The following is a guest blog by Judith Verweijen, a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, and at the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University.
On Monday 5 January 2014, the Congolese military (FARDC) and the South-African contingent of the United Nations' Force Intervention Brigade mounted a surprise attack against a Burundian rebel group operating in Uvira territory (South Kivu) under the name Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL). Deploying no less than nine helicopters, the joint operation soon managed to capture the group’s main bases. The rebels on the run were hunted down over the next days, with some reportedly fleeing into the Itombwe forest and others trying to cross into Burundi.
This offensive was launched as part of the new, robust peacekeeping tactics adopted by the UN, which begs the questions: Who are these rebels, why did MONUSCO attack them, and what are the effects of these operations on the possibilities for dismantling the group altogether?
A brief history of a long rebellion
Factions of the FNL have been operating on Congolese soil for well over two decades. Founded in 1980 as Palipehutu by political activists in exile who had fled the mass killings of Hutu under the Micombero government in 1972, the group was initially based in refugee camps in Tanzania. Its main objectives were to end Tutsi domination of Burundian state institutions and security services, and to fight against the exclusion of the Hutu peasantry. It launched its first attack on Burundian soil in 1991, and became one of the main belligerents of the civil war that broke out after the assassination of president Melchior Ndadaye in 1993. By that time, the group, which profited from support of the Rwandan Habyarimana government, had split, with the main faction operating under the name Palipehutu-FNL.
It was in the course of the Burundian civil war that the group set up shop on Zairian (as the Congo was then called) territory, being partly based in the Burundian refugee camps that had sprung up in the Ruzizi Plain (Uvira territory) following the 1993 violence. The Plain, a wide expanse of savannah adjacent to the Rukoko reserve in Burundi––where the FNL had important bases––was a convenient location for the group. During the two Congo Wars (1996-2003), Palipehutu-FNL collaborated with the various Mai Mai forces active in Uvira, in particular those under commander Nakabaka, although it was less actively involved in the Congolese wars than the other Burundian Hutu insurgent movement, the CNDD-FDD. Additionally, the FNL continued their collaboration with the ex-FAR/Interahamwe, the forerunner of the FDLR, including by operating jointly in Burundi. However, due to important differences in operating style and ideological orientation, this collaboration largely ended in 1998, allegedly after the FNL had sent ex-FAR/Interahamwe (then called ALiR2) troops into operations that were destined to fail. Since then––and importantly, given the operations that took place this past week––relations between the various incarnations of the two Hutu groups have been relatively distant, although there has been low-level collaboration.
Refusing to sign the 2000 Arusha peace agreement, Palipehutu-FNL continued to fight when a transitional government was formed in Burundi, also declining participation in the 2005 elections. It was only in 2009 that it laid down arms, formally transforming into a political party under the name of FNL, since the ethnic reference in Palipehutu was considered unconstitutional. Former military and political chief Agathon Rwasa became the head of the party, and a part of the fighting forces was integrated into the Burundian security services. Up to that point, the group had continued activities in the Ruzizi Plain, where there were also many FNL deserters mainly active in banditry. FNL fighters operated and lived in a dispersed fashion, with a number of combatants having married local women. Collaboration with Mai Mai groups continued, allegedly including during the infamous 2004 attack on a Congolese refugee camp in Gatumba claimed by the FNL, although there is still a lack of clarity on how this attack was organized and who exactly was involved.
Due to the deteriorating political climate in Burundi during the 2010 electoral cycle, including large-scale irregular killings of FNL and other opposition members, and alleged fraud with the local elections, Rwasa and other major opposition leaders, like Alexis Sinduhije of the MSD, decided to go underground. Both Rwasa and Sinduhije become involved in insurgent activities in South Kivu, with Rwasa reanimating the FNL’s military branch, placed under the leadership of Antoine “Shuti” Baranyanka. They established bases in both Uvira and Fizi territory, collaborating with numerous Mai Mai groups, like the Fuliiru groups of Baleke, Nyerere, Fujo and Bede Rusagara in Uvira, and the Bembe Mai Mai of Yakutumba and Mayele in Fizi. The expansion into Fizi allowed the group to increase its involvement in trade networks with Tanzania, which functions as a crucial logistical hub and a source of recruits from among the refugee camps. However, the group also re-recruits numerous demobilized ex-FNL and some ex-FDD fighters from Burundi, and has been joined by ex-FNL defectors from the Burundian army (FDN). This group includes a certain major Aloys Nzabampema, who became the second in command during this period.
This renewed FNL activity led the FDN to step up its activities against the group in the course of 2011, including by establishing an unofficial presence in Kiliba, a small town on Congolese territory in the Ruzizi Plain, close to the border with Burundi. From there, it has conducted limited operations against the FNL, often in retaliation to attacks. However, the Burundian army has not ventured into mountains, where the group has established its main bases. The FARDC also undertook a number of efforts to address the group militarily, but these were limited, with most attention in the course of 2012 being absorbed by fighting M23-allied groups in Fizi/Uvira, such as Bede. However, this began to change after Rwasa’s withdrawal from direct involvement in military activities at the end of 2012. Meanwhile, rifts within the FNL military leadership became accentuated due to differences in political orientation, in particular regarding whether Rwasa should resume political activities in Burundi, and organizational and personal issues.
The birth of FNL/Nzabampema
In January 2013, these tensions came to a head, leading to a definite split between a pro-Rwasa wing under Shuti and a pro-Nzabampema wing. Shuti withdrew from active command, establishing himself with his deputy Major Evelyne in the hills above Mboko in Fizi. Soon after, a press release was circulated that announced the destitution of Rwasa and a new leadership, with the military wing headed by Nzabampema. According to the press release, Isidore Nibizi, an FNL politician and diplomat, became head of the political wing, although the precise nature of his involvement in the group has remained unclear. The same month, the FARDC launched important operations against the group, mobilizing a variety of Mai Mai forces in Uvira.
These operations, as well as a string of other incidents with Mai Mai groups in the course of 2013––including the FNL’s killing of Mai Mai commander Mathias (ex-Baleke group)––contributed to making the group more inward-looking and Burundi-oriented in terms of operations. Relations with the FDLR also deteriorated at the end of 2013, and the group presently only continues significant collaboration with the tiny Mai Mai group of Nyerere and possibly that of Fujo, after the latter returned to the bush at the end of 2014. At the same time, the FNL/Nzabampema stepped up recruitment in Burundi, reportedly training groups of combatants in shifts, and infiltrating them back into Burundi. It also intensified its cross-border attacks on Burundi, particularly in the Rukoko reserve, and against FDN troops in Kiliba. This activism demonstrated the relative ineffectiveness of the FDN in Uvira, which began to draw increasing attention and criticism from international and local actors, leading to their withdrawal in October 2014. This gave the FNL/Nzabampema greater freedom of movement, and cross-border operations continued. In response to an attack in the Rukoko reserve in November 2014, the FDN began heavy-handed operations to quell FNL activity in this part of Burundi, including by targeting the cattle-owners and herders they believe are important sources of support to the FNL.
Rationale and possible effects of the recent military operations
The presence of the FNL/Nzabampema has undeniably been a source of insecurity in Uvira, in particular since the launch of regular FARDC operations against them in 2013. Furthermore, its shifting alliances with other armed groups in the area has contributed to the volatility of the political-military landscape. However, due to its growing isolation over the course of 2014, the FNL became less important within the overall dynamics of conflict and violence in Uvira. The main drivers of these dynamics are the presence of dozens of tiny Mai Mai groups and self-defence militias, competing political-economic elites, interlocking inter and intra-community conflicts and rampant banditry. The FNL/Nzabampema presently weighs in heavier on developments within the Burundian context, both through its ongoing cross-border attacks and the symbolic place it occupies in Burundian politics. To some sympathizing with the ideology and movement of Palipehutu/FNL, which is a broader group than the adherents of the various parties currently operating under the FNL label, the FNL/Nzabampema represents a last resort in an increasingly authoritarian environment.
There are some indications that the Nzabampema group employs the same ideology as its FNL precursors, like resistance against oppression and ascetic Christian values––in the past the Adventist church played an important role. Indeed, Nzabampema is reported to maintain strict standards of discipline among his troops, who are forbidden to drink or engage in relations with local women. Nonetheless, this relative ideological continuity does not guarantee support from FNL supporters, the majority of whom have distanced themselves from Nzabampema. This includes Rwasa, who returned to the political scene in Burundi in August 2013, and intends to stand as a presidential candidate in this year’s elections.
This political dimension is important to take into consideration in efforts to dismantle the group. It is not clear to what extent the recent FARDC/MONUSCO attack has done so, and whether it is part of a wider, multi-dimensional strategy to address the FNL. For MONUC/MONUSCO, the FNL has generally had a low priority, resulting in the absence of a consistent policy. In recent years, DDRRR has not tried to sensitize FNL fighters to voluntarily disarm or repatriate them, although it has engaged in such activities in the past. At present, MONUSCO hands Burundian combatants over to the FARDC, which extradites them to Burundi. Yet, there is no transparent mechanism for monitoring returned combatants, and there are serious concerns about the treatment of repatriated FNL fighters. This is likely to undermine individual voluntary surrenders. MONUSCO has also chosen for an ostrich policy towards the FDN presence in Kiliba, admitting only after growing media attention that the Burundian military was present on Congolese soil. Furthermore, it has rarely been involved in military operations against the FNL, only providing limited support to the FARDC in the framework of the Kamilisha Usalama operations in 2013 and 2014. However, like the current operations, it is not clear to what extent these have been combined with political or diplomatic instruments, and what prospects the group are offered in case of surrender.
Given the previous low priority given to the FNL, the recent operations, which have also targeted a number of Mai Mai groups in Uvira, came somewhat as a surprise. While it appears that they had been planned for a long time, as part of Kamilisha Usalama II, MONUSCO has presented the offensive as a precursor to operations against the FDLR, rather than an objective in its own right. However, apart from demonstrating resolve, it does not appear the operations had a direct effect on the FDLR in South Kivu or were needed to attack them in the future. There are also questions about links to the situation in Burundi, in particular the fighting in Cibitoke, where at the end of December 2014, a group of an estimated 200 unidentified fighters were intercepted supposedly on their way to the Kibira forest, leading to days of heavy fighting with many casualties on the rebel side. While it is still unclear what happened, some sources have raised the possibility that there were FNL/Nzabampema fighters among this group who had been informed of the upcoming operations and therefore tried to flee.
Even if the FNL was not involved in the Cibitoke events, the heavy security measures taken in their wake, in addition to those already implemented in the Rukoko reserve, are likely to have weakened FNL/Nzabampema support networks and complicated the group’s operations in Burundi. In combination with the MONUSCO/FARDC attack, the full impact of which remains at this point unclear, it appears that the group has been weakened. Yet in a recent declaration a spokesperson stated the group is not ready to surrender, and will continue their fight against the CNDD-FDD government which “has always treated them like second-rank citizens”. Furthermore, it remains unclear how the operations will affect the resolve of the group’s support networks, however small-scale, with sympathizers both in Burundi and the diaspora likely to continue underground activities. Much will depend on the evolvement of the political climate in Burundi, and how the upcoming elections will unfold, including the fate of Rwasa’s candidacy and respect for civil liberties. At the same time, when MONUSCO support to the FARDC stops and other priorities take over, new space can be created for regrouping in the DR Congo. In the absence of a multidimensional regional approach to the FNL/Nzabampema, the long-term contribution of the recent operations to dismantling the group is far from guaranteed.