The FDLR demobilisation gamble reloaded

With apologies for intermittent posting over these months, a few musings on the current FDLR situation with demobilisation ceremonies happening in both Kivu provinces.

On 30 May and 9 June, respectively, FDLR organised the demobilisation of a larger number of combatants in Kateku/Buleusa (Walikale territory, North Kivu) and Kitogo (Mwenga territory, South Kivu). The locations roughly represent the militia’s current geographical distribution, with its North Kivu Brigade mostly situated in Lubero and at the margins of Walikale, Rutshuru, and Masisi territories, while the South Kivu Brigade is concentrated in southern Mwenga territory, more precisely at the Plateau Itombwe (for a more or less current overview on that, see here).

The Kateku/Buleusa ceremony on 30 May featured 105 combatants laying down their arms, plus an unquantifiable number of civilian dependants. Roughly the same amount of light weapons were handed in, but most of them were comparatively old AK 47 assault rifles. The ceremony was attended (and possibly co-facilitated) by representatives of the DRC government, its armed forces FARDC, a SADC delegation, as well as various other civil society and political stakeholders of the region. On the FDLR side, senior leadership including President a.i. Victor Byiringiro (a.k.a. ‘Gaston Iyamuremye’/’Rumuli’) Gen. Pacifique Ntawunguka (a.k.a. ‘Omega’), spokesperson LaForge Fils Bazeye and others.

Then, on 9 June, again attended by similar stakeholders, the second ceremony took place in Kitogo. 83 combatants and 234 dependants turned themselves in. Again, a number of light weapons and, according to media report, two items of heavy weaponry were laid down in the frame of the demobilisation.

To this stage it remains unclear to which extent these events may mark a shifting trend in the never-ending FDLR saga. They come at a point were both diplomatic engagement and military pressure have been increasing, while the militia itself, though maintaining their state-like military structure (including actual battalion and brigade structures as opposed to many other armed groups in the region whose structures only mimic actual military organisation by terminology – as well as a functioning training system based on mobile military academies), suffered consisted weakening by subsequent joint operations (FARDC and the Rwandan army plus FARDC and MONUSCO) between 2008 and 2011.

On the military side, the establishment of MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) comes as a game-changer. In all examples available at this point, active FIB support to FARDC operations has been reported as a significant asset to improved FARDC performance. M23, ADF, and most recently, APCLS tell the tale. However, FDLR operations – though multiply announced – have not actually been happening up to this point. In December 2013, a purported anti-FDLR operation of MONUSCO turned out to be a routine action that aimed at clearing the road axis between Kitshanga, Mweso, and Pinga in Masisi territory. While certain FDLR outposts were still close to this road at the time, confidential UN sources confirmed that these operations never targeted FDLR as opposed to official statements given. Similar in 2014 with FARDC and FIB moving onto Tongo, a FDLR-held locality in western Rutshuru. Although FIB contingents had been ready to follow up into and across Virunga park, they were held back by hierarchy as other sources indicated. As of now, the FIB appears to be militarily ready but politically hindered to go after FDLR in North Kivu, while South Kivu remains virgin territory to the FIB in general. Nonetheless, and still after various unfulfilled announcements, sources close to the militia that includes former interahamwe/génocidaires suggest the threat scenario was clearly perceived among the militia’s leadership.

Which reasons for the military agony? Within MONUSCO (and in wider UN circles) there is divergent opinions in whether the group should be tackled. Two troop-contributing countries of the FIB (Tanzania and South Africa) stand in diplomatic raws with the government in Kigali and appear reluctant to do Rwanda the favour of hunting its archenemies. For various reasons they plead for peace talks between Rwanda and FDLR – a claim that Kigali categorically rejects for the fact that FDLR is not only a merely an exiled armed opposition group but the de-facto successor of the genocidal regime that fled the country in mid 1994. While their power has been shrinking and their name changing ever since, it is obvious that leaders such as Gen. Mudacumura bear responsibility for the despicable crimes that shattered Rwanda twenty years ago. Nonetheless, today’s FDLR also incorporates a number of Congolese or next-generation combatants (i.e. those under 25) which obviously cannot have participated in Genocide. A complex situation. Moreover, Kinshasa appears to be very much divided on whether to militarily tackle FDLR. The DRC government and its army used to be in official coalition with FDLR’s predecessors ALIR I and II when RCD rebels threatened state integrity and FARDC continuously engaged in occasional collusion with parts of FDLR over the past ten years. While certain wings in the Kinshasa political arena argue for military operations against FDLR, others are reluctant to attack former brothers in arms and others again come up with the claim that since DRC was ‘forced’ to negotiate with M23, Kigali should do so too with FDLR. Bearing in mind considerably different geo-political perspectives from Kinshasa and Kigali, respectively, all sides of the arena can to various degrees be understood.

Regionally, FDLR is increasingly returning to the agenda as well. SADC as a regional body actively entered the political scene while militarily present since a year through FIB. Cognisant of FDLR’s lack of trust towards ICGLR, the geographically more concerned regional organisation where Rwanda is a member, this South-Africa-dominated community recently functioned as a vector for FDLR’s peace talk demands. Within this regional gamble over diplomatic leadership in the FDLR question, it will be crucial to see how overlapping membership (i.e. DRC and Tanzania) in ICGLR and SADC play out and how the positioning of UN and/or AU will influence future developments. Seen from Kigali again, there is obvious reason to mistrust the FDLR. Hailed as major advances regarding the issue, FDLR’s voluntary but partial demobilisation is but a symbolic one. Out of an estimated 1500-2500 combatants (compared to 8000 ten years ago), only about 200 surrendered, their arms hardly giving an estimate on how well equipped the militia still might be. FDLR activities near the Rwandan border across 2013 certainly do not add to Kigali’s ease. Moreover, the ongoing creation of FPPH in Masisi territory – a melting pot new armed movement that includes at least at the training, if not at the operational level, FDLR officers and soldiers merging with parts of Nyatura (especially the FDDH wing led by Col. Kasongo) – is a generally worrying sign for both local populations and Rwandan security interests.

First conclusions on the two demobilisation ceremonies therefore not allow for too overwhelming optimism. While it is laudable that diplomacy (and military pressure) around the FDLR riddle leads to changes on the ground, the latter should not falsely been taken for a uniquely positive development. The apparent double-game of FDLR, be it for tactics, mere survival, or both, needs to be addressed by regional and international stakeholders and a lot of trust-building remains to be done.


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