are, and what difficulties they are facing on the ground.
 
For its part, MONUC’s effectiveness in supporting Kimia II is hindered by the same operational limitations and inconsistent interpretations of mandate that have plagued the mission from its inception. After standing on the sidelines during Umoja Wetu, MONUC has worked with the Congolese government to define a role for itself in Kimia II. In elementary terms, MONUC is supporting the Congolese army in five areas: logistics (including providing food and fuel), military planning, mentoring and training, fire support (MONUC has used attack helicopters and mortars in support of Congolese army operations), and casualty evacuation. However, this partnership is not faring well, particularly as it relates to MONUC’s strong civilian protection mandate.
 
MONUC is tasked by the U.N. Security Council to “Ensure the protection of civilians, including humanitarian personnel, under imminent threat of physical violence, in particular violence emanating from any of the parties engaged in the conflict.”[8] However, the force lacks the troop strength and mobility to meet this challenge across a large area with very poor infrastructure. And although senior MONUC officials have consistently and strenuously argued that U.N. backing for Kimia II is essential to its success, the United Nations has still not adequately answered the most basic question about MONUC’s relationship with the Congolese army: What will MONUC do in a situation when the Congolese army itself is the most direct threat to civilian population? 
 
It is easy to see why U.N. officials may be willing to accept the devil’s bargain presented by Kimia II: “We know the national army is bad, but the FDLR is even worse, and we should throw our weight behind the lesser evil.” Yet, as long as the international community continues to tacitly accept impunity in Congo and fails to help further establish the rule of law and basic humanitarian norms, the longer business as usual will continue in Congo. Much of the blame for this current state of play lays within U.N. member states and the Security Council that have repeatedly seen fit to renew the mission’s mandate and operations while consistently failing to provide the troops and resources the mission needs to carry out its extraordinarily difficult work effectively.
                                                                                                                                    
Shifting political and military dynamics in the Kivus
 
Beyond Kimia II’s strategic shortfalls and its heavy humanitarian toll, the operation threatens to further destabilize a region already mired in one of the world’s most complex conflicts. The negotiations between Congo and Rwanda have sought a military solution to the Kivus’ underlying political and economic problems, with little regard for the preferences of local populations. With hundreds of thousands of civilians forced from their homes and frequent and increasingly brutal atrocities against civilians, tensions are mounting within and between the armed groups that feel badly served by the hasty integration process and the broader diplomatic machinations. Meanwhile, militias that have refused integration are aligning themselves against the Congolese government. The result is constantly shifting alliances between various armed groups.
 
The Rwandans’ removal of General Nkunda caused a division among CNDP members between Nkunda’s loyalists and followers of his successor, Bosco Ntaganda.  Bosco, wanted by the ICC for war crimes in Ituri, feels increasingly isolated and fears that his arrest may be imminent. Nkunda’s fate remains uncertain, but the Congolese government appears satisfied that the political ambitions of Nkunda and his followers can be safely swept under the rug. This is dangerous. The CNDP’s main political demands go deeper than army integration and include greater influence in local government, a larger stake in state-owned businesses, and the safe return of some 45,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees from Rwanda to eastern Congo.
 
The refugee issue in particular has the potential to cause serious unrest, as the returning refugees would lead to land disputes that the Congolese government is ill-equipped and politically disinclined to deal with. There is concern that Kinshasa intends to try to co-opt and sideline the CNDP as it did earlier with militias from Ituri province. This would be a mistake, as the CNDP represents a far greater threat to the Congolese government than those militias and has far more significant capabilities. The government’s plan seems to be to consolidate control (with MONUC’s help) over the Kivus before delivering Bosco (and potentially others) to The Hague. Whether this can succeed or not depends a great deal on a continued improvement in Congo-Rwanda relations and, by extension, the extent to which Rwanda can keep the CNDP in line.
 
With Bosco and the CNDP now integrated (however fragile the integration may be) into the Congolese army and on the frontlines of Kimia II, tensions are running high among local populations that have been victims of CNDP atrocities in the past and are resentful of Congolese of Rwandan origin, particularly Tutsis. In Walikale Territory, the deployment of integrated CNDP troops has resulted in a major increase in the CNDP’s de facto control of mineral rich areas, most notably the lucrative Bisie tin mine.[9] But expanded CNDP control of mines and trading routes has proven destabilizing, generating resentment on the part of the local population and those armed groups, military units, and business interests that have lost out as a result of the CNDP’s presence. The August 12 attack on Bisie, which has been attributed to a new Mai-Mai group with links to companies involved in a dispute over rights to the mine, suggests that CNDP control of mineral resources will be a major flashpoint going forward.[10]
 
The presence of ex-CNDP forces in South Kivu has also further fed local mistrust of Tutsis by local populations still scarred from the behavior of Rwandan troops and their local allies during the wars that raged in Congo from 1996 to 2004.[11] The Congolese government’s shaky accommodation with the CNDP has also strained the relationship between the government and the many Mai-Mai and other local militia groups operating in the Kivus. Although some of these groups formally integrated into the Congolese army in 2008, various militias and individual commanders are now abandoning integration and re-aligning with the FDLR. These militias are holding out for the senior appointments and strategic concessions that were given to the CNDP, and keeping their options open should the deal go sour and the CNDP defects. Given the fragility of army integration, Mai-Mai militias that traditionally fought against Rwanda and its proxies are understandably reluctant to surrender their weapons and integrate into the army themselves.[12] The Kivus remain awash in weapons, unemployed young men, and an abundance of natural resources—a dynamic that makes violence, looting, bribery, and militia rivalries almost inevitable.
 
Urgent steps needed to make Kimia II effective
 
While the political and military state of play in the Kivus shifts almost daily, atrocities against civilians by all sides have been a grim constant. Reducing and ultimately ending crimes against humanity demands a revamped counterinsurgency approach. The Congolese government should urgently take the following steps:
 
  1. Suspend offensive military operations and reinforce Kimia II’s gains.
 
Modest military gains against the FDLR have come at a high cost, and the failure to protect vulnerable populations will ultimately undermine the operation. The United States and other donors should take immediate steps to bolster MONUC’s capacity to effectively protect civilians by enhancing its logistical capacity, embedding military advisors and human rights monitors within Congolese army units, and stepping up the pressure on the Congolese government to remove known human rights violators from its army.
 
Kimia II’s current strategy to weaken the FDLR depends largely on dislodging the FDLR from some of the most lucrative mining areas. While Kimia II operations have managed to push the FDLR away from these areas, this progress will be rendered meaningless if those areas are not held and secured by the government so that armed groups, including the Congolese army officers, do not illicitly tax the minerals for personal benefit. MONUC must help to secure Bisie mine and increase its presence in Walikale to secure additional mining sites, even if it means taking casualties. Provided a modicum of security, the Congolese government can then be pressured to settle the conflict over the concession, enable the deployment of mining inspectors, and put the profits from Bisie and other mines to work on behalf of the population.
 
The Congolese government has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its will to help build a transparent mining sector that benefits the Congolese people, and must be pressured to enact meaningful reforms.[13] The United Nations and international donors should ramp up support for Congolese government agencies responsible for managing and taxing the minerals trade and prioritizing the traceability of supply chains and transparency in tax regimes. International experts should be seconded to provincial agencies to build capacity and help ensure accountability. The private sector should fully support this process by contributing financial and technical resources to support efforts on the ground. Further, companies should be amenable to independent audits of their own supply chains. Finally, the World Bank and other major donors should accelerate planning for a regional certification scheme based upon the lessons learned from the Kimberley Process.
 
In addition, the success of Kimia II depends greatly on consolidating what remains a very fragile military integration and ramping up an internationally backed effort to reform and professionalize the Congolese army. Paying Congolese forces regular, adequate salaries is a necessary first step, and the European Union and the Congolese government must work to ensure that all army battalions receive their salaries so they do not resort to pillaging, forced labor, and extortion of civilians. Curbing corruption through the ranks will require more hands-on efforts by external actors (MONUC and the EUSEC especially) to track funds and sustained pressure from donors on the Congolese government to clamp down on corruption.
 
Finally, the continuing presence of ex-CNDP in areas of North and South Kivu may fuel tensions with local communities and could spark renewed conflict. The government must move these troops out of the region as soon as circumstances permit.
 
  1. Work with MONUC and international donors to develop and properly resource a more effective counterinsurgency approach to the FDLR.
 
Although there is near universal agreement on the need for effective military pressure on the FDLR, Kimia II has been a catastrophe for civilians in eastern Congo. And while the Congolese army and MONUC can do a great deal more to protect civilians, neither has, nor will have, the capacity to effectively protect all civilians across the expansive and challenging terrain of North and South Kivu. Counterinsurgency operations against the FDLR will undoubtedly lead to civilian casualties, but an operation that works to tear the FDLR apart from the inside by targeting its leadership and incentivizing defections from within can mitigate the humanitarian impact of Kimia II and, ultimately, erode the capacity of the FDLR to continue its predations against Congolese civilians for another 15 years.
 
Target FDLR High Command militarily: The United States and other donors must work with the Congolese army, Rwanda, and MONUC to focus Kimia II military operations on the FDLR High Command. Donors should pressure the Rwandan government to produce a definitive list of FDLR commanders wanted for category 1 or 2 genocide crimes. These would include the planners, organizers, instigators, and leaders of the 1994 genocide. MONUC should then work with the Congolese army to plan operations that target these individuals and request additional intelligence, military assets, and logistical support from member states—particularly the United States and European countries—to improve chances for success.
                                                                                      
Isolate FDLR leadership abroad: The international community must aggressively enforce U.N. authorized sanctions aimed at FDLR leadership in the diaspora. Communication with FDLR leaders such as its Chairman Ignace Murwanashyaka and Executive Secretary Calixte Mbarushimana living in Germany and France respectively must be cut. At the same time, officials in these countries and others that play host to FDLR political leaders—including the United States—must investigate the linkages between the leadership and ongoing crimes in eastern Congo and build cases for domestic or international prosecution. U.S. and European officials should be as aggressive in pursuing suspected war criminals as they are in pursuing international terrorists, something that has clearly not been the case to date.
 
Support direct contacts with the FDLR in Congo: The United States and other donors must work with the Rwandan and Congolese governments and MONUC to co-opt FDLR moderates and bolster ongoing efforts to demobilize FDLR combatants. Ultimately, Rwanda must take responsibility for ensuring the lasting reintegration of rank-and-file FDLR to prevent them from returning to Congo. The effectiveness of negotiation and demobilization would be greatly enhanced if the Rwandan government relaxes restrictions on press freedoms and political activity. The United States and other donors should pressure Kigali to take genuine steps in that direction.
 


[1] See “DRC: Clinton Should Highlight Rape and Justice Issues”, statement by the Congo Advocacy Coalition, August 10, 2009. Available at http://www.enoughproject.org/news/drc-clinton-should-highlight-rape-and-justice-issues-0
[2]In a discussion with Enough, the president of civil society for South Kivu characterized the impact of the Kimia II operations on civilians as a “catastrophe,” especially due to the mass displacement it has caused, FDLR reprisals, and the Congolese army’s abusive treatment of civilians.
[3]During February, some 5,800 CNDP fighters and 1,000 from PARECO—a predominantly Hutu militia composed of former Congolese Mai-Mai and ex-FDLR— were integrated at Rumangabo and Mushake camps in North Kivu.
[4] These pressures boiled over in Walungu territory in July, when the Congolese army killed two of their own soldiers in a dispute. A civil society representative asked about this problem during a July press conference and the chief of staff of the Congolese army acknowledged it was an issue.
[5] Given the Congolese army’s institutional disarray, precise figures for troop deployments are very difficult to obtain. The 52,300 figure is based on figures provided by the Congolese army, and donors are planning an assessment to verify this figure.
[6] The recent mutiny by ex-CNDP forces in Kamanyola is directly related to CNDP political demands. The government agreed to pay two months back salary to CNDP as part of the March agreement. But there is increasing concern that other militias will follow this precedent, leaving the government reluctant to pay. Interview with Congolese army official, South Kivu, August 2009.
[7] Interview with a European diplomat, North Kivu, July 2008.
[8] See United Nations Security Council Resolution 1856, December 22, 2008. Full text available at http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/DRC%20SRES%201856.pdf  
[9] Bisie is the largest mine for cassiterite, or tin ore, in North Kivu, accounting for approximately 70 percent of the province’s production. Prior to the Kimia II offensive, Bisie was controlled by elements of the non-integrated 85th Brigade of the Congolese army. See Lydia Polgreen, “Congo’s Riches, Looted by Renegade Troops” New York Times, November 15, 2008.  
[10]In a visit to Walikale territory on August 8, Congolese Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito committed to demilitarizing Bisie.
[11] Following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire was renamed in 1997) provided shelter and protection not only to the two million Rwandan refugees who had fled to eastern Congo, but also to the Rwandan Hutu army and militias that directed the genocide. This provoked Rwanda and Uganda to invade Congo in July 1996 in pursuit of Hutu military forces. The ailing Mobutu was finally ousted from Kinshasa in May 1997, and Congolese rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila took over the country. War broke out again in August 1998 when President Kabila attempted to gain independence from his regional backers and moved to purge Rwandan elements from his government. Rwanda and Uganda re-invaded Congo, supporting rebel proxies against Kabila. While Rwandan forces had previously largely focused on pursuing the Hutus who conducted the genocide, both Rwandan and Ugandan forces increasingly became interested in controlling and exploiting the mineral-rich eastern provinces of Congo. Kabila called on Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia for help, and, with their military support, managed to stop the invasion. During this period, Congo was home to military forces from across the continent, almost all of which brutalized civilians while using their deployment as a pretext to loot Congo’s vast natural resources.
[12] Statistics made available to Enough by South Kivu civil society illustrate the extent of this problem. For example, Mai-Mai/Shikito declared themselves to have 1,810 combatants, but they have only sent 445 for integration and have surrendered only 70 arms. Mai-Mai Nakiliba declared 1,625 combatants, but only one fighter has been integrated and they have not surrendered any weapons. Kapopo declared 1,100 and Kiricho 1300. Neither group has surrendered any weapons or put forward troops for integration.
[13]A forthcoming Enough report will provide a more detailed assessment of the impact of the conflict on the minerals trade, Congolese and international efforts to secure and legitimize the trade, and ways forward for the international community.