DRCongo/Rwanda: The FDLR Demobilization Process as Seen by Their Silent Supporter


In July 1994, with the RPF was about to win the war against the Habyarimana regime and thus put an end to the genocide, a massive exodus of Hutu refugees took place to Rwanda’s neighbours. The vast majority of them, about two million, ended up in huge refugee camps in the then Zairean provinces of North and South Kivu (present day DRC.) Almost immediately, the regular army and the militias involved in the genocide reorganized life along the old lines, forcing the people to live under their authority and continuing the war by other means. The continuing disintegration of the Zairian state and the illness of its dictator Mobutu gave the rump of the Rwandan regime greater scope to operate without disturbance.

Very soon the camps became an excellent base for hit and run actions intended on destabilizing the new government in Rwanda. In order to put an end to these infiltrations, Rwanda invaded its giant neighbour twice. The first time (1996-1997) led to a change of regime in Kinshasa. Zaire became Congo once again and the Rwandan ally Laurent-Désiré Kabila replaced Mobutu as head of state. The second war (1998-12002) is recorded in history as The Great African War. The armies of several African countries were involved as well as many armed groups. Millions of people died as a direct or indirect consequence of this war. Its effects are felt until today. The Congolese state has still not risen from its ashes.

Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees have been killed in these wars. Currently, the community of Hutu refugees in Congo – whose origin there was the post-genocide exodus – is 245,000 (according to a recent census conducted by the DRC national commission for refugees [CNR] assisted by UNHCR.) Nearly 200,000 of them live in North Kivu and 42,000 in South Kivu. Many of them were born after the genocide and in Congo.

Twenty years after the genocide, the armed forces that carried it out are still active under the name Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). They have been considerably weakened by the successive campaigns against them. For many years they have been largely unable to undertake military action on Rwandan soil and it is primarily the unprotected Congolese civilian population that suffers from the violence and plundering. A few months ago, their number in terms of operational combatants was estimated around 1,500. According to Monusco, about 300 of them should be considered hardliners – those who were actively involved in the genocide.

In February 2013 Rwanda and Congo signed a Framework Agreement on regional peace, security and cooperation (PSCF) in Addis Ababa to end the ‘M23’ rebellion. As a result, a new UN force intervention brigade (FIB) was deployed with troops from SADC countries, but integrated within the UN deployment (Monusco.)  This brigade supported the Congolese army in its struggle against M23, and in November 2013 the rebels were defeated. Its surviving combatants fled to Rwanda and Uganda (which had both supported the uprising from the beginning.)  But the Addis Ababa Agreement did not only foresee the defeat of M23, the ultimate aim was to dismantle all armed groups in eastern Congo. In the weeks and months after the military victory against M23, enormous pressure rose on the Congolese government and the United Nations to tackle the FDLR.

Genuine peace proposal?

On December 30th 2013, the FDLR declared that it wanted to put an end to its armed struggle, lay down its arms and continue its fight on a purely political front. On April 18th 2014 the militia invited international and national actors (and the media) for a disarmament ceremony near Lubero in North Kivu on May 30th.  The FDLR did not see this initiative as a surrender, but rather as a unilateral peace deal where they would deliver their weapons and demobilize under the condition of being granted amnesty and the right to start political activities in Rwanda. This would form the first step of an Inter-Rwandan Dialogue between the post-genocide regime and its opposition (including the FDLR).

The Democratic Republic of Congo considered this demarche as a positive development, one that deserved time and space to be implemented. The plan was to disarm the militiamen who surrendered, to bring them to Kisangani after ten days and offer them the choice between returning to Rwanda after a proper DDRRR procedure or temporary reallocation in Irebu (Equateur) until a permanent location could be found. For obvious reasons, Congo wanted a permanent settlement outside its borders.

The government of Rwanda was not convinced that the FDLR’s proposal was inspired by a genuine desire to stop its armed struggle, but was instead a cunning plan to avoid an almost certain defeat against the FARDC and the FIB. The Rwandan government will not take a political return of FDLR into consideration and will only accept individual disarmed FDLR combatants who pass through DDRRR. More than 7,000 former FDLR members have already done this since 2007. The government will not talk to the FDLR and sees no reason at all to start an inter-Rwandan dialogue with its opposition about power sharing (as the FDLR demands.) The FDLR’s rhetoric does not correspond with the narrative of the Rwandan government and their respective visions on recent history stand in total contradiction.

Small numbers

On May 30th, 103 combatants surrendered in North Kivu. 83 others did the same on June 9th in South Kivu. Since then they have been joined by a few hundred family members and other dependents, but no new combatants were demobilized after June 9th. On July 1st and 2nd, the ICGLR and SADC held their second joint summit in Luanda, Angola. The FDLR neutralization process was high on the agenda and it was decided that the FDLR should be granted six months for its voluntary demobilization, with a review after three months.

This creates a bit of time for the process to take place. For Congo, a voluntary demobilization process is inconceivable with a threat of military intervention and the country resists pressure from the international community and its neighbouring countries (Rwanda and Uganda). Rwanda has put pressure on the UN to undertake military operations as soon as possible. SADC is willing to support the DRC approach of giving time to the process, under the leadership of South Africa and Tanzania, which both have a tense relationship with Kigali. Rwanda itself, together with Uganda and Kenya (three EAC members), are very skeptical. Thus, the question undermines the relative and fragile cohesion between African multilateral institutions, which lead to the Framework Agreement of Addis Ababa.


Whilst there are certainly doubts about the sincerity of the FDLR peace offer there is also a lot of ambiguity about the way the Congolese and Rwandese authorities are dealing with the question. For many reasons, the Congolese government has always been reluctant to engage militarily against the FDLR. The Congolese wing of the FDLR surrender process is neither very efficient nor coordinated, with the logistics and finances following very slowly. The DRC also refuses any political responsibility on the question of FDLR and considers it to be a Rwandan problem, exported to the Kivus by the international community. And because the FDLR and FARDC have collaborated on several occasions in the past, Rwanda believes that Congo wants to benefit from  the political dividend of the FDLR process without being fully committed to it.

But how genuine is Rwanda’s commitment to solving the FDLR problem? Rwanda has had its hands free in Kivu for many years (during the wars between 1996 and 2002, and later in the years of joint military operations between FARDC and the Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) from 2009 onwards) but has never given priority consideration the military elimination of the FDLR. Many observers suspected that Rwanda tolerated the FDLR’s existence in Kivu, not only as an excuse to maintain its own presence there but also as a justification for the heavy repression of opposition, civil society and critical voices in general.  It can be expected that the end of the FDLR would lead to more internal and external pressure on Rwanda to open up its political space.

In all the years of its presence in Kivu, the FDLR has transformed itself into a successful economic enterprise based on illicit trade and the imposition of taxes on the Congolese civilian population. Charcoal extraction, mainly from Virunga National Park, is big business in North Kivu with profits up to $2.5 million a year.  Other important economic activities are poaching (including illegal fishing), the gold trade and the exploitation of timber and hemp. But the most important source of income for FDLR is taxation imposed on the population. To deploy these lucrative activities, the FDLR has developed a network of complex relationships and complicities with local and provincial authorities, other armed groups, the business community on all sides of the borders and with key commanders in the Congolese and Rwandan security services. This has several consequences, including the fact that most of these people have a material interest in the status quo. It also means that a negotiated withdrawal of FDLR will not take place without a carefully negotiated and prepared hand-over of the business imperium as well.

Dead End Street?

So the demobilization process took off but never reached anything like cruising speed. The FDLR members who surrendered remain in transit camps near the border, never departing for Kisangani where they would stay until a permanent solution was found, in Rwanda, Congo or a third country. There was not only a lot of protest in Kisangani, soon after the ceremonies in May and June the FDLR refused to be relocated further then 150 km away from the border and declared that no further surrenders would take place before September 2014, still under the condition that the Rwandan government would accept a political dialogue. Martin Kobler, special representative of UNSG Ban Ki-moon, encouraged FDLR combatants in an an interview on RFI early August to lay down their arms and return to Rwanda to continue their life in peace. Six Rwandan opposition parties reacted in a press release that it is unrealistic for them to return to Rwanda and live in peace, because the civil and political rights are not guaranteed there.

Less than 200 combatants surrendered and the second phase of the demobilization process never happened. It is very unlikely that Rwanda will open up its political space and most certainly not in the terms that the FDLR demands. There is a growing gap between believers and non-believers in the region on the question of how relevant and genuine FDLR’s demarche is. SADC and ICRGL gave the process six months to prove its credibility although it is not very clear what criteria will be used to evaluate it when the six months are over.

Are there alternatives? “The military option is still on the table,” Mr. Kobler said to RFI. But it is doubtful that this will lead to sustainable stability because it will be very difficult to isolate the radical FDLR leadership from the bulk of its troops who are much more open for demobilization than their leaders. It will also be very difficult to separate the FDLR combatants from the 245,000 civilian Hutu refugees still in the DRC or even from the millions of Congolese Hutu and their armed groups. If the military action considered does not manage to very quickly neutralize the radical FDLR leaders in a focused way, it might lead to extensive violence, a high death toll and a massive humanitarian crisis, which will affect all communities in North and South Kivu.

But doing nothing is not an option either. The PSCF Agreement signed in Addis Ababa has directed the framework of events in Kivu since February 2013, including the military defeat of M23. The Agreement was the basis for the pressure on Rwanda to cease its support to the rebels. And if the other bits and pieces of the Agreement are not be fulfilled, including the neutralization of FDLR and other armed groups, it shouldn’t be ruled out that the M23 problem will reoccur in its old form or a new one.

By Kris Berwouts

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