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, February 24, 2015

Is the Congolese electoral calendar a pipe dream?

Two weeks ago, the national elections commission published its election calendar. This is the outline:
  • 25 October 2015: Provincial, municipal, urban, and local elections;
  • 10 December 2015: Results of those elections announced;
  • 17 January 2016: Election of senators by provincial assemblies;
  • 31 January 2016: Election of governors and vice-governors by provincial assemblies;
  • 27 November 2016: Presidential and national parliamentary elections;
  • 7 December 2016: Provisional presidential results announced;
  • Total cost: $1,145 billion.
Most observers I have spoken to feel that the electoral calendar is a pipe dream––it will be virtually impossible to hold local elections, the most complicated polls the country has ever seen, by October. This means that the entire electoral calendar will be pushed back, prolonging Kabila's mandate in violation of the constitution. 

Today, I published an interview with Jerome Bonso, a leading civil society advocate and expert on elections. He summarizes why the calendar will be almost impossible to adhere to:

1. No money. The entire Congolese budget amounts to $9 billion on paper. However, in reality the execution of the budget has been weak in recent years––last year, according to the budget ministry, only half of the budget was spent. If we consider that roughly 40 per cent of the budget comes from foreign donors, this leaves the government with very few means to finance such a large electoral budget. For now, donors are still undecided whether they should back such an unrealistic timetable.

2. An absence of laws. A number of critical laws and statutes still have to be passed, in particular the statute listing the new electoral districts. The problem is that this law requires demographic information that is not available––hence the planned controversial census.

3. No reliable voter register. The list of registered voters is widely seen as outdated and full of mistakes––fake voters, dead voters, and doubly-registered voters. In addition, it does not include the young Congolese who have come of age since the last electoral cycle. It is not clear how the election commission intends to deal with this problem, as the "cleansing" of the voter register appears to be insufficient.

4. An extremely complex process. Local elections will be more complicated than any other election held in the Congo to date. We don't know how many electoral districts there will be yet, but the election commissioner said it could be as high as 7,275. That compares with 266 electoral districts for the provincial elections, which were last held in 2006.

5. A lack of dispute resolution bodies. For the local elections, the "Tribunal de Paix" is supposed to adjudicate any disputes. However, there are only 50 such courts functioning across the country, leaving vast areas of the country with no dispute resolution body.

And these are just the technical challenges. Perhaps the biggest challenge is forging some sort of consensus within an extremely divided political class. In the last month, the government has cracked down on protests, locked up opposition and civil society activists, and suspended cell phone and internet communication. It has also refused to make the electoral process subject of discussion with the opposition outside of parliament, which the ruling coalition dominates. The United Nations peacekeeping mission, which has been tasked by the UN Security Council with brokering talks between the various sides, has been told by President Kabila not to interfere in what he considers to be sovereign affairs.


Jerome Bonso sur les élections au Congo: "Il faut un dialogue politique"

Jerome Bonso (Photo: John Bompengo, Radio Okapi)
Jerome Bonso est parmi les activistes congolais qui suivent le processus électoral en RDC de près. Il est le coordonnateur d’Agir pour les élections transparentes et apaisées (AETA) et président du la Ligue Nationale pour les Elections Libres et Transparentes (LINELIT)
Cette transcription a été légèrement raccourcie de l’original. 

En novembre dernier, vous avez publié une analyse du calendrier [électorale]. À l’époque il y avait seulement un calendrier partiel, et vous aviez conclut déjà à cette époque qu’on était sept mois en retard par rapport au calendrier électoral. Nous avons maintenant un calendrier global publié par la CENI qui prévoit les élections locales pour octobre 2015, et les élections présidentielles avant la fin de 2016. Qu’est-ce que vous pensez par rapport à ce calendrier?

Nous saluons la publication du calendrier électoral global. C’était notre exigence, parce que nous avions souhaité qu’on puisse mener toutes les séquences  liées aux élections, surtout l’échéance liée à l’élection présidentielle qui est une exigence constitutionnelle.

Et dans le calendrier global, nous avons salué le fait qu’on ait donné des indications précises sur le début de l’élection présidentielle le 27 novembre 2016. Et on a donné aussi une date précise sur la [prise en fonction] du nouveau président le 20 décembre 2016. Et ça nous met en confiance que nous n’irons pas au-delà du mandat du président de la république.

Pour la chronologie des opérations électorales. Pour 2015, la CENI nous présente des élections locales et provinciales à effectuer. Et nous avons dit qu’il y a beaucoup d’aléas qui affectent la tenue d’élections locales. Il y a le facteur temps : le temps ne permet pas qu’on puisse organiser des élections locales, parce qu’elles comptent à elles seules 1500 à 2000 circonscriptions électorales. 

Il y a aussi un autre problème : la gestion des contentieux électoraux. [Pour cela] il faudrait des tribunaux de paix, or sur l’ensemble du territoire national nous avons à peu près 140 tribunaux de paix. Parmi les 140 il y a en a au moins une cinquantaine qui sont [fonctionnels]. DNous serons incapable à l’heure qu’il est de procéder à la formation de juges électoraux pour la gestion du contentieux électoral au niveau des élections locales, parce que la gestion du contentieux électoral ne peut pas être laissé entre les mains de juges de droit commun, droit pénal, et droit coutumier.

Quand nous avons fait l’élection présidentielle et la députation provinciale en 2011, il y avait 18 580 candidats pour la députation nationale. Il y avait 169 circonscriptions électorales. Hors pour l’élection locale, nous aurons à peu près 220 candidats [par circonscription], avec plus ou moins 2000 circonscriptions électorales. Mais en 2011 nous étions incapables de gérer plus de 18 000 candidats députés nationaux avec 169 circonscriptions !

À cela s’ajoute l’exigence financière. Les élections de 2011, en date du 30 janvier 2014, la Commission électorale nationale indépendante avait présenté sa feuille de route. Sur sa feuille de route il avait demandé $750,212,788 pour trois années. Pour 2014, il avait demandé $323,125,301 pour la rémunération, pour le fonctionnement du bureau de la CENI, pour des opérations électorales, et pour l’investissement. Quand ce document est arrivée à l’Assemblée nationale, l’assemblée nationale a votée un montant de $169 million au lieu de $ 323,125,301. Et quand on a voté ce montant, le gouvernement devait dégager cet argent pour le mettre à la disposition de la CENI, pour que la CENI puisse produire son calendrier électoral partiel. Mais le gouvernement a seulement débloqué $50 millions sur $169 millions. Donc le calendrier partiel publié en date du 26 mai 2014 par le CENI n’a pas pu être exécuté faute de moyens financiers.

Donc vous craignez que la même chose se passe avec ce calendrier électoral – qu’on ait pas assez d’argent…

...et actuellement, on publie le calendrier électoral global. Pour le montant d’un $1,145,408,680. Et cet argent, c’est pour faire peur à l’opinion. Pour dire qu’on peut justifier le glissement de l’organisation d’une élection présidentielle qui est une exigence constitutionnelle.

Donc, d’après vous, si je comprends bien, compte tenu de tous ces problèmes, vous insistez toujours qu’on supprime carrément les élections locales, qu’on les renvoies pour après les élections présidentielles?

Affirmatif. Quand on a présenté le calendrier, la Commission électorale indépendante à présenté aussi 23 contraintes liés à la mise en oeuvre du calendrier. Ça veut dire quoi; il a présenté des contraintes d’ordre législatives, des contraintes d’ordre technique, des contraintes d’ordre sécuritaire. Il a dit: “nous pouvons faire les élections à conditions que vous répondez favorablement au 23 contraintes.” Hors le calendrier partiel que la CENI avait présenté 14 contraintes.

"La CENI n’a pas l’argent dans sa caisse. La CENI n’a pas tous les textes de loi liés à l’organisation des élections locales. La CENI n’a pas la cartographie des nouvelles villes." 

[Maintenant] il a présenté 23 contraintes. Aucune de ces contraintes, à l’arrivée de la publication du calendrier, n’est maîtrisée. La CENI n’a pas l’argent dans sa caisse. La CENI n’a pas tous les textes de loi liés à l’organisation des élections locales. La CENI n’a pas la cartographie des nouvelles villes.

C’est pourquoi nous avons dit, comme un raccourci, avec le temps qu’il nous reste de 8 mois, nous devons commencer par faire la priorité des élections. La priorité constitue à quoi: 1) En 2015, on organise les élections de la députation provinciale. De cette députation provinciale on va arriver à l’élection sénatoriale. De cette élection sénatoriale, on va organiser les élections de gouverneurs et vice-gouverneurs, qui sont déjà hors mandat. À ce moment-là, on a résolu les zones de crises de légitimité au niveau des institutions sénatoriales, gouvernorats et assemblées provinciales. À ce moment-là, on projette les élections pour l’automne après 2016, pour ne pas handicaper l’organisation des élections présidentielles et députation nationale qui constituent une exigence constitutionnelle. 

Voilà notre solution. Et maintenant, comment y arriver? Pour y arriver, il y a un problème: il faut qu’on puisse dégager un consensus politico-électoral. Ce consensus politico-électoral devait être le résultat d’un dialogue politique.

Mais comment arriver à ce dialogue politique? Les commentaires que vous faites-là, ce n’est pas la première fois que vous les faites, vous n’êtes pas la première personne à les faire. La CENI jusqu’a présent à refusé d’ouvrir ce genre de dialogue.

Ce n’est pas de la compétence de la CENI. Ça relève de la compétence de la classe politique. Ça relève de la résolution 2098 du Conseil de sécurité. Dans son article 14.b, le Conseil de sécurité demande au Représentant spécial du Secrétaire-général des Nations unies, M. Martin Kobler, l’allemand, d’offrir des bons-offices à la classe politique congolaise pour un dialogue politique inclusif pour la réconciliation, la démocratisation, et l’organisation d’élections provinciales et locales. De ce cadre-là, qu’on va se mettre d’accord pour faire la priorité, pour dégager un calendrier électoral consensuel. Parce que le discours politique a été mal dissimulé dans l’opinion congolaise. Quand on parle du dialogue, on a l’impression qu’on va partager le pouvoir. Non. Le dialogue va porter sur le processus électoral. 

M. Kobler, si je me rappelle bien, l’année passée il a essayé justement de mettre ce mandat en oeuvre, en réunissant un peu les gens d’à gauche à droite, la société civile, l’opposition et la classe politique, justement pour cela. Et il a été mis en garde par le Président de la république, qui lui avait fait part qu’il ne voulait pas que l’ONU s’ingère dans les affaires de la souveraineté du Congo.

Oui, tout à fait, tout à fait. Mais le contexte a beaucoup évolué. Le contexte a changé avec les événements que nous avons connus du 19 au 21 janvier. [Les manifestations à Kinshasa, NDLR]
"Nous pensons que le dialogue est incontournable. Incontournable."  
Même quand il y a les belligérants sur le terrain, sur le champ de bataille, ils refusent le dialogue, mais en fin de compte ils vont y arriver. Quoique nous pensons que le dialogue est incontournable. Incontournable. 

Ma dernière question c’est par rapport au fichier électoral, parce que ça aussi ça fait partie de la controverse électorale.Quel est le statut du fichier électoral, et si on ne passe plus un recensement de la population, comment on va mettre à jour ce fichier électoral?

Le fichier électoral pose des problèmes. Le fichier électoral a posé des problèmes en 2006, parce qu’on a fait l’élection sans qu’il y ait recensement dans tout le pays du Congo. De 1984 à nos jours il n’y a jamais eu un recensement. C’est pourquoi on s’était convenu qu’on puisse procéder à l’enrôlement des électeurs. Tout congolais de 18 ans ou plus devait se faire enrôlé. Et en 2006, on était arrivé à un corps électoral de plus de 25 millions d’électeurs. Nous sommes allez aux élections, et il n’y a pas eu de nettoyage du fichier électoral. Il n’y a pas eu d’audit externe du fichier électoral. Et nous sommes allé aux élections de 2011, et on avait un fichier électoral qui avait 32 millions d’électeurs. De 25 à plus de 32 millions, mais il n’y a pas eu un audit extérieur.

Quelle est la prochaine étape [dans ce processus électorale] ?

La CENI a un handicap majeur: les moyens financiers. Et nous faisons le plaidoyer pour que l’on puisse doter la CENI de l’autonomie financière. La CENI ne doit pas dépendre seulement du gouvernement pour aller chercher l’argent, on devrait doter la CENI de l’autonomie financière pour qu’elle puisse disponibiliser les moyens financiers à temps pour faire son travail. Si ces moyens financiers ne sont pas disponibilisés et aussi la CENI n’est pas dotée de son autonomie financière, nous ne pourront pas encore faire les élections dans le délai constitutionnel.

Vous pensez que les bailleurs de fonds devraient décaisser l’argent pour le budget?

Oui, les bailleurs de fonds devraient se mobiliser maintenant pour doter l’argent, pour diffuser les moyens, avec préférence l’organisation urgente de l’élection présidentielle. Ça c’est une exigence constitutionnelle. Pour qu’il n’y ait pas d’excuses comme l’a dit le sénateur Russ Feingold, qui a dit que l’Amérique va disponibiliser $20 million pour l’organisation de l’élection présidentielle. Que le reste des partenaires techniques et financiers puissent emboîter le pas à disponibiliser les moyens financiers à temps.

Merci, M. Bonso, au revoir.

Au revoir.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

From Bullets to Ballots: The Next Battle for Congo’s Future

The following is an article written for World Politics Review.

Anti-government protestors burn tires as they protest a new law that could delay the scheduled election to be held in 2016, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Jan. 20, 2015 (AP photo by John Bompengo).


Flying into Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the early days of 2015, foreign diplomats could be excused for being disoriented. The news in the international press was focused on an impending offensive against Rwandan rebels in the east of the country, an area to which the United Nations peacekeeping mission––the largest in the world––had just relocated most of its troops and staff.

And yet, in the embassies and upscale restaurants of the capital, the buzz was all about political wrangling among elites ahead of elections still two years away. The populist governor of mining-rich Katanga had just given a fiery speech challenging President Joseph Kabila, who appears to be trying to illegally extend his presidential mandate. Several weeks later, police broke up widespread protests in Kinshasa with live bullets and tear gas as the population protested a controversial electoral law. The war in the distant and mountainous east seemed a faint murmur.

This disjuncture illustrates two key features of the Congolese conflict, now in its third decade, with close to 3 million people still displaced. First, the dynamics underlying the war have shifted over time as external antagonisms, which initially fueled the war, have receded, while national and local forces have become more important.

Second, international peace-building has been out of step with this shift, in part because it has been more difficult to reform state institutions than to stave off foreign meddling, and in part because the analysis driving these interventions has been flawed. 
[To read the remainder of the article, click here.]

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.