MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade: un état des lieux

Roughly 16 months ago (in March 2013), the United Nations has strengthened its peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – MONUSCO – with a robust force to “neutralise armed groups”. In sequence to waves of criticism MONUSCO has experienced for its passive stance during the capture of Goma by M23 troops, the so-called Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) was set up with 3,069 troops from South Africa, Tanzania, and Malawi – all SADC member states. In a highly robust, mobile, and versatile manner, the FIB should start tackling various armed groups operating in eastern DRC, e.g. M23, FDLR, ADF, APCLS, and others.

As with most UN peacekeeping efforts, the heavy bureaucracy linked to such interventions made for the FIB not becoming operational before July/August 2013. In the meantime, numerous concerns have been voiced as to the potential side effects of this unprecedented move towards active peace enforcement in DRC and the concomitant transformation of (parts of) MONUSCO into an active belligerent (if it has not been such before in the frame of supporting the national army FARDC). While the establishment of the FIB as such remains unique in the history of UN peacekeeping, it has to be said, though, that the UN has been a belligerent and actively involving in fighting before, notably in DRC (ONUC in the 1960s in Katanga, and also parts of MONUC around 2004 in Ituri).

Led by Brigadier Mwakibolwa from Tanzania (now replaced after serving his term), and MONUSCO force commander Dos Santos Cruz, the FIB’s first engagement was the fight against M23. Between July and November, the troops engaged by various means (artillery, aerial attacks, snipers etc.) alongside FARDC units that were leading the pushback against DRC’s then strongest armed groups. For various reasons, the offensive led to an unexpectedly quick win on the side of FARDC/FIB. Most importantly, the use of well-trained and disciplined FARDC units (mostly Unités de Reaction Rapide) that benefitted from functioning supply chains in terms of equipment, logistics, and food in conjunction with massive FIB support made the difference. In addition, M23 decided to engage in a ‘classic war’ positioning itself as a proper army instead of engaging in guerrilla tactics. These aspects did not only help a swift military victory on the side of the government/UN coalition but also prevented major humanitarian consequences. MONUSCO, at this time, had no serious contingency plans to react to massive displacement if it had happened, senior mission staff has confirmed off-the-record. Moreover, concerns over the regional escalation have luckily not materialized – given that, among others, Tanzanian and South African forces fought M23 who allegedly benefitted from Rwandan and Ugandan support, and thus from countries that lately traded diplomatic rows with FIB contributors.

After M23’s disappearance from the eastern Congolese conflict landscape, the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist Ugandan armed opposition force sitting on Congolese territory came into the focus of joint FARDC/FIB operations by early 2014. In sequence to six months of continuous military operations – this time with less combat-linked support by FIB – official and unofficial sources seem to agree that ADF’s operating bases have largely been conquered and/or destroyed (while the group’s état major appears to remain intact). Despite a massive increase of insecurity in and around Beni, humanitarian catastrophes did not occur – but MONUSCO as well as other UN and humanitarian actors have been increasingly targeted by unidentified attackers, possibly ADF.

A few months later, the FIB joined FARDC offensives against APCLS, a Masisi-based militia that emerged from parts of the former PARECO – main opponent to M23’s predecessor CNDP. Not necessarily triggered by clashes between APCLS, FDC, Guides, and Nyatura in southwestern Masisi in February, but temporarily pursuant to these events, FARDC units started combatting APCLS (that used to serve as a FARDC proxy in anti-M23 operations before, alongside Nyatura and certain parts of FDLR). Apparently not engaged in ground operations, or at least not as significantly as against M23, FIB provided massive support through aerial attacks against APCLS positions in Nyabiondo and Lukweti. With alliances and collaborations largely being unstable and shifting in eastern DRC, it turned out the FARDC offensive was significantly assisted by parts of the Nyatura militias – another product of ex-PARECO whose relations with APCLS have been souring over the past years for a bunch of reasons linked to Masisi’s complex and dynamics social and political tissue. The indirect collaboration with one “negative force” to “neutralise” another starkly puts the FIB’s, MONUSCO’s, and more generally, the UN’s impartiality in question (Obviously, the FARDC’s continued collaboration with various armed groups used as proxy forces against others, as well as the FARDC’s paradigmatic lack of unity and internal cohesion lies at the basis of many problems, but as a national army it can be argued that FARDC is not subject to impartiality. Nevertheless the need for proper army reform in the frame of larger SSR is vital in DRC.).

Meanwhile, anti-FDLR operations remain at the stage of repeated announcements. The ‘longest-serving’, most resilient armed group on DRC territory still includes culprits of the Rwandan Genocide serving at their highest level of command and genocidal ideology remains part and parcel of military and political education, even if most of their current fighters (i.e. certainly anyone under 30 years as well as Congolese recruits) are not among the 1994 perpetrators. As early as of December 2013, MONUSCO has been announcing the start of anti-FDLR operations, at that time in Northern Masisi. A little later, this turned out to be a hoax, as MONUSCO’s operations on the road axis between Mweso and Pinga largely focused on securing the area and just accidentally happened in vicinity of certain residual FDLR positions there. In May 2014, a second serious announcement was given in the context of a joint operation in Western Rutshuru territory, precisely in Tongo. This operation failed due to the persistence of certain FARDC-FDLR networks at the local level but also reluctance within the FIB. Ever since, it remains unclear if and when anti-FDLR operations will effectively begin and amid a highly mediatised FDLR demobilization wave in June and renewed threats against the group from Luanda where a joint ICGLR-SADC summit ended in early July the stakes it is hard to tell how the situation may develop. While not so prescribed by MONUSCO’s current mandate, the mission is clear on the fact that FIB will not start unilateral operations without consent of the DRC government. This is understandable in regards to sovereignty matters, but prevents action since President Kabila is yet to give green light for anti-FDLR operations. Kabila himself is not necessarily against or for such operations, but amongst DRC elites (politically and militarily) the FDLR question is highly controversial. While some favour muscled military action, others reject it on the base of previous relations and collaboration against common adversaries, and a third group puts forward the claim that as DRC was drawn into negotiations with M23, Rwanda should also negotiate with FDLR. Kigali for obvious reasons refuses the latter. But not only DRC politics prevent action. Within the FIB, similar political ramblings are at play. Various stakeholders have independently confirmed that as of now Tanzanian and South African troops do not have clearance to engage in fighting with FDLR – leaving the Malawian battalion as the only force that could engage. This coincides with earlier mentioned diplomatic tensions and the increasing role of SADC as a regional body in eastern DRC’s affairs – an area rather covered by ICGLR, another regional body that has remained little effective though.

Overall, the FIB’s performance can be seen as a mixed bag. So far it has not lived up to earlier fears in terms of their humanitarian impact, while it still massively contributed to MONUSCO’s and the UN’s perception of becoming more and more a belligerent. Then, in regards to M23 and ADF operations, the military performance of the FIB, or its support to these campaigns, must be assessed positively in most aspects (there is plenty of negative side effects, suffice to think of numerous unsolved problems after the so-called M23-DRC peace agreement, but these cannot be attributed to FIB). However, the ongoing APCLS operations bear much more dangers than they possibly create benefits. FIB’s engagement in these operations is likely to undermine MONUSCO’s position in Masisi and appear as a political misstep given the volatility and instability in that area. A serious backlash is to be expected if MONUSCO continues to jeopardise its impartiality in this context. Last but least, the FIB will also be judged by its FDLR performance. Here though, MONUSCO itself and the FIB are not to be blamed because (as so often) the real problems are located at the level of the DRC government, regional diplomacy, and high-level politics at the UN Security Council and troop-contributing countries.

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