Last November an UN expert team handed over an exhaustive report on the situation in Eastern Congo to the UN Secretary-General and the UN Security Council. It was both gladdening as outrageous to see the response in the international press. On one hand gladdening because finally the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) got the attention it deserved; on the other hand it is outrageous given the fact that in many ways the expert report didn’t bring up new facts. Many NGO’s and Congolese civil society associations have been crying out the desperate situation for months, but their reports and testimonies were largely ignored by the international press.
Throughout the report echoes the perverse consequences and the failure of the Congolese offensives -Umoja Wetu and Kimia II- against the Front Démocratique pour la Libéralisation du Rwanda (FDLR), a predominantly Rwandan Hutu armed movement of which some of its leaders had participated in the Rwandan genocide. Whereas the objectives at the start of the offensive were to eliminate the threat of the FDLR, to improve the security and humanitarian situation in the Kivu and to gain broad support (internal and international) for Joseph Kabila’s regime and the FARDC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo), we can state that almost one year later none of these aims has been realized. On the contrary, the actual situation is more than thousand dead, 6,000 burned houses, 900,000 displaced persons and more than 7,000 reported (likely only representing a fraction of the total) cases of sexual violence against girls and women. Humanitarian organizations report that sexual violence has become even more brutal -more mutilations, more torture and younger victims- in the regions where operations have or had taken place. Not only in humanitarian terms the offensive is a disaster, but in military terms as well. The position of the FDLR is hardly affected in North-Kivu and nobody in the region believes that the FARDC can alter this in the near future in spite of the logistical and intelligence support it receives from the UN peacekeeping force in Congo (MONUC).
The main reason for the military failure of the operation is the incompetence (and unwillingness?) of the FARDC to dismantle the FDLR. For decades the Congolese army is known for being one of Africa’s most unstable and less competent military forces due to widespread corruption, war and underfunding. Although since 2003 some donors (EU, Belgium, South Africa) try to create a viable force, the results in the field demonstrate a national army highly ineffective and poorly disciplined. Not only are there problems of corruption, lack of training, equipment, under or non-payment, lack of discipline; but also widespread human right abuses and involvement in illegal and criminal activities such as pillaging and smuggling. Local army commanders are taxing timber, charcoal, tomatoes – anything that passes through their roadblocks, making $ 250,000 a month. There are also various testimonies of FARDC units forcing civilians to work in mines, to carry weapons, ammunition and baggage. Moreover, the UN Group of Experts also found that the FDLR continues to benefit from support from certain senior officials in the FARDC. There are cases of army commanders who gave or sold weapons to the very armed groups they were supposed to be wiping out. Another commander ordered his troops to fire in the air to let the rebels in the woods know that the army was coming.
Besides the above-mentioned problems, the FARDC suffers also from the brassage integration process, started in 2005, which involves the integration of various rebel groups into the national army. Given that the integration process is fragile and loyalty to the new political leaders (Kinshasa) questionable, the FARDC’s performances are highly undermined. The report gives various examples of recently integrated Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) units which show at least dubious loyalties. Although theoretically the CNDP is part of the FARDC after the rapid integration exercise of last January, in reality they operate as a parallel armed movement. Under their new leader Bosco Ntaganda (a man who is wanted on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for his record of human rights abuses), the CNDP took advantage of the military operations to extend its military power and influence in the region, gaining control over mineral-rich areas and clearing the land for the return of Congolese Tutsi refugees and for the cattle, which is being brought in from Rwanda. The killings of civilians by the FARDC are often perpetrated by those newly integrated CNDP combatants. Some Congo experts describe a shadow army within the FARDC, with the rebels keeping their weapons to themselves and maintaining a separate chain of command, many of them still loyal to Rwanda.
Being a partner of the Congolese army in the military operations, MONUC complicated its own position, given the involvement of FARDC troops in gross serious human rights violations. Firstly, it has undermined its primary objective of its mandate, the protection of civilians. Secondly, its popularity among the Congolese population has felt to its lowest point. Although MONUC troops have made notable efforts to protect civilians, they arrived in many occasions too late or not at all. Therefore many NGO’s demand to immediately cease all support to operation Kimia II. Likewise many Congolese civilians and civilian organizations question the presence of the peacekeepers and ask for their withdrawal. Nevertheless, one may not be too hard for MONUC. There is no doubt that the numbers of victims would be a lot higher if MONUC had decided not to participate in the operations. The withdrawal of MONUC without an adequate Congolese military and police force would be a disaster for the Congolese civilian population. Moreover, the mission lacks sufficient resources to ensure the full implementation of its mandate. The in October 2008 promised 3,000 additional peacekeepers, are still not arrived, curtailing MONUC’s capacities to protect civilians and respond quickly to emerging threats.
Another factor that explains why the FDLR is still operative and possess a threat is brought forward in the UN report. This details in a vast, rebel-driven criminal network in eastern Congo with tentacles touching Spanish charities, Ukrainian arms dealers and corrupt Africa officials. The FDLR controls various gold and cassiterite mines and thanks to several government officials in several African countries who work hand in had with the rebels, they smuggle out minerals through Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania towards Europe and Asia where they are eventually sold. The same route turned around is used to bring in weapons. Moreover, the FDLR has a far-reaching international diaspora network in Europe, Africa and North America who is involved in the day-to-day running of the movement, the coordination of military and arms-trafficking activities and the management of financial activities. In other words: the rebels possess regional and international resources in the purchase of weapons, ammunition, the new recruits, and to the access to export minerals to the international market. If we keep in mind that Congolese officials estimate that 40 tons of gold are smuggled out of the country each year, which at today’s high gold prices is worth $ 1.24 billion, and that much of it is going straight into rebels’ hands, it becomes obvious that one of necessary requirements to dismantle the FDLR is the crack down of Congo’s illicit mineral trade, draining the FDLR’ income flows. Needless to say that such a task surpasses Congo’s capacities. Therefore it is the responsibility of the international community to create a solid system of mechanisms of transparency and traceability with respect to the Congolese natural resource sector. Essential preconditions for such a system to perform, is the strengthening of the institutional capacity of the DRC.
The international community has also the task to conduct investigations against FDLR leaders in Europe and elsewhere. A good example was set by the arrest of the FDLR’s president and supreme commander Ignace Murwanashyaka, and his deputy, Straton Musoni, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the German authorities last November. Other states (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, the United States, Tanzania, Spain, Italy) that host FDLR leaders or individuals whom are involved in FDLR’s military and financial activities, should take the same measures. The UN Group of Experts is explicit: without the international support network, the FDLR’s operations on the ground would be significantly disrupted. Important however, is that efforts to dismantle the FDLR diasporas’ network can only be effective if a common and coherent approach is adopted by all states whose territories are used to assist in the coordination, financing and military provision of the FDLR.
Given the disastrous consequences of Kinhasa’s choice to follow a military strategy in solving the FDLR problem, there can be no doubt that this approach has to be abandoned in favor of dialogue and diplomacy. Despite the fact that a great majority of the FDLR are women and children and the vast majority of its combatants did not participate in the Rwandan genocide since they were too young at the time to have played a role; the Rwandan government doesn’t guarantee a safe return. As long there is no rule of law in Rwanda, one cannot expect that FDLR members return voluntarily. Thus, besides the draining up of the financial resources of the FDLR, pressure must be put on Kagame so that FDLR supporters could have legal protection in Rwanda.