A Chameleon army? Coherence, performance, discipline in Congo’s FARDC

Today, the New York Times Magazine published an online photo series of the late Sergeant Madot, a female FARDC member, one of the few holding an officer grade in the Congolese military’s elite units. Accompanying the great picture essay of Michael Christopher Brown, a photographer who spent considerably time in Eastern Congo lately, the magazine’s feature offers a glimpse of analytical writing on the state of the Forces Armés de la République du Congo (FARDC), the result of of subsequent waves of army reform and integration ever since the infamous colonial Force Publique in what today is the DRC.

A few weeks ago, I had the honour to talk with the responsible writing staff and suggested them the notion of a Chameleon as a suitable metaphor to give explanation to a wider public on how to perceive FARDC. Despite the awareness that such metaphorical ascriptions often can be simplistic, I beg to argue that this one is well chosen to defy certain stereotypes that exist about FARDC, in particular outside the Congo. Judith Verweijen and Maria Eriksson Baaz are among the very few outstanding academics that have thoroughly addressed these issues in their extensive research, for instance here, here, and here, but unfortunately their work has less readers than most of the often simplistic news stories depicting Congolese soldiers as a bunch of rapists and drunkards. Luckily, the New York Times manages to convey a rather differentiated picture in comparatively little space. This is laudable.

Indeed, FARDC is a Chameleon of an army, and this is meant neither good nor bad, it is a mere observation. Even less does it form a claim that any other military may not also have a Chameleon character – the US army consists of both heroes who engaged without arms alongside civilian helpers after the Haitian earthquake but also guys who brutalised prisoners in Iraq. But perhaps the Congolese army embodies this variability par excellence, for a couple of reasons:

1) Like few other armies, it is the result of a series of patchwork and ad hoc amalgamisation, sometimes with better, sometimes with worse intentions. Multiple sequences of DDR and reintegration have made it a Chameleon of what used to be opposing or allied belligerents throughout DRC’s multiple armed conflicts since two decades.

2) Despite the ‘bancarisation’, a digitisation of payment (which is pretty far implemented in some areas), many soldiers still do not receive their salaries in time or at all. In addition, the Congolese military is paid extremely little in terms of official salaries (from around 70 USD lowest grade to slightly over 100 USD highest grade). The only way to make ends meet legally is for high-ranking officers (say, from Major upwards) is to grab a ‘function’, meaning to command a larger unit (regiment, sector etc.) or to serve in an important HQ (T1, T2, T3 etc.).

3) Like other state employees (customs officer, ministry clerk etc.) or armed actor (Police, militiaman etc.), many Congolese soldiers – although they usually give high esteem to their duty of protecting the country – also have other occupations, ranging from harvesting fields or petty trade to less legal activities. Mostly these are survival-related activities to help feed children or pay their school fees. Obviously though, it comes along with secondary effects, for instance mere absence from duty.

4) For a lack of general security, many powerful actors (politicians, businessmen etc.) rely on private escorts from either FARDC or the police to provide for their security. These are usually handpicked and subsequently given a proper salary and equipment. The difference between these and the ‘rest’ is sometimes striking, bearing in mind they often received the same formation in the beginning.

5) FARDC uniforms are a good easy to trade (even peacekeepers buy… ). Seeing someone wearing a uniform, in particular outside the urban centres, does not always mean it is an actual army member. Given past alliances and joint operations, as well as defections, many militias (incl. FDLR, various Mayi Mayi, Nyatura, Raia Mutomboki etc.) possess larger amounts of official FARDC (sometimes even Republican Guard – like APCLS) fatigues.

6) Education matters. In military terms, the FARDC is perhaps the best existing example for this. As much as the Congolese army contains elements that are illiterate both in terms of alphabetisation as well as military training, it also features outstanding officers – many of whom I have met personally and who left me with a feeling of strong impression.

7) The weak performances FARDC is often blamed for (with the exception of the recent M23 operations in which Sergeant Madot took part as an aide of Col. Mamadou Ndala) only partly relate to its image as a disorganised army. Much weightier reasons for the generally negative picture lie in structural problems of supply and logistics, political unwillingness to unchain real Security Sector Reform (that would, by the way, give the yet well-instructed units and commanders more leverage within the troop), and the series of armed conflicts that have made it more difficult than ever for the individual soldier to distinguish what the enemy is and what state s/he fights for.

8) Currently, a historical raw between the Congolese government and the UN’s peacekeeping mission MONUSCO has unfolded over the question whether FARDC should receive passive support in its unilateral battle plan to dismantle the Rwandan exilé-génocidaire FDLR forces. Generals Fall Sikabwe and Bruno Mandevu, the new North Kivu FARDC chief and the commander for the Sukola II operations respectively, appear red-listed on MONUSCO’s Joint Human Right Office’s vetting system. That system tries to monitor whether specific FARDC units’ conduct is appropriate to receive such support. However, it specific cases it is sometimes hard to estimate to which extent an individual commander is rightly red-listed or not. Many high-ranking FARDC officers told me over the past weeks that they endorse this vetting procedure but they have a hard time understanding why Mandevu figures – a person amongst their peers they had estimated to be a good pick for this operation.

(This list is semi-exhaustive, of course…)

Of course, all that is not to deny that FARDC elements have committed horrific crimes in the past, the mass rapes of Minova in late 2012 are just one of the most recent despicable examples. But does the whole army rape? No, certainly not. Do they rape more than others? Hard to say…

However, in order to understand DRC’s politico-military rumblings and the cultures of army and conflict in the region, it is helpful to make an effort in understanding and observing FARDC from different perspectives and at different levels instead of drawing premature conclusions. The Chameleon changes colour in different parts and in different moments.

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  1. […] Christoph Vogel consulted with the NYT journalists on this aspect of the story, and has written a very good summary of the FARDC as a “chameleon army.”  Maria Eriksson Baaz’s other work on this […]

  2. […] Al Jazeera released thousands of spy cables leaked from various intelligence agencies this week. One of them indicates that Sudan attempted to assassinate the AU Chairwoman in 2012. Sudan is also accusing a UN peacekeeper of rape, likely to cover up its recent mass rape in Darfur. In the DRC, hopes were high for UN peacekeepers following the introduction of the Force Intervention Bridgade, but following a number of high-profile departures and setbacks, optimism is fading. One of the reasons for the setbacks is increasingly uncooperative DRC army, which Christoph Vogel analyzes in some depth. […]



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