Taking Uvira? The remarkable tenacity of the CNPSC coalition
(Guest blog by Judith Verweijen. Pictures: PARC-FAAL meeting in Misisi on 30 June 2017)
On 27 September, Mai-Mai forces composing the National People’s Coalition for the Sovereignty of the Congo (CNPSC), meanwhile also known as ‘l’Alliance de l’Article 64’ (‘AA.64’, in reference to Article 64 of the Congolese constitution) took Kigongo, located at a stone’s throw of the city of Uvira in South Kivu. FARDC reinforcements deployed from North Kivu and other parts of Uvira over the past days were not able to halt the coalition’s advance. Fighting has resumed this morning, and seems to be concentrated in Kabimba, south of the town center, where Mai-Mai reinforcements were reported to have arrived per boat this night. While Uvira is still in the hands of the FARDC and MONUSCO has geared up its activities to secure the city, its fall lies within the realm of possibility. Who, then, are the CNPSC and what explains this new coalition’s battlefield success?
The recent attacks, starting in Fizi’s Tanganyika sector adjoining Uvira territory, are a continuation of the offensive that the CNPSC claims to have launched since the symbolic date of 30 June 2017 – DRC’s independence day. Like many other armed groups, the coalition had promised to undertake armed action after 19 December 2016 – the day that President Kabila’s second mandate officially expired. Yet, as a political accord was brokered in late December 2016 and a new government was subsequently formed, they decided to first ‘wait and see’. But they did not like what they saw.
Thus, in late June the coalition – most troops of which were then based in Fizi territory and neighboring Maniema province – launched an offensive to ‘liberate the Congo’ from a President they deemed had lost any legitimacy. Assembling several armed groups and officers (most of whom with a ‘distinguished’ pedigree in armed mobilization), the CNPSC has tried to seize upon the momentum created by the larger political crisis in the DRC. One of the core groups of the coalition – a Mai-Mai group led by Bembe commander William Amuri Yakotumba (also known as PARC-FAAL or Mai-Mai Yakotumba) – had paved the way for the offensive earlier that month by attacking an FARDC position in southern Fizi at Forces Bendera (on the border with Tanganyika province), allowing them to obtain a considerable amount of arms and ammunition.
Other attacks that helped the coalition build up strength had been undertaken from the end of 2016 onwards by its branch based in the Kilembwe sector of Fizi and Kabambare territory of Maniema province. This branch assembles various groups and commanders, including Sheh Assani’s Mai-Mai Malaika, Omari, an FARDC deserter named colonel Aigle, and Kiwis Kalume – a crucial figure in the Maniema Mai-Mai scene (the Kaka Sawa group) during the Second Congo War, who deserted last year from the FARDC. Capitalizing on popular resentment towards the Canada-based mining multinational Banro, which operates a concession in Namoya, members of this branch had repeatedly attacked vehicles of Banro subcontractors, and eventually also assaulted the concession itself, taking numerous personnel hostage.
The offensive launched end June played out in the form of attacks both in the Kilembwe sector as well as on the artisanal gold mining site of Misisi and the adjacent town of Lulimba, a major population center and traditional stronghold of PARC-FAAL. The population in this area was tired of a particular FARDC regiment that had been deployed there since 2012 and that was believed to be at the basis of soaring crime rates. Furthermore, many feared that the mining company CASA, operating in Misisi, would soon enter the exploitation phase and chase artisanal miners away. Profiling themselves as opposing these developments, the Mai-Mai managed to garner considerable popular support.
While obtaining a number of successes, including plundering another FARDC arms depot in Lulimba and inflicting serious casualties on the government forces, the Mai-Mai were eventually beaten back. After reinforcements were flown in through Kalemie, the FARDC reoccupied Lulimba and Misisi in early July. The coalition then withdrew strategically. Meanwhile, in the areas re-occupied by the FARDC, young men suspected of being Mai-Mai supporters were arbitrarily arrested and even maltreated. This behavior induced further population displacement and reinforced sympathy for the CNPSC coalition, even though many people fear both sides.
Soon after their withdrawal from parts of the Ngandja sector in southern Fizi, other groups within CNPSC stepped up attacks in northern Fizi’s Tanganyika sector. These groups included remnants of the Mai-Mai of Bwasakala – a long-time ally of Yakotumba who was assassinated in 2015 – notably the groups of Réunion Warusasa and a recently created group under Echilo. Mid-July these forces were joined by René Itongwa, a Bembe FARDC deserter who was initially based in Kalungwe in the hills close to Uvira. Ebuela Kitungano, a former deputy commander of PARC-FAAL and notorious warrior, who had started his own movement in July 2016, then adhered to the CNPSC as well. At the same time, the PARC-FAAL naval forces on Lake Tanganyika under Ekanda (aka Dragila) intensified operations on the coastline, including by attacking and pillaging boats. For the Mai-Mai, control over Lake Tanganyika is crucial for securing supply routes from Tanzania and Burundi. Operations on the Lake combined with renewed Mai-Mai ground offensives pushing northwards from Kazimya towards Kikonde and Sebele (just south of the town of Baraka), exacting a heavy toll on the FARDC. Meanwhile, the Maniema branch continued small-scale attacks too, for instance ambushing an FARDC vehicle on its way from Namoya to Wamaza on 12 July.
In the course of September, the coalition steadily expanded from three different strongholds: the Moyens Plateaux hills in Tanganyika sector, the coastal area of Lake Tanganyika just south of Baraka and the Kilembwe area of Fizi and adjoining parts of Kabambare. Around 11 September, Kilembwe was taken by the coalition but pushed back after two days of heavy fighting with an FARDC regiment led by Colonel Ruterera. However, the FARDC soon lost ground again, being forced in the direction of Lulimba (Fizi).
Ruterera is a commander of Banyamulenge origins, a group living in the Hauts Plateaux mountains of Fizi, Uvira and Mwenga. Their relations to the Bembe – who form the core of Mai-Mai mobilization in Fizi (not Maniema) – are historically tense. Hence, there is a fear that the current fighting may in the long run reinforce antagonisms along ethnic lines. A good number of Banyamulenge FARDC commanders have been deployed in the current operations – not least because they know this terrain very well.
Yet FARDC morale has been plummeting due to heavy losses over the past weeks. The CNPSC coalition has tried to capitalize upon this battle fatigue by calling upon the FARDC to join them, aware that many FARDC personnel are discontent with the current government too. But the FARDC’s uneven performance is also due to its limited knowledge of the terrain – the Mai-Mai know every inch of their home ground – and vital support for the coalition from civilian collaborators.
Over the past days, the coalition expanded in two directions. On 23 September it occupied Wamaza, the westernmost part of Kabambare territory in Maniema, thus advancing in the direction of Kindu, the provincial capital. Allegedly, this movement has prompted certain Barega youth from neighboring Shabunda province to join in, although it is unclear at what scale this has occurred. Then, on 24 September, coalition troops allegedly under René Itongwa launched an attack on the town of Mboko in the Tanganyika sector. Aided by Ebuela, they soon progressed towards Swima then Makobola. On 27 September, the coalition arrived in the hills surrounding the city of Uvira.
With fighting continuing this morning, it is hard to estimate whether the CNPSC will further progress. Much will depend on the FARDC’s fighting capacity, the role of MONUSCO, and the coalition’s staying power, in particular its ability to secure supplies and probably further allies from among Vira and Fuliiru Mai-Mai groups based in Uvira. Foreign involvement – on either side – might further alter the balance of power, but despite wild rumors, such involvement has not yet been substantiated. Developments over the coming hours and days will shed further light on the unfolding drama.
Judith Verweijen is an FWO Post-doctoral researcher at the Conflict Research Group of Ghent University.