Mujyambere’s arrest & the politics of tackling FDLR
Early last week, the chief of staff of the FDLR’s main military wing, FOCA, Brig.-Gen. Leopold Mujyambere (also known under the following aliases: Petrus, Achille, Musenyeri) was arrested when he was allegedly on his way back from Zambia into the thick forests of Northern Masisi – where many of the militia’s key leaders and troops seem to hide out after having been driven off their eastern Walikale strongholds in late 2015. The detention is significant inasmuch as it represents the capture of one of FDLR’s most senior military officials. Within the group’s hierarchy, he is – in protocol terms – the second-highest officer following Lt.-Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura, even if in terms of real power and influence, Brig.-Gen. Pacifique Ntawunguka (‘Omega’) may perform as Mudacumura’s acting right hand.
Mujyambere also figures on the current UN sanctions list for individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities operating in the DRC regarding his involvement in FDLR human rights violations over the past 15 years or more, even if he might not be a genocidaire in the classic sense. Out of the FDLR batch on the current sanctions list, Mujyambere belonged to the six remaining free and active (together with military staff Mudacumura, Omega, Irakeza as well as acting president Victor Byringiro and Callixte Mbarushimana) individuals out of ten in total (Mugaragu was killed, Bigaruka disappeared, Murwanashyaka and Musoni were convicted by a German court recently).
Briefly after this detention on Monday in the city of Goma, sources report how Achille had been flown out to Kinshasa the same day or Tuesday, where his traces disappear as he was probably brought to either a military or intelligence prison for interrogation. Whether or not he will face a trial in the DRC – he is not sought by either the ICC or the ICTR but other countries may ask for extradition – is not sure at this point, although it seems less likely that Rwanda will demand to try him as in the recent case of Ladislas Ntaganzwa, who is now to stand trial for crimes committed during genocide. On the other side, no key FDLR commander has ever been put to justice in the DRC.
Perhaps these two questions are at the centre of Achille’s arrest: Is FDLR-FOCA about to implode through the increasing military and political pressure by the Congolese government? And, if so, what would this mean for the larger Kivutien political and security context?
For the first, the answer is that we do not know. Certainly, FDLR has been – looking at numbers and the closest estimations we are able to make – decreasing in size and assets throughout the past ten years at least. A successful UN-led DDRRR programme (perhaps the biggest success of MONUC/MONUSCO throughout time) played its part in that, but many other factors had Mudacumura’s militia lose combatants at constant levels. At the same time, both FOCA and its splinter factions (especially RUD-Urunana) have shown remarkable resilience and have certainly been able to re-recruit among Rwandan refugee populations who still live in eastern Congo as well as building short-term alliances (incl. for economic reasons) with certain local militias. This means, even the capture of a high-level commander such as Achille does not mean FDLR is about to vanish. However, much analysis has focused also on internal frictions and problems. Perhaps that increasing rift (personified in the long time souring relations between Mudacumura and Byiringiro) is what may finally break the group’s neck as a unified solid movement. On the other side, much will also depend on whether FARDC – after a recent lull – will maintain the pace in Sukola II operations, which have – in parts due to the fall-out with MONUSCO following a fiery debate over two Congolese generals – been logistically and operationally very challenging. From a more historical comparison, Sukola II – even if it has not yet succeeded dismantling FDLR as a whole – might be one of the most successful military operations against FDLR. This has several reasons: compared to previous operations like Kimia II, the current operations seem to progress with much less collusion between FDLR and the army. In addition, certain proxies such as Guidon’s faction of NDC turned out to be very efficient in military terms. And, not to forget, today’s situation of the FDLR with much less combatants, arms, and (maybe most strikingly) ammunition have certainly weakened the group even if they maintain an impressive geographical and contextual knowledge over the areas in which they operate and move.
Secondly then, what prospect for the Kivu’s with FDLR persisting as a weaker but – due to attacks threatening its very existence – more aggressive force, or potentially splitting into smaller factions. The recent wave of kidnappings (mostly in Rutshuru and southern Lubero, with some cases in Masisi too) is indicative of the changing security landscape in North Kivu. Given the FDLR existence and reputation, it was fairly easy to ascribe many of these kidnappings and abductions to the Rwandan rebels, however often with little evidence. The most recent case, an abduction of three ICRC staff who have been released after 3-4 days last week, was also linked to FDLR (however, with little specification on whether it is FOCA, RUD, or another faction). So far, however, no evidence exists for such allegations. On the other side, FDLR-FOCA have reportedly both launched revenge attacks against civilian and military (FARDC) targets themselves and might have played a role in supporting the tit-for-tat violence that embroiled Hutu and Nande youth following the Miriki massacre in January 2016. It would not be surprising either, if they were to be responsible for some of the kidnappings. Still, given FDLR’s usual posture towards international actors and their comparative high level of IHL education among the 70 different groups on Kivutien soil, it would be highly surprising if they would a) risk to lose access to humanitarian assistance for their dependents and wounded combatants and b) send a political signal that would contradict most of their recent international PR efforts, by kidnapping Red Cross employees. Perhaps the only explanation for such a scenario would be that the aforementioned rift is already much deeper than everyone would imagine.
Finally, with half of the UN-sanctioned leaders now out of the game, the trend is clear but it may still take a fair while to settle the files, and it might be risky to underestimate the role of other groups and other conflicts in the region, since – in particular – the kidnapping phenomenon is certainly not to be uniquely ascribed to FDLR.