In the DR Congo violence at the hands of the ADF has increased and peacekeepers are being challenged by protestors angry at the alleged ineffectiveness of the UN in keeping them safe. There is also a risk of wider political strife after a flawed transition of power. The UN mission is scheduled to withdraw by 2022. As things stand, this would be a dangerous mistake.
Keeping the peace in the DR Congo is one of the most difficult tasks the UN faces. Attacks by armed groups are a constant threat that is constantly changing and some have proven capable of large operations. In 2012 one such group, M23, captured the eastern city of Goma. The result was the creation of a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) and the demise of M23 but the damage was already done. The current major threat is the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which is neither democratic nor Congolese, originating instead from Uganda it arrived in the DR Congo in the mid-1990s. A major offensive by the Congolese military (FARDC) began at the end of October 2019 and it is supported by MONUSCO, the UN mission to the DR Congo. A series of massacres attributed to the ADF has led to protests against the UN for failing to protect civilians in the Beni region of North Kivu province where the violence is hindering the battle against an outbreak of Ebola.
There is some caution in attributing the wave of violence in the Beni area solely to the ADF, which is one of the larger groups and is reported to have over a thousand fighters. There are many smaller groups that are alleged to have links with the ADF and community leaders have also been called into question. Historically the leaders of Uganda and Zaire/DR Congo have had a contradictory approach to the ADF, launching major offensives, leaving it alone to act as a buffer against the other, and actually supporting it. Foreign governments have accused the DR Congo of harbouring militants, who in turn has said that neighbouring countries of have attempted to destabilise the DR Congo. There have also been questions raised over jihadist influence within the ADF and related support and also its transnational nature. There are in fact elements of both and the most promising description of what is a very secretive organisation is that it has multiple influences but cooperates pragmatically and discreetly, and maintains short-term partnerships. The ADF reacts badly to being challenged and it shifted its tactics toward massacres against civilians in 2013, which have increased in the wake of the current government offensive. How much of this is by the ADF or at the hands of smaller allied groups is open to question. The situation in the eastern DR Congo is known to be extremely complex and the ADF are but one part of this.
The troubles in the Beni region are part of a wider problem of distrust of the government, which is seen as corrupt and repressive, and the FARDC, which has been accused of human rights violations and sometimes being in league with the armed groups it is supposed to be countering. The local population also has a mistrust of regionally sourced peacekeepers, seen by them as potentially biased. This distrust extends to MONUSCU, which is working alongside a compromised Congolese military and has previously faced accusations of its own, including when over 600 troops were withdrawn in 2017 because of allegations of sexual abuse. This was an ignoble outcome for a force that has in fact had a positive impact by providing some security over none and whose under-resourced troops have suffered casualties whilst actively combating rebel groups. Nor are the anti-UN protests a new development, although these are rooted in a discontent at the perceived failure of MONUSCO to protect civilians. That there has been a failure is undeniable, but the blame cannot be put at the door of a mission that is under-resourced in relation to the task that it faces and is tarred by its association with the forces of the government who have faced accusations of war crimes and major human rights violations.
There is also trouble at the top that mocks the idea of the DR Congo as a democracy. The current President, Félix Tshisekedi, took over last year from the long-serving Joseph Kabila, whom had been reluctant to give up power. This was after Mr Tshisekedi was declared the winner of an election in which he is reported to have won only 19% of the vote. The actual winner, with around 60% of the vote, was Martin Fayulu. He was cast aside as a result of a power sharing deal between Tshisekedi and Kabila. As a result, both hold power due to a secret deal, having lost an election rife with voter intimidation. The new President has said that he will deal with corruption and improve the country, yet the chances of this are low, as he is dependent on his predecessor (whom controls the parliament) and is in power only as a result of a secret deal (which is corrupt in itself). Olivia Acland, writing in The Economist (The World in 2020), has predicted that riots will erupt in the cities during 2020. The troubles in the east may well become part of wider disorder throughout the entire country. A horrifying example of where this could lead is the Kasai crisis that began in 2016 and exploded into inter-communal violence involving government forces, their rivals and militias with the consequences been borne by the civilian population. A critical aspect of preventing conflict from spreading across the country was that there be a democratically elected successor to Mr Kabila but the actual outcome was merely a fudge to keep the powerful in power. The 2003 Global and All-Inclusive Agreement and a commitment to an effective political transition to genuine representation arose from the carnage of the Second Congo War. Clearly, there has been no such transition, a fact underlined by Mr Tshisekedi’s recent idea to dissolve the National Assembly.
The danger is that the DR Congo is actually on the brink of wider disorder not less and a government that cannot resolve the problems in the east will struggle to deal with further discontent brought on by a failure of political transition. The violence in the east is far from being solely the governments fault and regional cooperation is needed instead of rivalry. A recent solution proposed by Mr Tshisekedi was to invite foreign powers in to deal with the armed groups. The UN was rightly critical and said that MONUSCO would have no involvement in this. Such an approach is more likely to escalate the violence and could potentially result in another major war. A more effective approach would be for all countries to end use of armed groups as proxies and for external support for them to end. This would be accompanied by action at the global level to cut of the profits to armed groups made through exploiting natural resources that are valuable to the global economy. There is a strong case to argue that the people of the conflict affected regions want the armed groups that plague their lives out and the government in, despite its many faults. This is down to sheer desperation, reflected by the protests against the UN mission, itself an indication that the people want MONUSCO to provide more support instead of withdrawal by 2022. An extension of the UN’s largest mission and one that has lasted over twenty years is in itself a big ask. The UN says that two-thirds of the DR Congo is stable, it wants the government to take more responsibility, and the mission is expensive. However, withdrawal at a time when the violence in the east is escalating, there is a risk of wider political violence, and the political transition has not taken place risks throwing away any gains made and putting the population at greater risk.
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See also, the earlier blogs on the DRC at http://www.turnerconflict.com
Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.