The FDLR, a never ending curse in eastern Congo?

Discussing the Front pour la Libération du Rwanda, FDLR, is not an easy task. Not only that its history, activities, and ramifications are often opaque and controversial, also debates in academia and media usually spark fierce ideological drumming on all sides, social media being the best example. Still, many do it constantly. The recent rhetorical clashes in sequence to Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete’s suggestion, Rwanda should negotiate with the FDLR (as DRC does with M23) is the most recent case. Many times, two extreme viewpoints are juxtaposed in regards to FDLR: While some people are convinced that FDLR is exactly what used to be the interahamwe (the Hutu militia responsible for the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, together with the former Rwandan Armed Forces, ex-FAR, and obnoxious masterminds in the then Rwandan government), others argue that FDLR is a remnant of that movement at best. I argue that both extremes are not conducive to a real solution.

A closer look suggests that both sides are prone to their own apologetics in some ways – with one aspect being irrefutable, still: The FDLR, as its predecessors, ALIR and the interahamwe movement, is an ethnically and politically cohesive “Hutu power” organisation purporting a genocidal ideology against all sorts of “Tutsi” and similar (Hema/Hima etc.) communities in Central Africa. They have never refrained from a self-defined “end goal” of reconquering Rwanda and “finish the work” (which is basically nothing less abominable than starting genocide again). Besides that, a couple of other observations are noteworthy:

As mentioned above, FDLR is a sequel to interahamwe/ex-FAR and ALIR. In 1994, after the international community failed to prevent Genocide in Rwanda (with the French opération turquoise even playing a supporting role to some extent, facilitating the génocidaires’ retreat through a so-called humanitarian corridor), a Uganda-based rebel movement called RPF (and its army RPA, respectively) that had tried to regain Rwandan territory since 1990, managed to march into Rwanda and stop the Genocide that had so far caused up to one million victims (mainly Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu). RPF/RPA was made up of Tutsi refugees that had to flee then Hutu-governed Rwanda a few decades before and was led by Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame (today’s President of Rwanda). The seminal report by Alison Desforges gives plenty of details on that part.

Having fled to then Zaire, altogether with families and supplies, the interahamwe/ex-FAR managed to duplicate their former administrative order within the numerous refugee camps build up by UN agencies and NGOs. Tolerated by both the Zairian government and the international community they were able to militarise the camps and exert population control over the very same. This provoked the new Rwandan RPF government to attack the camps, as no one else took necessary steps to dismantle the génocidaire networks around Goma, but also engage in brutal retaliation and cleansing operations. Eventually, Rwandan operations in eastern Zaire culminated in the creation of a patchwork rebel group led by Congolese rebel veteran Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the AFDL. AFDL was heavily supported by Rwandan forces, which helped in developing a quickly successful rebellion that marched up to Kinshasa to topple Mobutu Sese Seko in early 1997. These events are referred to as the “first Congo war”. Shortly afterwards, the interahamwe/ex-FAR made up the ALIR (“Armée pour la LIbération du Rwanda”), more or less FDLR’s direct predecessor.

The “second Congo war” erupted in the aftermath of Kabila chucking out his Rwandan aides (driven by a rationale to consolidate his own power and increase legitimacy among the Congolese). In a full fledged war Kabila’s government found itself then opposed to the RCD, Rwanda’s new proxy against Kinshasa, as well as the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, and others. Mzee Kabila on his side, struck alliances with Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, and others. The government side included not only various nationalist Mayi Mayi militias but also a considerable number of interahamwe/ex-FAR. The so-called “African World War” lasted approximately 5 years (1998-2003) and went on beyond Kabila’s assassination in 2001. During the war, Congo was not only a national battlefield, it was virtually divided into three main units: The government-controlled territory (Bas-Congo, Kinshasa, Bandundu, Southern Katanga, Kasai Occidental, Western Equateur), the RCD-Goma-held area (Rwanda’s proxy, controlling North and South Kivu, Maniema, North Katanga, Kasai Oriental), and finally the region dominated by first RCD-K/ML then MLC (Uganda’s own proxy after misunderstandings with Rwanda, Orientale and Eastern Equateur – all geographical indications are approxiamtive here, as frontlines were fluid and swiftly changing).

Towards the end of that period FDLR emerged from ALIR and other remnants of the interahamwe/ex-FAR bunch. The exact conditions of this evolution or merger are fiercely debated, but one thing clear is that they have already been employed as a proxy force against the RCD-Rwanda coalition at that time. And since then it has been terrorising both Congolese and Rwandan civilians. In the aftermath, FDLR emerged as the most powerful and equipped rebel movement that lived on past the war in 2003. All other major groups had found themselves in one way or another integrated/coopted to the so-called 1+4 transitional government. Not the FDLR. They established large presences in both North and South Kivu. Respective regional commands were created in both provinces, and led by commanders that already had high-ranking positions in Rwanda before – génocidaires in the sense of the word.

Initially, FDLR encompassed at least 15,000 combatants (estimates vary pretty much here, it could similarly be possible that at times the numbered up to 25,000), most of them having their families and settling in the Kivu provinces. The Congolese government and its army, FARDC, repeatedly switched between leading military operations against FDLR and involving them in military operations against other hostile factions, such as later CNDP, or other local militia. Through systems of mineral exploitation (gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten) but also agricultural production (including cannabis, and palm oil) and brutal rule towards other communities (Rega, Tembo, Shi, Hunde, and others) FDLR maintained a comfortable stance in both North and South Kivu until at least 2007.

The more “original” ancient génocidaire commanders died or left the troops, the more FDLR made itself infamous for brutal atrocities (mainly on Congolese soil, but still with incursion into Rwandan territory) in the post-Genocide era. Also, they kept track with their traditional génocidaire ideology up to these days. Later on, roughly from 2008, their fate changed. CNDP emerged as a predecessor of RCD-Goma and – due to their strong cohesion and military discipline – challenged FDLR. In addition, joint operations between the Congolese and Rwandan armies (Umoja Wetu and Kimia II, mainly) as well as between the FARDC and MONUC/MONUSCO (e.g. Amani Leo and Amani Kamilifu) turned out to be a huge blow to the Hutu extremists. The battle strength subsequently diminished below the 8,000-10,000 margin. Further on, the North Kivu wing of FDLR suffered a couple of splits between 2008 and 2010 – with FDLR-Soki and FDLR-RUD emerging as splinter groups and also FDLR-Mandevu (that group was later to become a M23 ally) defecting from the core group.

By 2011 FDLR appeared to be decimated. Incursions to Rwanda had largely stopped and the former strongholds (very often around mining areas) were lost. Most observers spoke about 4,000-6,000 remaining combatants (probably including Soki and RUD, as well as the North and South Kivu branches). In South Kivu, FDLR had to retreat to remote areas in Shabunda territory, while still maintaining some positions in Mwenga and Kalehe, while in North Kivu they also splintered over various forested zones in Masisi and Rutshuru. Despite the decrease in numbers, and thus absolute strength, the quality of FDLR activities did not visibly change. Retaliation against civilians perceived as allied to CNDP, FARDC, or any other anti-FDLR militia continued to be as gruesome as before and rhetorics persisted too.

By 2012, the situation remains rather unchanged. In Raia Mutomboki, a loosely coordinated and very localised Congolese militia in South Kivu, FDLR has found a new enemy acting as dreadful and literally chasing them, as well as all other Rwandophones. In North Kivu, a group called FDC-Guides (nowadays split into two) carried out systematic killings of main military leaders, including Leodomir Mugaragu. Many FDLR combatants and dependents were killed and in sequence capitulations and repatriation numbers increased again. In Germany, a trial against Ignaca Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni started. Another trial before the ICC, against Callixte Mbarushimana, did not come into effect.

In early 2013, the remaining strength (less the still vivid génocidaire ideology) remains a subject of debate. Most observers calculate between 1,000 and 3,000, counting at least the two “classic” parts (North and South Kivu command, or its remnants). Sylvestre Mudacumura, an ICC indictee, is still the acting commander. In February, there has been a major movement from North Western Mwenga territory to Walungu territory, including 1,000 (mixed, combatants and relatives) of FDLR. In North Kivu, there has been the first incursion to Rwanda for quite some time, although it was never substantially cleared whether it was FDLR, RUD, or Soki. All that indicates that the FDLR threat persists in quality, even if in quantity the group has been tremendously weakened. Unfortunately, any military operation against FDLR in the last years (Rwanda/DRC, DRC/UN, Raia Mutomboki, FDC-Guides, CNDP, etc.) has resulted in pushing them further into inaccessible zones and prompted retaliations against the civilian populations.

Besides media-driven attention on the M23 rebellion, a pressing question of course is how to resolve the FDLR problem. Tanzania’s Kikwete asked the Rwandan government to start negotiations, which was brusquely refused by Rwandan officials. The situation is complicated. On one side, military action has proved it can solve the problem only partly, in diminishing and displacing FDLR, but certainly not in putting an end to their atrocities. This would make a case for political action. But understandably, the Rwandan government is reluctant to talk with those responsible for the Genocide, 19 years ago (Today’s command of FDLR still includes génocidaires from 1994 and after, but many of the combatants are too young to have killed at that time, nevertheless the have been taught and share the same ideology). The Congolese government on its side has proven evenly unable to address the problem – instead it has at various times relied on FDLR for own strategic purposes. Further, no regional or international body has yet emerged as a serious broker to find solutions.

At the end of the day, the question is: Should the FDLR been chased further into Congolese jungle or will be be a more solution-driven approach? MONUSCO, with its DDRRR programme is already trying to present alternatives, however, despite many successfully disarmed FDLR combatants, the programme lacks a grand approach as it can only work case by case. Security Council resolution promises new attempts in the field of DDR(RR) but so far little concrete is observable. Will MONUSCO’s intervention brigade solve the problem? Probably not, it might tackle it, but the result will likely be displacement instead of disarmament and dissolution. Will the Congolese government seriously approach the problem? Certainly not before having dealt with the M23 saga, although they share this responsibility with Rwanda. Will the Rwandan government jump forward? Most probably not, for the yet provided narratives.

In the end, it is not Kikwete’s task to counsel on that issue, but there are indeed incentives to think of talks or negotiations. While the DRC should commit itself to facilitate the disarmament (in preference voluntarily, but in the long run coercion might be necessary) with the help of MONUSCO, Rwanda could rely on its former Gacaca system in order to provide each FDLR member with necessary punishment, but with respect for human rights. Big players would hence face justice while nobodies could reenter society. Such a deal could be brokered in negotiations (even if, as negotiations between DRC and M23 show, this would be a difficult process). Certainly, Rwanda must take the final decision itself, and especially countries that have not helped preventing the Genocide should respect that. But against the background that all military operations by or in collaboration with the Rwandan Defense Forces have not resulted in neutralising FDLR, it should also be obvious that a military solution is not in immediate reach, not even for RDF, one of the most professionalised armies of the region. Hence, much will depend on possible chances for a rapprochement between the two governments and a window of opportunity whilst which both countries develop a serious interest in taking action – instead of letting survive FDLR for proxy alliances or threat scenario reasons.

(NB: The sources for this are a wide range of scholarly literature, other reports, and discussions with Rwandans and Congolese of different backgrounds.)

One Response to “The FDLR, a never ending curse in eastern Congo?”
  1. Frank Rwa says:

    Why is #DRC folding its arms while its citizens re slaughtered right and left by FDLR? Instead of flushing them, they aid them! very paradoxical!

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