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

Friday, June 12, 2015

The latest installment of military offensives against the FRPI

Justin Banaloki, aka Cobra Matata, arriving in Kinshasa on January 5th (Courtesy Radio Okapi/Martial Kiza)
On June 3, the Congolese government and the United Nations launched a new offensive against the Force de résistance patriotique en Ituri (FRPI), a small local militia composed largely of fighters from the Ngiti community in northeastern Ituri district. Most commentators––including apparently the head of the UN mission––thought the operation was noteworthy due to the renewed collaboration between MONUSCO and the FARDC, which had fallen apart in February.

They are, of course, correct. But it is useful to inventory past attempts to deal with the FRPI to understand why the group has persisted for so long. Key factors behind their persistence include: several failed demobilization attempts, allegations of corruption within the Congolese army, and local conflicts over land and power. 

The FRPI might be the oldest Congolese rebel group in existence. It was created in late 2002 as Uganda, Rwanda, and Kinshasa vied for control of the various armed groups in Ituri. When regional strongman Mbusa Nyamwisi lost control of Bunia to Ugandan-backed rebels in August 2002, he decided to throw his lot in with Joseph Kabila's government in Kinshasa. As most of the rebels who had taken Bunia were from the Hema community, it was natural for Mbusa and Kinshasa to mobilize Lendu and Ngiti, the Hemas' rivals. Together, they set up the État major opérationelle intégré (EMOI) in Beni in late 2002 and launched operations to retake Ituri.

(As a side note: the great flaw in the ICC prosecutions of Ituri commanders has been its failure to hold leaders in Kinshasa, Kigali, and Kampala responsible for crimes committed during this period).

It was in this context, and with support from Kinshasa, that the FRPI was created by Dr Bauduoin Adirodu and Germain Katanga, drawing on local self-defense groups from Walendu Bindi collectivité. With the support of Kinshasa––and briefly from Kampala––the FRPI was part of a coalition that took over Bunia in March 2003. When the rival UPC, with Rwandan support, took back Bunia several months later, the FRPI fled to the countryside. 

Eventually, the FRPI was brought in, along with other Ituri militia, through a mixture of incentives for commanders, military operatoins, and a demobilization program. These measures, however, were only partially successful. The UN launched operations against the FRPI as part of a broader series of operations against Ituri militia in 2005. This would be first of many UN and Congolese operations against the FRPI.

Germain Katanga was named general in the Congolese army in January 2005, and in 2007 was arrested on an ICC warrant and sent to The Hague. The bulk of FRPI troops, now under the commander of Justin Banaloki, aka Cobra Matata, however refused to join a demobilization program until late 2007, when Cobra and most of his commanders joined the Congolese army.

Several hundred FRPI fighters, however, angered by Katanga's arrest and distrustful of the Congolese government, stayed in the bush. January 2008, the UN and the Congolese army launched another operation against these FRPI fighters, but the militia quickly regained control over the area. In June 2010, Cobra Matata defected again from the Congolese army, complaining that he and his fellow FRPI commanders had been mistreated and that their ranks had never been confirmed. 

Following several new operations against the FRPI by the Congolese army, Cobra Matata was invited to Bunia for negotiations and then detained in November 2014. A new demobilization process was launched in December 2014 by the government; FRPI combatants were put up in a transit camp and fed by the government. Following Cobra's official arrest and transfer to Kinshasa in January 2015, FRPI soldiers radicalized their demands and a new round of fighting began, followed by more negotiations, and now this latest round of fighting backed by MONUSCO. 

This history lesson leads me to several points:
  • One can see why Iturians would be cynical about yet another operation to get rid of the FRPI, a group of several hundred fighters, and an armed group that the government in Kinshasa had a hand in creating;
  • Related: Is the problem "rapacious rebels" or more systemic? FARDC operations in Ituri have been dogged by allegations of abuse (an example here) and corruption (see here, p. 67, for example). Many Iturians feel that the FARDC has been less than serious in tackling the FRPI, as the group justifies lucrative deployments in the area;
  • Why are all of these demobilization and integration exercises failing? There indications that the demobilization and reintegration programs have been poorly executed (see here, pp. 65-68) and that few lessons have been learned over the past ten years of DDR programs;
  • Whereas Ituri is dramatically better off today than it was a decade ago, almost nothing has been done to address the land conflicts and other local grievances that were the initial cause of miltia formation in the late 1990s. See Koen Vlassenroot and Chris Huggins' article here for more background on those conflicts. 
For more background on the FRPI, see Henning Tamm's 2013 report here

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