The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), particularly the provinces of North and South Kivu, has long had the reputation of being one of the most violent and chaotic places on the continent. For this reason, reports of renewed fighting in this region may not be surprising, but recent developments mark a definite deterioration in the already critical humanitarian situation.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 'the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the DRC has now reached more than two million as of 31 March. Up from 1.7 million IDPs at the end of 2011, the movement of people fleeing for safety and support has occurred mostly in the two eastern provinces of South and North Kivu: it is linked to recent military operations against armed groups in these provinces, retaliation attacks on civilians by armed groups, and human rights violations against civilians by all parties to the conflict.'
While there are numerous armed groups operating in the Kivus, two have been key players in the recent developments affecting the humanitarian situation. The first is the Congres National pour la Defense du Peuple (CNDP), a group that supports the interests of the Tutsi population in the DRC. The second is the Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), a mostly Hutu group composed of former Rwandan military members responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
It is useful to recall that in 2008 DRC President Joseph Kabila entered into a deal with Rwanda which stipulated that if Rwanda would arrest the then leader of the CNDP, Laurent Nkunda, it would be allowed to pursue the FDLR on DRC soil on the grounds of its national security interests. Kigali subsequently appointed a new CNDP leader, Bosco Ntaganda. On 23 March 2009 Kabila's government signed a peace deal with the CNDP, which included provisions for the CNDP to be integrated into the Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC).
At the time of the peace deal the International Criminal Court (ICC) had already issued an arrest warrant for Ntaganda as he allegedly recruited children under the age of 15 for armed combat. Earlier this year, talks of Ntaganda's possible arrest sparked the defection of his loyalists from the FARDC. The fact that the former CNDP troops defected so easily at the thought of their leader being arrested proves that the CNDP had remained loyal to Ntaganda's command, and that their integration into the FARDC had been both futile and dangerous. In essence, it raises serious concerns about the demobilization, disarmament and repatriation (DDR) process.
To complicate matters even further, another faction of troops, under the command of Sultani Makenga, also defected from the FARDC. The group named itself the M23, or March 23 movement, after the day on which the peace deal with the government had been signed. The M23 wants to renegotiate with the government due to the difficult conditions and lack of payment the troops endured in the FARDC.
Clashes between the FARDC, the mutineers under Ntaganda's command and the mutineers under Makenga's command have created conditions for other groups operating in the Kivus to gain ground. The Mai Mai Cheka, the FDLR and the Raia Mutomboki militias have all taken advantage of the situation. The pattern of revenge killings between the FDLR and the Raia Mutomboki led to the attack on UN peacekeepers in mid-May. This attack, in which 11 peacekeepers were injured, was perpetrated by an angry mob of villagers protesting over the fact that the peacekeepers had failed to protect their village from attacks by the FDLR.
The United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) is working to facilitate humanitarian assistance to the thousands of people who have been displaced by the fighting. The number of refugees who have fled to Uganda since the start of the mutiny is now estimated to be between 13 000 and 15 000, while the number of those at the Nkamira transit camp in Rwanda is over 9 000. Unfortunately, reports indicate that not all refugees make it as far as Rwanda or Uganda, and many are left suffering in some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the Kivus. In some of the areas that have seen heavy fighting of late, the roads are either in a very poor condition or non-existent.
The implication of this is that organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are faced with extreme challenges when it comes to delivering assistance to those in need of medical care. In addition, the sudden increase in the number of people needing medical assistance has led to a shortage of medical supplies. The chaos caused by the fighting has also led to many children being severely traumatised, wounded and separated from their families. As is often the case in these situations, it is the women, children and elderly who are the victims.
Meanwhile, Kabila's earlier promises to arrest Ntaganda seem to have been forgotten. If Kabila had really intended to arrest Ntaganda, he should never have announced it in the first place, since this has given Ntaganda the time to disappear. While some reports claim that Ntaganda has crossed the border into Rwanda, others claim that the government is only feigning its hunt for Ntaganda, and that he is in fact on his farm in Masisi.
At the time that the CNDP entered into the peace deal with the government, the DRC government argued that even though the ICC had issued an arrest warrant for Ntaganda, arresting him would cause instability in the Kivus, and thus it opted to have him integrated into the FARDC. It is now clear that it was not in Kabila's interest to have Ntaganda arrested, since his announcement has led to Ntaganda being able to build up his 'protection mechanisms'. Once rebel leaders go into hiding, they are very difficult to flush out, as Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, has very successfully demonstrated, unless a strong political will backs up the action taken by governmental authorities.
If Kabila's government is indeed aware of the need to respect the fundamental standards of international humanitarian laws, and if it truly recognises human rights as it states in the preamble of the 2009 peace deal, it will have to devise a plan to protect civilians in the Kivus. The current military solution that it is employing could prove disastrous in the end. Like the 2009 peace deal, it may serve a short-term political goal, but it will not root out the problems caused by groups such as the FDLR and the Raia Mutomboki. As long as the FARDC is not effectively reformed, the Kivus will remain unsafe for civilians.
Kabila might have been successful in diverting attention from his electoral debacle, but a greater challenge remains to find a lasting solution in the east, which is longing for peace.
David Zounmenou and Naomi Kok are senior researcher and intern respectively in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division of the ISS.