Ihula & Rumangabo attacks overshadow DRC-Rwanda rapprochement on FDLR

Last week came with a remarkable diplomatic sign as Congo’s defence minister Aimé Ngoy Mukena (replaced yesterday in DRC’s most recent post-G7 cabinet reshuffle) met with his Rwandan counterpart James Kabarebe to discuss bilateral matters in Kigali. FDLR, the Rwandan militia surviving in eastern Congo for over 20 years and emanating from 1994’s genocidaire troops in Rwanda, was a main point on their agenda.

While Congo has been blamed of permitting FDLR to operate in almost undisturbed ways on their territory – in effect FDLR and its predecessors ALIR I and II used to be allies in various wars – and criticised more recently for renouncing UN support against the group in a raw over red-flagged FARDC generals, this diplomatic move may bring the two most concerned countries closer together.

Around 4-5 months ago, FARDC began its latest, unilateral, anti-FDLR offensive. This time, things are serious and the political climate in Kinshasa and among FARDC has changed. While many years, hidden sympathies and local-level collaboration, some argue high-level protection too, have secured FDLR from serious pursuit by the DRC army, the current Sukola II operations paint a different picture.

Still, certain key power brokers in Congo’s security sector offer patronage (apparently in very coercive ways – a recent surrender musing of FDLR leader and ICC indictee General Mudacumura was forbidden) but Sukola II features a number of high-level FARDC commanders who press for successful operations.

In South Kivu, this has not yet really materialised. The smaller part of FDLR-FOCA, SOSUKI, has escaped most attacks and sought refuge through massive mobility, also refusing to engage in significant battle. The North Kivu situation is much more complex. There FDLR-FOCA is divided into four geographical, adjacent areas: 1) Northern Masisi around Bweru and Kivuye, 2) Eastern Walikale around Katobo, the alleged HQ of Mudacumura, 3) Southwest Lubero with President a.i. Victor Byiringiro, and 4) Western Rutshuru with Gen. Omega, the leader of the group’s special forces.

FARDC has been progressing from various positions with a total of 5-6 regiments – a considerable fighting force but perhaps not fully matching with FDLR-FOCA’s remaining troops. In addition, Lubero is also home to the splinter group FDLR-RUD, again numbering at a few hundred fighters. Both before and after the Kabarebe-Mukena talks, FDLR has succeeded in inflicting serious military defeats to FARDC. Around Ihula – the gateway to FDLR’s HQ in Katobo, special forces of FDLR hit back against the progress of FARDC, killing a number of soldiers (the total death toll of Sukola II in North Kivu is approaching a hundred according to the nigh-level FARDC source) accompanied by numerous smaller ambushes on the Mweso-Pinga road axis (between areas 1 and 2). Then two days ago, a high-visibility attack into Rumangabo army base in Rutshuru, a strategic nod for FARDC and notorious for being a former M23 stronghold.

These attacks demonstrate not necessarily a resurrection of FDLR in terms of military capacity, but at least they show that albeit weakened over the past 6-7 years, FDLR-FOCA retains – if threatened – a significant operational capacity. On the FARDC side, the logistic and operational difficulties have re-engendered the well-known problem of combatant morale – and units with previous affinities to FDLR have been suspected to notify the rebels of pending attacks.

In light of the current, dispersed mobilisation dynamics and a set of political contestation, both over upcoming elections and other issues, the escalation of attacks is a worrisome sign. In addition, MONUSCO’s refusal to join Sukola II as long as led by General Mandevu and others (to be seen in the light of MONUSCO having collaborated with Bosco Ntaganda back in the days) and the departure of Martin Kobler (unlikely his successor may be as proactive or able to re-start a joint planning and strategy against FDLR) darken the prospect of a quick military solution in this issue. Even more complicated, the evergreen refugee question is far from being solved. Differences between UNHCR and the national refugee commission CNR, a ill-fated biometric registration procedure have not positively contributed to that.

Under these framework conditions, the Congolo-Rwandan rapprochement is a silver lining. There is almost no actor on the scene who observes FDLR more closely than Rwanda – for obvious security concerns. A stronger cooperation in some areas could hence be beneficial for both countries, but it also needs to include ideas for the surrounding challenges: the refugee question, the links with the unsolved M23 dossiers, and the historic ‘méfiance’ between the two countries.

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