A dead deadline? Jan. 2015, the FDLR and its genocidal ideology are still around

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Roughly a week ago a much debated disarmament deadline passed for the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the infamous rebel outfit that regroups the remnants of certain Rwandan genocide culprits that ventured into eastern Congo as ex-FAR and interahamwe two decades ago.

While political rhetoric has been strong and the internet-based propaganda battle even more so, little concrete developments have followed suit on the ground.

Two earlier waves of voluntary disarmament by FDLR had raised some hope among observers in May/June 2014 – even before a joint ICGLR-SADC summit had put up the ultimatum in August the same year but ever since only one further demobilisation ceremony took place a few days before the deadline passed on January 2nd.

This one and the two preceding ceremonies alike combined between 200 and 300 combatants, mostly elderly and under-aged, as well as some arms stockpiles and a higher number of civilian dependents.

Given the diplomatic pressure and the fact that FDLR still numbers around approximately 2,000 combatants, there is little ground to argue for a genuine will to disarm amongst the senior FDLR leadership.

Rather, the Rwandan rebels have understood to play the political chess game by appeasing other stakeholders with its piecemeal approach to surrender. Political divisions and a lack of responsibility across various actors have encouraged this cul-de-sac and a swift solution is not in sight.

Now, as per the deadline’s stipulations and the UN’s offensive mandate there is an imperative to act for the major involved parties.

This is the UN itself through MONUSCO and its Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) as well as regional intergovernmental organisations ICGLR and SADC.

Deliberations on DRC are scheduled in two weeks at the UN Security Council (where ICGLR chair Angola just replaced Rwanda as a non-permanent member) and in the coming days during a joint ICGLR-SADC summit in Angola.

These meetings will show whether a joint line of action can be found across the international and regional actors. As of now, there are a few reasons for scepticism in this regard:

First, the FIB’s troop-contributing countries (Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi) have not significantly altered their public statements on the FDLR issue.

Tensions between Tanzania, South Africa and the Rwandan government remain frozen and none of the two countries seems to be particularly eager to embark its troops on a FDLR hunt through Kivutien highlands.

Second, MONUSCO has repeatedly underlined that offensive operations against armed groups will only be carried out in conjunction with the Congolese army FARDC, such as against M23, ADF, and recently FNL.

Further anti-ADF operations are scheduled for the coming weeks as senior MONUSCO officials confirmed and the FIB headquarters has temporarily been relocated – like significant parts of FARDC’s North Kivu command before – to Beni.

This and the use of FIB air assets against FNL in the Ruzizi Plain seems to severely diminish the FIB’s logistic capacity to take on yet another armed group at the same time – bear in mind the FIB has only 3,000 soldiers and a limited amount of aerial assets.

The Congolese leadership in turn also perceives Beni as a more burning issue than FDLR and on top of that gets increasingly embroiled in centrifugal dynamics around President Kabila, culminating in the current political gamble around Moise Katumbi and other Katangan elites.

Third, Angola may not have an interest to become the diplomatic forerunner and invest its regional clout into resolving the FDLR situation.

As long as this remains a frozen issue – and FDLR’s piecemeal tactics have been rather conducive to that – Luanda can easily live with a status quo that does not affect its security interests.

The main reason to take a lead for Angola remains reputational and related to regional leadership aspirations.

Fourth, even if MONUSCO and FARDC would end up staging significant military operations – and these would be endorsed and supported by ICGLR and SADC – this is everything but an easy ride.

Today’s FDLR is an organisation programmed towards its own survival. While it is likely that its leaders continue to command a weakened but still well organised fighting force, there is no indication they would make use of it to openly confront a MONUSCO-FARDC coalition. As in the past, it would resort to retreat and thereby spark renewed local security dilemmas and displacement across vast swaths of the Kivus.

Fifth, it remains unclear what the Congolese government and army want. While it is obvious that there are bigger threats to Kabila than FDLR it seems that three major punch-lines prevails across Kinshasa’s political circles:

  • we need to get rid of FDLR and deal with the problem ourselves, 2) we need to get rid of FDLR, but they remain more than everything else a Rwandan militia, so it is not DRC’s responsibility, and 3) why should we dismantle a potential ally of circumstance against looming common enemies?
  • The third point is particularly worrying given recent developments around ex-M23 repatriation and the ‘loss’ of a significant number of combatants in this process.

Sixth, how will Rwanda react if international and Congolese promises to take action against FDLR once more prove to remain hollow?

The more time passes, the more legitimacy Kigali gains to handle this security threat their own way.

Obviously, in its current shape FDLR does not represent an actual conventional military threat, that is, a force capable to invade Rwanda and defeat a well-equipped Rwandan Defence Forces.

However, and examples have shown, FDLR has been able to launch guerrilla-styled attacks into Rwanda as recent as during the internal implosion of M23 that left various geographical avenues from Virunga Park into Rwandan territory and FDLR’s rhetoric remains aggressive against the Rwandan government.

While observers disagree over how much FDLR represents a scapegoat or an actual threat for Rwanda, both a sufficient conditions for direct or indirect action in case of continued agony on the side of other powers.

Seventh, the political process is stuck. US Special Envoy Feingold announced military operations many months ago, which in his capacity and authority is surprising since it is not ultimately him giving military orders to MONUSCO and FARDC and an arrival of US special forces appears utopian.

SADC in turn remains unclear about whether it fully endorses a tougher stance against FDLR, while three of its member states compose the whole FIB.

MONUSCO’s leadership is eager to launch operations but restrained by several above-mentioned dynamics. ICGLR remains politicised and with little institutional leeway to become a weightier broker.

These and other elements and contradictions have also prevented the set-up of a political roadmap – the 11+4 framework accord is stalled anyway – that would be necessary to join military action in order to achieve a durable solution.

In its entirety, the complicated conundrum of these seven dynamics represent a ‘back-to-square-one’ situation, in which the passed deadline turns out be a political failure.

Besides a few little changes, the situation around FDLR is basically the same it has been half a year ago and, few months before MONUSCO’s and FIB’s current mandates run out, the prospects for dismantling FDLR are as good (or bad) they have been before the deadline.

We will see in the coming weeks whether there will be significant changes to that.

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