The NDC-Rénové kicks out Guidon, who kicked out Sheka

A long-suspected split cuts in two the largest armed group of eastern Congo

(picture of Lukweti, Masisi area (c) MONUSCO Flickr)

Last night, near Pinga in one of its main headquarters, the NDC-Rénové has announced the demotion of its top commander Guidon Shimiray Mwissa. In a communiqué signed by the movement’s spokesperson Désiré Ngabo, the NDC-R announced that Guidon’s deputies Gilbert Bwira and Mapenzi Likuhe are taking over the leadership of the group. The communiqué’s wording is particular striking insofar as it almost literally recycles Guidon Shimiray’s own 2014 language when he took control of Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi’s erstwhile NDC rebellion in Walikale area of North Kivu.

As a recent Congo Research Group report tried to meticulously roll out, the story of the NDC–R is in many ways a blueprint to understand conflict and armed mobilisation in the eastern Congo. More often than not, the emergence, evolution and demise of belligerents in that region is guided by a combination of drivers and factors. In the NDC and NDC-R’s case, this has been the imbrication of politics, business and social relations and the broader geopolitical surroundings in which the movement was able to operate. While it is highly unclear at this point where the NDC-R is headed, and by whom, some interesting lessons can be drawn from the group’s trajectory and (more or less) sudden split.

Big or small, most armed groups in eastern Congo’s highly fragmented (in-)security landscape – recent counts suggest far over a hundred clearly identifiable belligerents – are sensitive to developments around them. This can be local and provincial politics, the role and positioning of customary leaders and army commanders in their area and many other dynamics. The case of the NDC and the NDC–R illustrates how much, in the past, the movement has reacted to external interference in the shaping of its own structure and strategy. Military, customary and political elites have been crucial in helping Guidon and Bwira to take over from Sheka, and for Mapenzi to leave Janvier Karairi’s APCLS and bring most of its troops into the NDC-R. Judging from this tradition, it would be highly unlikely that Bwira and Mapenzi would topple Guidon without any similar back up.

One big question now, it that of troop strength. Neither the Congo Research Group nor Congolese analysts or the the UN Group of Experts have provided clear numbers, but it is probably safe to say that the NDC-R has somewhere between 1000 and 5000 elements (yes, this range sounds hilarious, but the problem here is that specific head counts tend to be wrong as many examples in the past show), taken together and including semi-autonomous allies such as the UPDI-Mazembe under Kitete Bushu. How many of these troops (and their respective stocks, positions etc.) may remain loyal to Guidon, who is going to sit with Mapenzi and Bwira? Answering this question will surely take days.

As of now, less than 24h into the scission, the only thing clear is that internecine fighting emerged in a number of places, including Pinga, Mweso, Kashuga and near JTN/Katsiru and this may not be an exhaustive list. In some places, the Congolese army – not known for a particularly tough stance on the NDC–R in the past – is engaging units of the group. In other places, the coalition linking Nyatura CMC with FDLR and APCLS, is taking back positions recently lost to the NDC–R. As in other splits, it is likely that a high number of rank-and-file don’t even necessarily know whom they’ll stick with as it often is a coincidence and depending on whom is posted where at such a moment (this was very much the case when the CNRD split from the FDLR in 2016). Nonetheless, given the long-standing rumours over internal falling out and an impending clash, some preparations might have been done by commanders on both sides.

In the meantime, populations across Walikale, Masisi, Rutshuru and Lubero are as confused as one can be after having lived under a fairly stable, army-like control for years, characterised by the most efficient system of illegal taxation (the infamous ‘jeton’ system) developed by any non-state actors since the heydays of the FDLR. That’s not to be underestimated because in a region where shifting control and governance patterns are legion, the NDC–R’s rule in many places represented some sort stability – notwithstanding the violence it brought with it. What we may likely see over the coming weeks is a (a) literal atomisation of armed control if the NDC-R effectively breaks down (this will depend on how much “integrating’ the charismatic appearance of Guidon has been for the movement), (b) a “stand-off” scenario in which both factions will be able to contest and fight each other, or (c) a quick annihilation of one wing by another. And in all this, neither the FARDC’s reaction (especially that of units that have been close to the NDC-R thus far) nor that of other powerful armed groups is factored in (most notably the sort of alliance that pit the CMC/FDLR/APCLS coalition together with the FPP-AP, the Mazembe wing critical of the NDC-R and formerly allied with the FDLR).

If in the past month, the fighting between the broader coalition around the NDC-R and that around the CMC and FLDR in Rutshuru and Lubero seemed like a return to the situation that prevailed throughout 2016, the NDC-R split could herald some sort of unchartered territory in terms of immediate security implications. Lastly, another question is the sort of Guidon Shimiray himself – will he end up being captured and facing military trial like his predecessor Sheka, or will he reinventing himself and his alliances on the ground?

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