At the crossroads? The scission of FDLR
What has for long been a fragile cohabitation full of tension inside FDLR finally seems to have reached an ultimate breaking point. Congruent reports suggest the breakaway of a substantial part of a group that hitherto maintained its position as the single most important non-state armed movement in eastern Congo. What do we know about the scission led by Col. Wilson Irategeka (aka Laurent Ndagijimana)?
To start with some background: All through the last months, the FDLR is further losing strength, with their size ranging roughly around an estimated 1500 elements (this figure should be taken as a rough estimate based on various lower and higher numbers mentioned by various sources). Since late 2015, the still ongoing Sukola II operations of the Congolese army have not only dislodged the militia from its former strongholds (around Ihula), it has also shaken up the group’s internal hierarchy and potentially further undermined its fragile cohesion.
It is not entirely clear to which extent Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura (aka Bernard Mupenzi), the groups overall military head for many years, maintains full commanding power within the organisation. Given chief of staff Gen. Léopold Mujyambere’s (aka Achille Musenyeri) arrest, this points at increasing clout of Gen. Pacifique Ntawunguka (aka Omega/Israel). The recently concluded trial of the FDLR’s political president Ignace Murwanashyaka (together with Straton Musoni) saw Gen. Victor Byringiro (aka Gaston Iyamuremye/Rumuli) emerge as FDLR’s president ad interim, with Wilson as his de facto deputy. Both are believed to entertain lively animosities towards each other for years, and Victor’s relations to Mudacumura and Omega are evenly reported to be tense at best.
Prior to the onset of Sukola II operations by the Congolese army (which, still, are carried out unilaterally after allegations of human rights abuses of Congolese generals that created a friction between MONUSCO and Kinshasa), a series of voluntary demobilisations had made the news. In three waves, the FDLR leadership tried to show its goodwill by handing over a few hundreds of combatants and a number of arms. Victor and Wilson were both involved in these activities, while certain actors in the military leadership are said to have been more reluctant.
A more hidden contention, however, has been the way FDLR deals with its ‘dependents’, meaning both the actual dependents and the larger Rwandan refugee population that remains in eastern DRC’s forests since the 1994 Genocide. FDLR has been repeatedly accused of using them as ‘human shields’ and ‘recruitment pool’, but certainly also for economic activities which have traditionally linked civilians and combatants (i.e. the organisation of agricultural production and other revenue generating activities including but also beyond their ‘logistique non-conventionnelle’). Within FDLR’s leadership there has been historic disagreement over how to deal with these populations – both in terms of seeing in them a ‘constituency’ but also thinking of them as a strategic asset. Obviously, there is a thin line here.
At the same time, the refugee issue has a larger connotation: 22 years after most of them have arrived in eastern Congo, it becomes nearly impossible for both the UNHCR and the national refugee commission (CNR) of the DRC to exactly identify who is a refugee, who is a ‘refugee secondo’, who is a displaced rwandophone Congolese, and so on. The political solution aimed at resolving this confusion most recently was to run a biometric census. This is highly problematic, since comparative baseline data is not existing. Hence, if feasible at all, it would be an enormous undertaking, giving the logistic challenges, to have a more or less accurate picture. Attempts in 2015 have, in addition, shown a significant amount of suspicion among the target populations – in certain pilot centres in the Kivus almost no one showed up.
Back to FDLR: within this contestation over the role of refugees, the fault lines between Wilson and Victor consistently grew deeper. Sukola II had – despite its consistent challenges to roll out operations more quickly and decisively – achieved rather remarkable progress in military terms and effectively further weakened FDLR-Foca (Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi is the official name of FDLR’s military). It is in this context that we need to situate the comeback of hefty internal discussions over how to deal with the refugees. According to different sources, Wilson was pushing for a more open stance towards identification and census. A possible rationale behind this could be Wilson’s general political strategy towards a ‘decriminalisation’ of FDLR and the attempt of opening up avenues towards a diplomatic solution, incl. potentially third-country resettlement of those leaders not indicted by either ICC or ICTR. Coupled with political ambitions to ‘represent’ the refugees, these dynamics contributed to the most recent internal escalation. This might have been the tipping point having him being suspended by Victor, Omega, Mudacumura, and spokesman LaForge Fils Bazeye, and resulted in Wilson’s defection and the creation of the CNRD-Ubwiyunge under his leadership. In a Kinyarwanda communiqué, FDLR’s South Kivu commander Hamada Habimana is named as the CNRD’s military commander and strong accusations were issued against FDLR’s alleged strategy of ‘human shields’.
CNRD-Ubwiyunge would, if confirmed as a politico-military group, be the fourth relevant split-off from FDLR-Foca since its creation in 2000 (following RDR, ALiR I and II) – a meanwhile defunct group called ‘Rastas’ was operating in the early-mid 2000s in South Kivu and FDLR-Soki and RUD-Urunana broke away around 2006/7. While minor remnants of the Soki group still operate in northern Rutshuru territory, only RUD had a larger relevance in the last few years (their military leader Gen. Musare was reported to be killed early 2016 in fighting with, potentially, the NDC-Rénové and UPDI in southern Lubero.
To date, we know little about whether or not Wilson is succeeding to take a considerable number of commanders and troops into his new movement. The (by far smaller) South Kivu branch of FDLR-Foca, according to several sources is, in majority but not wholly, following Wilson. The larger North Kivu branch appears to be more divided. Several important commanders seem to be favourable to Wilson, but key commanders and potentially the groups ‘special forces’ called CRAP are unlikely to turn towards CNRD for their allegiance to Mudacumura and Omega. Voices from within have been stating that ‘a significant part of the combatants and civilians’ were on Wilson’s side, but also that ‘many rank-and-file’ remain ‘highly confused and barely up to date’ regarding the precise fault lines so far.
While internal tensions in FDLR are no news anymore, it is surprising (or not) that in a situation of high external pressures to the movement that this scission seems to happen. While that looks logical in the first place, it is interesting to remember that – beyond all dissent – the FDLR had previously often managed to overcome their internal beef whenever the group as such was exposed to existential threats. This time, it might be different.