Is Kabila Using Ethnic Violence to Stay in Power?

By Robert Muggah

Published in Foreign Policy

For as long as anyone can recall, Ituri, the mineral-rich province in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo has been wracked by inter-communal violence. Tucked between South Sudan and Uganda, it has suffered repeated bouts of conflict, including during the “great war” that beset the region between 1997 and 2003 after Rwanda and other neighboring countries invaded what was then Zaire. As many as 5.4 million people died during that war. In Ituri itself, around 50,000 civilians were killed, with another half-million displaced. No wonder that the province is often described as the “bloodiest corner” of Congo.

Although the great war officially ended in 2003, low-intensity violence has continued since then, with hundreds falling victim every year. Local skirmishes are typically linked to ethnic disputes between the Lendu, who are predominantly farmers, and their archrivals, the Hema, who are cattle herders. These groups have clashed on many occasions, but locals believe that politicians and business elites may be manipulating ethnic tensions in order to delay presidential elections and control lucrative mineral deposits.

A case in point came in December last year, when widespread fighting broke out once more. According to observers, the violence seemed to come from nowhere, appeared relatively well organized, and spread at incredible speed. According to local informants, the problems started after Congolese armed forces and some Hema youth harassed a group of Lendu teens just north of Bunia, the provincial capital. Violent reprisals and counterattacks quickly followed. When the smoke cleared by March of this year, dozens of civilians were dead, over 1,000 homes were torched in 70 villages, and more than 42,000 locals had fled for safer ground in Uganda. An estimated 350,000 more are still displaced in Ituri and neighboring provinces.

Soon after the worst of the fighting was over, the Congolese armed forces launched a series of military operations named “Tunapenda Salama,” or “We Want Peace,” to pacify the area. Their particular target was the Lendu militia named the Force de Résistance Patriotique de l’Ituri (FRPI), which was formed during the great war as a proxy for the Congolese and Ugandan militaries. The government also made diplomatic overtures in April to promote peace between the Lendu and Hema communities. These came alongside longer-term negotiations between the government and the FRPI to disarm, demobilize, and eventually reintegrate any fighters still lingering in the area.

Yet those talks face many hurdles, not least of which is that the military intervention in Ituri is likely part of a complex power play. According to the national authorities, the government is intent on reducing the threat posed by the FRPI so that it can refocus attention on other pressing matters, not least simmering disputes between the Lendu and Hema communities and the medley of armed groups wreaking havoc in Ituri.

According to local government and church representatives in Bunia, however, the Congolese government is seeking not just to eliminate the FRPI but also to sow disorder in the country in advance of delayed national elections now due to take place on Dec. 23. President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, has proved reluctant to leave his office despite serving as many terms as the country’s constitution allows. Under intense international pressure not to seek a third term, in August Kabila anointed a hardcore loyalist, former Interior Minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, to run instead.

There’s just one problem: Ituri and large swathes of the neighboring North and South Kivu provinces are strongholds for the opposition. According to a report by the Congo Research Group at New York University, army commanders have a long history of using local armed groups like those that took part in this year’s bloodshed to weaken opposition factions. The latest outbreak in violence, in other words, may have been a way for Kabila to disperse and distract his enemies.

Ituri is a tragic reminder of how hard it is for the international community to protect civilians when the government appears determined to do the opposite. The United Nations forces there, which are ostensibly required to support national and local authorities, face a daunting challenge. For one, they must contend with the Lendu and Hema rivalry if they are to achieve even a modicum of stability. They must also find ways to navigate a as many as 70 organized armed groups, including the FRPI, many of which are in cahoots with political elites in Bunia and Kinshasa. Complicating matters, the U.N. must do all this while seeking to contain DRC’s tenth Ebola outbreak in 40 years.

As if this were not difficult enough, the U.N. Security Council has also instructed the mission to navigate an alphabet soup of foreign armed groups in Ituri and its neighboring provinces. Among the better known is the Central African Republic-based Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). And then there are the fighters from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), also from Uganda, and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which includes some remnants of the notorious Interahamwe, which perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Many of these groups are busily extracting minerals—coltan, gold, and manganese—illegally from local mines to finance their operations abroad. For them, too, violence is a boon: in disorder, there is profit.

In all of this, the U.N. is fighting with at least one hand tied behind its back. Frictions are growing between the Congolese authorities and the U.N. over questions of sovereignty and joint military operations. In his address to this year’s U.N. General Assembly in September, Kabila repeated demands for the withdrawal of the U.N.’s mission to the country, known as MONUSCO, which he accuses of seeking to co-manage Congo and undermine his authority. Started in 2010, MONUSCO is the second peace operation deployed to the continent-sized country since 1999. It is also the world’s most expensive, costing roughly $1.2 billion a year and involving some 15,000 blue helmets, 1,300 police, and a controversial Force Intervention Brigade, or FIB.

The FIB, created in 2013, is the sharp end of the U.N.’s stabilization force. The only U.N. force with a mandate to carry out “targeted offensive operations … either unilaterally or jointly with the armed forces of the DRC,” the brigade’s job is to eliminate militant groups throughout DRC. Its first foray into battle involved deposing the Rwanda-backed M23, which had seized the city of Goma—much to the U.N.’s embarrassment—in 2013. The FIB, now made-up of 2,800 soldiers, has since expanded its activities to target other groups such as the ADF and LRA, often in partnership with the national armed forces.

Another centerpiece of the U.N. mission in Congo is the disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, and in some cases repatriation of domestic and foreign armed groups. Working with national government counterparts, the U.N. along with the Netherlands, Sweden, European Union, and World Bank have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to such efforts between 2004 and 2007, from 2008 to 2011, and since 2015. Although the programs have come under criticism for corruption and inefficiency, they are purported to have helped 130,000 ex-combatants and their dependents exit armed groups.

The actual results of these programs on decreasing violence are harder to discern. National authorities and the U.N. have had difficulty enticing the remaining armed groups and splinter factions to join the process. Although many domestic and foreign fighters say they want to leave the bush, most of them seriously doubt the government’s sincerity or ability to help them set up a new life. Their misgivings are justified. The two official sites set up to disarm and demobilize new arrivals—in Kitona and Kamina—have fallen apart. About 3,600 combatants, along with hundreds of their dependents, have languished there since 2016. Corruption is rampant, and instances of riots and starvation have been reported. Understandably, the U.N. and international donors have little appetite to continue funding such efforts.

In spite of seemingly insurmountable problems, there is still a slim chance that things could turn around in Ituri. Since 2016, MONUSCO has launchedclose to 30 community violence reduction initiatives across Congo, including a dozen in Ituri. In contrast to standard disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs, which focus on ex-combatants and their dependents, these projects work with the whole community. The goal is drive down violence in hot spots by putting former combatants and at-risk young people to work building public goods. In Ituri, for example, the MONUSCO team has financed projects for ex-combatants and at-risk youth to construct a football stadium, refurbish a market, build a brick-making facility, and install solar-powered lighting for the local prison.

Because community violence reduction programs are not limited to rewarding ex-combatants and are typically overseen by community-based organizations and employ residents, they tend to be received more positively by local residents. When well executed—and they aren’t always—these programs go some distance toward wresting young men from the local war economy. If the Congolese government does eventually strike a peace deal with the FRPI, there is a chance that these programs could help build the confidence necessary for militiamen to lay down their weapons.

As is so often the case, future stability in Ituri will in part come down to whether the general elections proceed on Dec. 23 and if the new government is prepared to build national unity rather than stoke communal tensions. The odds of things going wrong are high: Congo has never held a peaceful democratic transition. And many commentators suspect that the president’s chosen successor, Ramazani, is simply keeping the presidential seat warm until Kabila—who will retain leadership of the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy—returns in 2023. But with the MONUSCO mission set to wind down in the coming years, time is running out. There are infinite reasons to be skeptical that peace will break out or that armed groups will be dismantled, but for the first time in years, there are a few rays of hope.

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