Tracing the deadlock in dismantling FDLR

Imminent military operations against FDLR stir controversy in DRC

On January 2nd, a six-months deadline set by regional political bodies SADC and ICGLR together with the Congolese government and MONUSCO for the self-demobilisation of the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) run out. However, it did not trigger substantial results and the long-standing rebel group, whose roots lie in the genocidal militias, continues to dispose over intact chains of command.

Ever since the UN Security Council had been adopting its resolution 2098 in early 2013, the objective of the world’s largest peacekeeping mission MONUSCO has shifted to a more active role. A Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) was created to ‘neutralise’ the various armed groups roving around in eastern Congo’s forests. While its initial assignment targeting the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23) provoked the military dismantling of that group, further offensive operations went accompanied with less success. Instead, the humanitarian consequences of this robust approach became more visible when attacking the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Beni and the Alliance des Patriotes pour un Congo Libre et Souverain (APCLS) in Masisi. While early concerns over the so-called ‘humanitarian fallout’ that goes along with the FIB’s mandate were dismissed in the course of the anti-M23 offensive, similar concerns resurfaced more recently in the context of ADF, APCLS, and the possible advent of military action against FDLR. The controversy over the latter is manifold though.

The group combines a political wing – FDLR – and the Forces Combattantes Abachunguzi (FOCA), its army. FDLR’s leadership is largely made of Rwandan exiles who left their country after genocide when the Rwandan Patriotic Front conquered the country. Many of the current FDLR leaders mixed into the civilian refugees and were either members of the former Rwandan army (FAR) or the interahamwe militias. While the initial aim was to control the Rwandan refugee camps in order to both leave the new Rwandan government without a population and also to organise a re-conquest of the country, their trajectories soon began to develop differently. In the mid-1990s they amalgamated into a political coalition called RDR, which soon split into parallel rebel movements called Armée de Libération du Rwanda (ALiR) I and II. It was until the beginning 21st century these wings eventually merged again to form today’s FDLR.

Concomitant to the consolidation of power of the new Rwandan government, it became increasingly difficult for FDLR to launch successful attacks into their home country. Instead, they got increasingly enmeshed into the successive wars in eastern Congo, acting sometimes as a government proxy (such as against the RCD and CNDP rebellions) or caused the emergence of local-nationalist militias (such as most recently, of Raia Mutomboki). FDLR’s presence across vast areas in both North and South Kivu remained a continuous source of insecurity and displacement over the last 15 years and also earlier military operations could not root out this resilient militia.

Between 2008 and 2010, when the Congolese army (FARDC) launched joint operations, Umoja Wetu with the Rwandan army (RDF) and Kimia II with MONUSCO (then known as MONUC), it proved to be extraordinarily difficult to neutralise FDLR as a fighting force. Instead of taking on the fight, FDLR units dispersed into eastern Congo’s forest panoplies and turned into a survival mode, maintaining tight control and communication structures. Worse, these operations effectuated a high number of additionally displaced people and became an example of how difficult peacekeeping and humanitarian needs can be aligned or reconciled.

With Security Council resolutions 2098 and 2147, offensive operations against eastern Congo’s roughly 40-50 armed groups seem to become a more institutionalised pattern of peacekeeping in this country. However, this comes at a high political and logistic cost, for MONUSCO and its FIB, comprised of South African, Tanzanian, and Malawian units. Its first operation in collaboration with FARDC quickly succeeded in defeating M23 due to the latter’s posture as a conventional military force. Yet, engaging ADF and APCLS militias shed light on the limits of the 3000-strong FIB as well as FARDC’s supply and operation capacities.

The FDLR target adds a number of challenges. While the group has suffered severe blows, not only from previous joint operations but also through hostile militias like Raia Mutomboki or FDC-Guides, it fighting force remains at an estimated 1500 combatants, most of them in North Kivu. Subsequent waves of demobilization during the past nine months have brought smaller numbers of fighters and dependents out of the bush, but these were mainly unfit and carrying rotten armament. In addition, the FDLR has been smart in engaging diplomatic gamble with certain troop-contributing countries of the FIB as well as with SADC and continues to maintain local-level collaboration with FARDC units. Diplomatic tensions opposing the Rwandan government to South Africa and Tanzania and a degree of reluctance on the Congolese side to attack a group it has been in alliance with against other hostile forces have so far delayed the onset of FARDC-FIB offensives to tackle the Rwandan rebels.

In addition, the partial demobilization process resulted in dismembering the UN’s DDRRR (disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, resettlement, and reintegration) process that had channelled over 10,000 combatants back to Rwanda since the early 2000s. Now, a parallel process managed by all implicated stakeholders began to transfer FDLR members to Kisangani via Kanyabayonga (for North Kivu) and Walungu (for South Kivu). Analysts have assessed how this plays into the hands of FDLR (to demonstrate willingness), MONUSCO (to demonstrate success), and the Congolese government (to strategically balance M23 camps in Rwanda and Uganda) at the same time. The side-effect is that the process suffers increased politicization and the initial DDRRR programme suffers significant setbacks.

Still, the tide seems turning as parts of the international community and also Congolese officials are losing patience with FDLR’s piecemeal demobilisation. The end of the January 2nd deadline sparked a more aggressive tone amidst special envoys and UN officials and for the first time, a military operation seems in reach. This in turn, casts doubt on whether such an operation would be accompanied by humanitarian contingency planning. According to observers, this is not the case so far. In a larger sense, it will be vital that military operations are accompanied by political progress. Until now, it appeared that whenever political progress is made the military options are stuck and vice versa. It is time to combine both and embed them into humanitarian necessities.

However, as written elsewhere, the current 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  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.

President Kabila’s administration has moved to a more assertive profile towards MONUSCO and the international community – referring to DRC’s sovereign prerogatives and refuting the UN’s vetting procedure in a recent communiqué:

S’agissant des présomptions de violations des droits de l’homme qui pèserait sur les généraux Sikabwe et Mandevu et qui les rendraient inéligibles au commandement des opérations de désarmement forcé des FDLR, le Chef de l’Etat, commandant suprême des forces a confirmé que ni Lui-même, ni son Gouvernement n’ont reçu de la Monusco aucun dossier y relatif. La mise à l’index de ces officiers pose donc réellement un problème, d’autant plus que les intéressés ont eu très récemment à participer à des opérations conjointes avec la Monusco sans que ne soit évoquée une quelconque raison de les considérer comme infréquentables.


Hier, peu après la communication du Chef de l’Etat aux ambassadeurs, nous avons suivi avec stupéfaction dans un média global toujours prompts à rationaliser les pires égarements des proconsuls autoproclamés que l’acceptation par la RDC d’un appui des Nations Unies impliquait « ipso facto » une renonciation à une partie de sa souveraineté au titre du chapitre 7 de la Charte de l’ONU. Rien n’est plus faux et ce chroniqueur devrait revoir ses classiques car une sommaire revisitation du Chapitre VII de la Charte des Nations Unies relatif à l’Action en cas de menace contre la paix, la rupture de la paix et d’acte d’agression indique clairement qu’il n’y est fait, ni directement, ni indirectement aucune mention à une quelconque limitation de la souveraineté d’un Etat. Pour ce qui est de la situation en RDC, le siège de la matière est la Résolution 2098 du 28 mars 2013 du Conseil de sécurité qui réaffirme au contraire « son ferme attachement à la souveraineté, à l’indépendance, à l’unité et à l’intégrité territoriale de la RDC » avant de souligner que « le principe de non-ingérence », parmi d’autres doit y être « pleinement respecté ».

La Résolution reconnaît aussi à son point 10 que « la RDC a la responsabilité principale de garantir sa souveraineté et son intégrité territoriale ». On se demande bien où le chroniqueur a pu trouver une quelconque limitation de la souveraineté de la RDC dans l’arsenal onusien.

C’est précisément pour préserver la souveraineté de la RDC que le Président de la République a décidé de renoncer depuis hier à l’appui qui était attendu de la Monusco pour les opérations de désarmement forcé des FDLR. Pour tout dire, ces opérations qui ont bel et bien commencé, contrairement à ce que certains commentateurs en disent, vont être poursuivies jusqu’à bonne fin par les seules FARDC.

While these arguments are worth noting, not only regarding the current FDLR stalemate but in more general terms too, it is important to note that despite certain wordings contained in the UN Charter (especially chapter VII) and the subsequent MONUSCO mandates since 2013, there is a de facto limitation of state sovereignty attached to the establishment of the Force Intervention Brigade (currently the most sidelines part within MONUSCO) and the actual implications of a chapter VII mandate.

Whether and how the diplomatic tensions will be resolved and what this means for the timidly beginning unilateral FDLR operations by FARDC will be a key issue to observe across the Congolese politico-military landscape in the weeks to come.


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