Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What can be learned from a week of turmoil in Kinshasa

Opposition member in Kinshasa with the constitution © Agence France Presse 

Headlines from Kinshasa have over the past weeks have spoken about a controversial electoral law and a brutal crackdown on demonstrations. The more appropriate headline, perhaps, should have been: The battle for Kabila's succession has begun. That would have better contextualized the drama that played out on the streets and in the marbled halls of parliament, and would have explained why students and opposition members were willing to face live bullets over arcane details in an electoral law.

So what have we learned after this week of turmoil?

1. Kabila's ruling coalition is fractured.

While the government's police––and even presidential guards, not usually used for crowd control––had few qualms about cracking down on protesters, members of Kabila's ruling coalition did not hesitate to criticize a law that could have prolonged the president's rule by several years. During the debate over the law in the national assembly, MPs belonging to Kabila's coalition such as Christophe Lutundula (you can hear him here at 4:20) criticized the most controversial aspect of the law: linking national elections to a census that could take years to finish. When the national assembly decided to pass the law anyway on Tuesday, one of the main parties in Kabila's coalition, the MSR, abstained from the vote. Other parties, including Planning Minister Olivier Kamitatu's ARC, also voiced opposition.

When the controversial law headed over to the senate, the president of the senate, Kengo wa Dondo stridently criticized the disputed Article 8, saying that they needed to remove "the problem" inserted by the national assembly. (Kengo's swagger throughout the televised deliberations has made him a hero for many, despite the fact that he is a member of Kabila's ruling coalition.)

When the law went back to the national assembly, its president Aubin Minaku had to short-circuit debate there on Sunday evening and––to the surprise of some of his colleagues––almost unilaterally impose a compromise to prevent the fractious debate from getting out of hand. It is clear that when it comes to extremely sensitive matter of prolonging Kabila's stay in power, there is little consensus among his allies.

As I argued in a previous blog post––other analysts appear to concur––this fracturing of the ruling coalition is probably the most momentous consequence of the past week.

2. The opposition won this battle, but the war is far from won.

The final compromise law removed any the contentious Article 8 altogether. This means that the elections are no longer linked to "updated demographic information" (i.e. the census). However, by removing Article 8, the president of the national assembly also took out language inserted by the senate explicitly saying that elections have to take place within a constitutional timeframe.

There are other problems that remain with the law. In at least two other places, it seems that elections are still linked to a census. For example, Article 145 says that the electoral commission (CENI) will decide on the distribution of seats in the various assemblies "taking into account demographic trends and the identification of the population." That sounds very much like CENI will decide on the number of seats based on a census, not on the electoral roll as in previous elections. In any case, the CENI will have to submit their proposed distribution of seats to parliament (probably in March), which is likely to cause more controversy.

In any case, if the purpose of this law was initially to create delays in the electoral process, so as to prolong Kabila's stay in power, there are many other, possibly less controversial ways of doing just that. The Congolese government has an arsenal of initiatives and processes that could delay presidential elections, including the extremely complex and costly local elections, and the découpage of the country (the creation of 26 provinces out of the current 11).

The focus of protest is likely to shift now to the electoral commission. Today, opposition parties met to call for Malu-Malu, the election commissioner, to publish a complete electoral calendar, a demand that the European Union and the United States have also recently made. The idea is to force the CENI to admit that it will be close to impossible to carry out local elections without postponing presidential elections past 2016.

3. Kabila's succession will be decided by an interplay of struggles among elites, popular protest, and international interference. 

As other rulers have shown, the international community has little say (and little appetite to exert leverage) when it comes to shredding constitutional term limits, provided the ruling elite is relatively united. In the Congo, however, the ruling elite is divided and popular opinion appears to be firmly against an extension of Kabila's mandate. It will be difficult for Kabila to eke out more than a few unconstitutional years out of this context.

The questions for the coming weeks seem to be:

  • Will Kabila try to crack down on dissenters among his own ranks, to prevent similar embarrassing shows of weakness in the future?
  • Will the opposition be able to galvanize street pressure around the boring matter of an electoral calendar? Will they be able to mobilize protests around non-events: the incremental delays that are likely to harry the electoral process?
  • Will the diplomatic community fund local elections once an electoral calendar is published?
  • What will the stance of key power brokers in the region be, in particular the Angolan and South Africa governments, who have substantial influence in Kinshasa?
  • Will Kabila's ally continue to break ranks with the president––especially the powerful governor of Katanga Moise Katumbi, who has had one foot in the opposition ever since he made a speech critical of Kabila in December?
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly translated the word "gbokoso" used by Kengo wa Dondo. It means problem or challenge. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Protests in Kinshasa: Why this time it's different

Courtesy of Manya Riche, @ManyaRiche
The past three days has seen the worst protests in Kinshasa since the controversial elections three years ago. The violence was sparked by a proposed electoral law that links the electoral process to the census, which could delay national elections by several years and illegally prolong President Kabila's stay in power (he has to step down in 2016).

Dozens of protesters have been killed (42, according to FIDH, 20 according to HRW) by the police and presidential guard units, and the government briefly shut down internet, social media, and SMS services across the whole country. Violent protests were also reported in the eastern cities of Bukavu and Goma.

While violence continued in Goma on Thursday, the streets of Kinshasa were calmer and internet service (albeit very slow) had been re-established. The senate met today, but President Kengo wa Dondo said he would give the Political, Administrative, and Legal Commission more time to debate the law before voting tomorrow. 

Will this just be like protests in 2011 and 2012, when despite blatantly rigged elections, protests fizzled out in the face of severe repression? (An essay I wrote about this here). While I think this round of protests is indeed likely to dwindle, there are different dynamics afoot. 

1. Splits within the elite: This is the big change in the past year––not the street protests, but divisions among elites. As Jack Goldstone, an expert on mass mobilization, suggests: "It is a truism that fiscally and militarily sound states that enjoy the support of united elites are largely invulnerable to revolution from below."
That unity now appears to be cracking. The main reason for that is Kabila's term limits. Members of his presidential coalition (including stalwarts like Pierre Lumbi, Olivier Kamitatu, Christophe Lutundula, and Kengo wa Dondo) have all come out publicly against constitutional revisions. More importantly, the governor of mineral-rich Katanga, Moise Katumbi, seems to be parting ways with Kabila, and could rally Katangan heavyweights like Kyungu wa Kumwanza behind him. That would strike Kabila, who is from Katanga, at the heart of his political and military power base, and poses a security threat unlike any of the current opposition members.
Kabila has now backed off a constitutional change to his term limits and seems to be opting for a strategie de glissement (i.e. playing for time). That was the purpose of the proposed electoral law. It now remains to be seen whether this approach––in other words, giving Kabila a few more years in power––will provoke similar internal dissent as constitutional revisions. 
2. A changing protest dynamic: In 2011, the protests centered around UDPS strongholds in Kinshasa––Limete and Masina, in particular. This time, the UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi––who has been in medical treatment in Brussels for months––waited until Tuesday afternoon to weigh in on the protests, and his secretary-general in Kinshasa did not initially throw his weight behind protests organized by other opposition parties.
Instead, students are now playing a much more important role than in 2011. The epicenter of the protests has been at the University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN), which has been stormed by presidential guards and police. There are over 30,000 students at the university, and hundreds of thousands of students across the country. In Bukavu, too, university students were at the forefront of demonstrations organized yesterday. In the past, the political fervor of university campuses has often been tempered when student bodies have been co-opted by political elites. This time that seems to be different.
In general, the protests seems to be more decentralized, lacking one single leader or political organization. Some have also remarked that the relative absence of Tshisekedi and the rise of easterners such as Moise Katumbi and Vital Kamerhe has papered over ethnic tensions that sometimes divide protestors.
The protests also appear to be more targeted: Protesters have attacked Transco buses, which were purchased by the government, looted the office of the head of Kabila's PPRDD party, Evariste Boshab, and were beginning an operation called "Toyebi Ndako" (We Know Your House") that aimed at picketing the houses of MP belonging to Kabila's coalition. Of course, some of the protests also degenerated into looting.  
3. The rise of social media: There is a reason why the government shut down internet and social media across the country. Smart phone ownership has been exploding in the Congo. In the past days, we have seen pictures and videos emerge from across the country of police and presidential guard members firing on protesters. Some of the pictures can be found on this opposition site (warning: some are graphic), others are posted with the hashtag #telema ("stand up") on Twitter. An audio recording of police orders to fire on students has been posted (analysts Jean-Jacques Wondo argues this is police General Célestin Kanyama), and YouTube has been very active (a compilation of amateur videos here). 
So where will this end? It is still unclear. The senate may decide to water down the electoral law, and even take out the controversial language linking the electoral process to the census. Or the backers of the bill could try to steamroll the current version through senate with bribes and threats.

In any case, the fate of the protests lies both in the streets as well as in the political stratosphere. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Guest blog: Understanding the recent operations against the FNL/Nzabampema

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.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Four reasons military operations against the FDLR will have limited success

The deadline provided by the United Nations, the ICGLR and SADC for the FDLR to demobilize expired on Friday. Almost immediately, the UN and Congolese army launched military operations ––not against the FDLR, but against the FNL, Burundian rebels who have several small bases in the Rusizi Plain in South Kivu. The UN said that this attack was a way of clearing the ground for a broader offensive against the FDLR in the coming days.

It is not clear why the UN and the Congolese felt that it was necessary to get rid of the FNL bases first––the FDLR are located in the mountains overlooking the Rusizi Plain; there are ways to get to their positions without going through the FNL positions. Nonetheless, the Congolese army and its UN counterparts have been planning operations against the FDLR for several months, and we are likely to smell more gunpowder in coming days, probably after the meetings of regional heads of state, to be held in Luanda next week.

And yet, despite all this talk about military operations, here are some reasons why they are not––at least, not alone––going to produce a solution:

  1. The Congo is vast and the FDLR is no mood to fight: The FDLR is not like the M23 or other Congolese armed groups––it will not stand and fight, and has no sense of "homeland", at least not in the Congo. The FDLR operates over an area roughly the size of Belgium or Maryland, and covered in impenetrable forests, marshes, and ragged mountains. Attacking the group is like squeezing a balloon: the FDLR will simply run;
  2. The United Nations peacekeeping force is divided internally: Yes, the mission has said on many occasions it will launch operations against the FDLR. But it recently moved the HQ of its Force Intervention Brigade––the South African, Tanzanian, and Malawian troops who have a more aggressive mandate––to Beni, where a string of massacres has killed more than 200 since October. A senior MONUSCO commander recently suggested, in private, that the situation of Beni is of much greater humanitarian concern than the FDLR. In addition, regional tensions between Rwanda on one side and Tanzania and South Africa on the other have complicated matters. The Tanzanian government has been reluctant to move against the FDLR, going so far as to call them "freedom fighters," while the South African government has also dragged its feet;
  3. It's the Congolese population that suffers from military operations against the FDLR: A lot. The UN uncovered evidence in 2009 that the FDLR used the massacre of civilians as a means of pressure against the international community. It could do so again. In 2009, almost a million people were displaced in the space of a year during ham-fisted operations by the Congolese and Rwandan armies. To minimize the backlash, operations would have to be extremely targeted, and it isn't clear whether the UN and the Congolese army have that sort of special forces capability;
  4. There is no exit valve for FDLR commanders: Few are the rebellions that are defeated by military might alone. Almost all combine a carrot and stick. In this case, the only option that senior FDLR commanders have to fighting is to return to Rwanda, where they face a life of poverty and possible arrest. There is a well-oiled demobilization program for rank-and-file combatants, but only ad hoc arrangements for individual commanders. 
This latter point is no longer written in stone. Over the past year, real momentum has finally built around the idea of providing a third country of exile to FDLR who are not war criminals (an idea that myself and others promoted as far back as 2005). The idea is to to facilitate the departure––without amnesty, of course––of FDLR commanders who are not on any list of génocidaires or war criminals, probably over 80-90% of all senior officers, to other African countries. Senior diplomats from the region have begun working on this, although the Rwandan government has insisted that military operations must precede progress on this. To my mind, it isn't clear that Rwanda has the standing to block this option, especially if the people concerned are not on any representative list of war criminals––after all, it is Congolese citizens, not Rwandans, who are currently suffering under the FDLR occupation. 

All of this is not to say military operations are not part of the solution. There most likely are, although they should be much better planned-out than in the past. But they are not the whole solution, and that should be recognized. 

Guest Blog: Politics and Business Intersect in String of North Kivu Killings

Cemetery for the 23 victims of the Eringeti attacks of October 17, 2014 (Photo: Rachel Sweet)
This is a guest blog by Rachel Sweet, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on the politics of armed groups in eastern Congo, in particular on how preexisting business and bureaucratic practices influence armed group organization.  

The escalation of violence in North Kivu’s Beni territory has grown increasingly worrisome since initial massacres in October. Not only has the kind of violence become more brutal––including scenes of decapitation and disembowelment that were previously uncommon in Beni and a shift toward attacks in daylight––but the number of victims has grown dramatically.  Sources in civil society suggest that over 200 civilians have been killed in the past three months.

And yet, the identity of the perpetrators is unclear and layered in controversy. Most reports have pointed to the Allied Democratic Front (ADF), a rebel group that originated in Uganda in the 1990s.  Initially, this appears to have been accurate––the first attacks on Ngadi, Eringeti, and Oicha can be attributed to the ADF’s need to reinvent itself in the aftermath of Operation Sokola.  This joint offensive of FARDC and MONUSCO devastated the group’s camps and reduced it to an estimated 100-200 members divided across different bands, according to senior MONUSCO analysts.   The operation disrupted access to arms and ammunition, which can explain the shift to machetes as tools of violence. It also fractured relations between the ADF and the local population, which could have motivated increased brutality toward civilians.  Residents of Beni cite ADF attacks against civilians as reprisals for having provided FARDC and MONUSCO information on ADF camps, or as punishment for local combatants who defected or businesspersons who defaulted on payments to the group (as other armed groups, the ADF had become important local moneylenders).  As such, attacks form the culmination of a pattern of reprisal attacks by the ADF in response to military operations, such as Operation Rwenzori in 2010, and to severed social ties, as seen in the summer 2013 Watalinga attacks.

Yet, increasingly the keys to understanding violence will not be simply body counts or the actors behind it.  Instead, analysis should focus not on what triggered the onset of violence but on how it is repurposed and who benefits from the environment of uncertainty that it creates.  Specifically, the attacks have set in place three dynamics that create new incentives for insecurity distinct from the initial rounds of violence: political maneuvering, parallel mobilization, and linkages between otherwise distinct social tensions.  These dynamics are compounded by the uncertainty surrounding the motives and authors behind attacks.   

Political Maneuvering

To understand attacks, we should start by asking: Who benefits from the uncertainty surrounding the killings? Uncertainty provides a political resource for interests not immediately linked with violence to expand and redirect the threat. Ambiguity around the ADF stems from its comparative isolation from civilians vis-à-vis other Mayi Mayi and the unclear nature of its links with radical Islam.  It is heightened as new conflict actors commit attacks.  Uncertainty expands the breadth of misinformation that can circulate, heightens the perceived threat posed to civilians, and allows violence to be more readily repurposed for other ends.
Specifically, violence in Beni creates an opportunity to settle ongoing political scores that are not directly linked to attacks.  Since 1999, the RCD/K-ML, led by Mbusa Nyamwisi has politically dominated the Beni and Lubero territories of the Grand Nord, first as an insurgency (1999-2003), and since then as a political party.  When Mbusa joined the political opposition in 2011, North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku broke from the RCD/K-ML to form his own political party, BUREC, that remained allied with President Kabila’s PPRD.  Though Mbusa left Congo in 2012 and was dismissed as national parliamentarian in 2013, he remains embroiled with Paluku in a dispute for leadership in the Beni and Lubero territories that comprise the Grand Nord.  Julien Paluku and allied politicians, including Beni’s PPRD mayor Nyonyi Bwana Kawa, struggle for popular influence in the Grand Nord against what PPRD officials estimate is an 80% support rate for Mbusa’s RCD/K-ML.

The violence has provided PPRD and BUREC an opportunity for political gain.  Targets of armed violence have tended to remain the most vulnerable groups of civilians, with attacks generally focusing on villages rather than town centers. Yet the state’s response has focused on higher-profile authorities and economic interests who have withheld support for PPRD.  In a press conference in November, Julien Paluku denounced Mbusa for using his M23 connections to support the ADF.  The same month, pro-RCD/K-ML chefs des cellules and chefs des quartiers in Beni town were replaced with PPRD rivals, and plans were laid to replace the more powerful chefs de commune.  This political reshuffling has far-reaching consequences. For example, chefs des communes control areas extending to Virunga national park and the Semuliki valley that are home to a number of militias.  One chef targeted for replacement reportedly collects informal taxes from markets in Beni where the ADF is influential and sends revenue to “our brothers living in the forest.” If these support networks are disrupted, militias may retaliate with increased coercion.

Remains of the monument of Joseph Kabila, damaged by protestors, at Round Point Kabila in Beni town

The attacks have also created new economic incentives for instability.  Political power in the Grand Nord is largely exercised through the ability to control and confer private benefits in lucrative import-export trade.  The area’s powerful business interests hold considerable political sway, with RCD/K-ML leaders recalling how Butembo-based businesses organized Mbusa’s 2011 parliamentary campaign.  To shift support from political competitors and consolidate control over parallel economies, the PPRD has linked pro-RCD/K-ML businesses to recent violence and cracked down on their operations.  The intelligence service has kept a close watch on prominent business owners, and in November arrested Muhindo Kasebere and Maman Getou, the largest business operators in Kasindi and Beni, as they attempted to cross the border to Uganda. 

These and other high-level arrests that warn against relations with the RCD/K-ML can intensify instability by incentivizing businesses to retool connections with local militias.  Large businesses in the Grand Nord rely on militias to evade taxes and informal fees. The prevalence of these ties led a community leader in Butembo to joke that “if you have $20,000, you can create your own Mayi Mayi.”  The UN Group of Experts has documented some of these linkages, including Kasebere’s supply of arms to combatants such as Hilaire Kombi, who likely remain loyal to Mbusa.  While these militias serve more as instruments of fiscal evasion than forces of insecurity against civilians, recent crackdowns can create a need to repurpose these militias toward more coercive ends.  Even if businesses follow PPRD instructions to withdraw support from the RCD/K-ML, they may shore up armed groups as outlets to maintain autonomy from Kinshasa to compensate for reduced political independence.

In the meantime, the RCD/K-ML benefits from instability by demonstrating that other politicians are unable to secure the Grand Nord in Mbusa’s absence.  Doing so creates a pathway for his return to Congo politics. The RCD/K-ML has responded to attacks by denouncing Governor Julien Paluku as a “génocidaire against the Yira [Nande] community.”  Though this is not a credible claim, the rhetoric raises the stakes of choosing political sides and increases the perceived threat among civilians.  Members at all levels of the party’s hierarchy denounce Paluku for collaborating with the ADF via General Mundos, the commander of the Sokola operations.  

Monument of Enoch Nyamwisi at the central roundabout in Beni town, decapitated by protestors

Parallel Mobilization

Initial waves of violence have also spurred a range of parallel mobilizations.  These include “night patrols” in Beni and Oicha towns that are armed with machetes, contribute to a more militarized environment, and have been reported for crimes including rape.  Youth from Oicha are reportedly leaving the town to join preexisting militias such as Mayi Mayi Vurondo. 

Copycat groups mimicking ADF techniques have emerged.  Local analysts in direct communication with armed groups report that the ADF was not behind several recent attacks, including killings in Beni town and Vema.  Residents of villages including Mayi Moya identify assailants not as ADF but as youth from their community who left for the forest following the initial attacks in Beni territory. Few residents in Beni view the ADF as the exclusive authors of attacks.  Locals discuss the potential links between Hillarie Kombi’s former soldiers who remain in the Semuliki valley or ex-M23 networks with the violence.  MONUSCO analysts have identified a group of at least 100 combatants in Beni emulating ADF tactics.  

Copycat violence is not unusual for Beni, where other Mayi Mayi, such as Hilaire Kombi’s combatants who were linked to the M23 insurgency, have mimicked ADF’s signature kidnapping tactics.  More recently, copycat groups exploit and expand the uncertainty around ADF origins and motives by leaving notes at sites of attacks invoke grandiose connections to international terror and that implicate MONUSCO in the violence. 

While is clear that more than one group has been involved in the recent massacres, the ADF label provides a convenient pretext to settle preexisting, often unrelated, scores.  Civilians in Beni have been able to brandish the ADF name to denounce, arrest, or harass their rivals.  And as the national intelligence agency has increased its activity, information provision has become source of revenue and leverage.  Civil society and the PPRD have begun efforts to start a hotline for receive texts with information on suspicious activity.  Security measures also provide opportunities for extortion on the part of low-level bureaucrats.  Roadblocks and taxation points have multiplied, with officials becoming more forceful in the appropriations of rents. 

This parallel vigilante mobilization and the trade in information create new sources of power linked to the violence that further destabilize the region.

Links between Social Tensions

Finally, uncertainty surrounding attacks provides an opportunity to project other tensions onto the violence. This is particularly true for tensions between the demographically dominant Nande and Kinyarwanda speakers in the area.  Reports of Kinyarwanda speakers among assailants circulate in Beni and have resulted in violent reprisals, including the killing and burning of a Hutu in October.  Ongoing migrations of thousands of Hutu from Masisi to Eringeti and Irumu via Beni––which have been taking place for years––have been increasingly publicized over recent months.  These migrations are not directly related to the violence–most migrants reach Boga from Eringeti via Bunia rather than the more direct Kainama route through ADF territory, indicating a lack of direct connection with attacks.  And ethnic targeting is an ill fit for interpreting the violence—attacks do not map onto ethnic motives, and many combatants within the ADF and copycat groups are themselves Nande. Yet increased reporting on migrations by local radio stations alongside news of attacks has introduced an ethnic lens to popular perceptions of insecurity. Shifting interpretations of violence to group-level threats expands incentives for counter-mobilization and leaves civilians more prone to manipulation.

Politicians have accentuated these dynamics.  The governor of North Kivu and mayor of Beni are accused of facilitating Hutu migrations by providing travel authorizations.  The RCD/K-ML’s description of Governor Paluku as a génocidaire against the Nande, and discussions of Paluku’s involvement with migrations, reifies group-based interpretations of conflict.  Similarly, Paluku’s reminders of Mbusa’s M23 connections aim to discredit his rival by associating him with external interests that threaten the Nande.   Identifying attacks with longstanding social cleavages raises the stakes of violence.

Together, political maneuvering, parallel mobilization, and links between social cleavages create new incentives to escalate violence, with few interests for de-escalation. Lulls in violence should not be confused with lulls in the underlying dynamics that motivate and transform violence.