AIII #20: Recalling the positives of the Congolese Army

Recalling the positives of the Congolese Army

Benson Linje 

A lot has been written about the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo or FARDC, the national army of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Much of the literature out there is generally negative and paints a bad image of the army as being one of the major sources of insecurity for civilian communities in the troubled DRC, having been linked to sexual abuses of helpless women and girls, criminal acts like extortions, cruelty and general indiscipline. However, the FARDC is what is there as an army for people of DRC and sometimes picking the positives from a myriad of negatives can give hope to the defense sector reform efforts currently underway and encourage the pessimists that all is not lost.

While serving with the first Malawian battalion in DRC under the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), I worked closely with many FARDC officers in joint planning sessions and in joint operations. I saw and appreciated the conduct and working ethics of FARDC soldiers in combat environment during the campaigns against M23 between October and December 2013 and follow on initial joint operations against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in the first quarter of 2014.

From my observations, one can easily pick a few positive things to talk about the image-battered national army of DRC. More so, numerous accounts that negatively label FARDC seem to have been written using second-hand information and a blatant lack of appreciation of what men and women of FARDC go through to defend their homeland. This is a bad starting point for efforts to reform the military or the wider security sector as fundamental factors are ignored. More so, some quarters may not take into account the military, political, social and behavioral theories and realities that lead to FARDC to perform the way it does.

The military is the armed will of its society. Politics, for instance affects the military a great deal since at the end of the day most strategic, operational and even tactical activities are politically driven. So, before pointing fingers at FARDC, the chief problem may be somewhere else. Similarly, if something alienates the army from its society, it has to be found and addressed. The military is merely an instrument that attains society’s objectives. Therefore, if society’s objectives are not what the military is tirelessly working to achieve or vice versa, there is need to review the basic state tenets and desires that make up the State itself.

Without digressing from the focus of this article, much as the FARDC has been portrayed as lacking control, cohesion and basic operational capacity in “democratic” and “professional military” eyes, while it is linked to widespread allegations of illicit taxing and serious human rights violations and underhand cooperation with illegal armed groups like FDLR, the national army of DRC demonstrates promising traits which authorities should recognize and build on. This is an army, which is essentially on active service in most parts of the vast and rugged country yet the morale of its ranks is quite good despite many challenges.

Starting with the basic working conditions, which can best be described as “appalling,” the soldiers and officers always demonstrated an offensive spirit and I was impressed by their determination and stamina, which probably exceeds that of numerous other armed forces on the continent. FARDC is a pack of lions commanded by lions, while “other armies have either lion soldiers commanded by donkey officers or vice versa,” as one scholar Olaf Bachmann likes to say. Not many out there can admire the military job if they can be exposed to the plight of the Congolese soldier who takes his family with him to the battlefront and live in squalor. With documented evidence of going for months without pay, he has to fend for his family and children. A regular pay for an FARDC soldier, though little, could go a long way in preventing him from getting involved in extortions and other bad acts.

Secondly, I sensed excellent professionalism within FARDC’s officers. They were easy to work with and knew what they were doing. They were good in their plans, bold, confident and showed little struggle in working within a multinational set-up. They could be seen providing that excellent leadership in the heat of battle and they kept going despite losing soldiers at the height of the battle against M23.

They motivated their men and fought with aggressive patriotism. This was evident from highest ranks to junior officers. General Lucien Bahuma, Colonel Mamadou Ndala and many commanding officers of various units were all sharp and fine officers. They were leaders. The most tragic thing for a reforming FARDC is that some of them are dead. However, there still remains a good number of highly motivated officers within the FARDC. Hopefully such men will have opportunity to emerge and contribute in the transformation of the army.

With the brassage process, I am aware of the possibility of having a rainbow of characters within FARDC. Some could be extremely good and vice versa. The integration process—or was it in reality an amalgamation process?—might have left the military in a weaker, unstructured and unhealthy standing to effectively deal with some security challenges in the past. However, many militaries around the world have had their own ‘brassages’ at different periods in their history and today they are coherent and unified. If voices of pessimists are louder, there will be little progress in building up the FARDC, which everybody can be proud of.

Right now, what needs to be done is to rebuild the army from the base. As many observers have said before, human resource management systems must be developed and implemented, administrative and logistic systems created, new training schools and barracks built. The FARDC does not require unsustainable lifelines offered by MONUSCO and other partners for it to function properly in volatile parts like Eastern DRC.

Realization of long-lasting democracy and rule of law in DRC is linked to fundamental rebuilding and transformation of the national army that needs little panel beating with the help of coordinated donor support and political will. This is an army, which despite the odds can send 850 soldiers for peacekeeping in the Central African Republic, which the DRC borders to the north, and go it alone on FDLR when the UN was dilly-dallying recently. Otherwise, the ones who control the army have a bigger role to play. Once they do everything right and without delay, the FARDC will metamorphose into the disciplined and professional force everybody is longing to see.

 

Benson Linje is the Executive Director for Lilongwe Institute for African Affairs, based in Lilongwe, Malawi. He has served on UN Peacekeeping Missions in Cote d’Ivoire and DRC with Malawi Defence Force contingents, and currently acts as a Researcher & Country Expert (Malawi) on Peacekeeping issues for International Peace Institute (IPI). He can be followed on Twitter @BensonLinje.

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