Boko Haram attacks in northern Nigeria have dominated African headlines since the Islamist militants kidnapped over 200 girls in Chibok in April 2014. But there is a lesser known group of rebels, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who have been intimidating the local population, albeit on a different scale, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for over 20 years.
The international community has long sought to demobilize the FDLR, a Hutu group led by former “genocidaires” who fled to the DRC following the Rwandan genocide of around 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. The FDLR has few friends. But the dense forests of North and South Kivu provinces in the eastern DRC provide the perfect cover for it and other rebel groups to maintain territorial control over lucrative mining operations in coltan, gold and other minerals.
The United Nations Security Council, the United States, South Africa and other global actors have ramped up the pressure to disarm the FDLR, and the rebels were given six months ahead of a January 2 deadline to voluntarily disarm as part of the UN’s demobilization program. This date was largely ignored, however, as only 337 old and infirm members surrendered, leaving an estimated 1,500 remaining FDLR combatants.
This appeared to be the perfect moment of action for the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a military formation of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops under UN control with the unique mandate to carry out attacks on rebel groups in the eastern DRC. The idea behind the FIB was to avoid the kinds of peacekeeping disasters of the mid-1990s, when UN forces in Rwanda and Bosnia were only allowed to use force in self-defence, as genocidal acts were committed by ethnic Hutu militias and Bosnian Serb fighters while the world watched. Moreover, the FIB and Congolese forces had successfully routed Rwandan-backed M23 rebels from strongholds in North Kivu in November 2013. Based on this precedent, it seemed that the FDLR’s days were numbered at last.
However, on Feb. 1, DRC President Joseph Kabila appointed General Bruno Mandevu to lead the FDLR operation and General Fall Sikabwe as commander of the 34th military region which includes North Kivu. Both generals were on a UN “red list” for suspected human rights violations, although details about their alleged crimes have not been disclosed. Kabila’s continuing refusal to replace the generals prompted the UN to suspend its support to the operation. Amidst the deepening rift between Kabila and the UN, the Congolese military launched a unilateral offensive against FDLR rebels on Feb. 24, one day after the African Union had called on Kabila to accept UN support.
Without much in the way of independent information beyond the Congolese military reports, it will be difficult to assess the early reports of successful attacks on FDLR positions
Senior UN and diplomatic sources in the DRC have expressed their lack of faith in this unilateral operation, particularly given the fact that the FDLR are likely to avoid direct military confrontations. The badly-paid Congolese army suffers from low morale, poor discipline, and lack of special forces training to combat seasoned guerrilla fighters like the FDLR, particularly in the rugged terrain that has been the rebels’ home for 20 years. Moreover, as DRC expert Jason Stearns has argued, that there is no “exit valve” for FDLR commanders. There is a well-established UN demobilization program for low-level combatants, but only some ad hoc arrangements for individual commanders. This further entrenches the resolve of senior leaders, who hold sway over their fighters through the group’s religious ideology and a strict hierarchical command structure.
Furthermore, any attack on the FDLR risks a repeat of 2009, when over a million civilians in the Kivus were displaced by Congolese and Rwandan troops, and retreating FDLR fighters massacred villagers as a deterrent to the international community. Without the UN to attend to the humanitarian aspects of such a displacement, and to provide oversight of Congolese troops with a history of human rights abuses, it is the civilians who will bear the brunt of the fighting.
Without much in the way of independent information beyond the Congolese military reports, it will be difficult to assess the early reports of successful attacks on FDLR positions, as well as the impact on civilians. After violent anti-Kabila demonstrations in January left an estimated 43 protesters dead amidst widespread criticism of the heavy-handed tactics by security force, the Congolese leader is keen to demonstrate his ability to unilaterally defeat the FDLR and improve his domestic and international standing. However, in this volatile mineral-rich region that has been plagued by rebel violence for the past 20 years, the pattern of rebel attacks and ill-fated counterinsurgency operations is likely to continue.
By: Alex Fielding– A senior intelligence analyst specializing in African affairs with Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in the Middle East. He previously worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.