Since late 2017, renewed violence in Ituri has revived rivalries between Hema and Lendu and affected other communities, with broader regional implications. President Tshisekedi's government should negotiate the surrender of the Lendu militias and encourage the Quadripartite Summit to put the conflict on its agenda.
What's new? Since late 2017, armed groups, predominantly from the Lendu ethnic farming community, have committed deadly attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Ituri province. Initial targets were members of the neighbouring Hema community, who are mostly herders, and the Congolese armed forces. But attacks are now increasingly indiscriminate.
Why does it matter? The escalating violence has revived historical rivalries between the Hema and Lendu, who fought each other during the 1999-2003 war. The involvement of actors from the adjacent province of North Kivu, and even from neighbouring countries, could exacerbate the challenges faced by President Félix Tshisekedi.
What should be done? Kinshasa should aim to negotiate the surrender of Lendu militias as part of a broader dialogue between the Hema, Lendu and other communities. The Quadripartite Summit that brings together the DRC and its neighbours - Angola, Rwanda and Uganda - could help address the conflict's regional dimensions.
Since December 2017, violence in the province of Ituri, in the north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has left nearly 1,000 people dead and half a million displaced. Breaking out in the territory of Djugu, small-scale attacks first pitted the two main communities in Ituri, the Hema and Lendu, against each other. Subsequently, Lendu militias targeted the Hema, and then the national army, before attacking nearby territories. External actors, including from North Kivu province and bordering countries, are also involved. To stem a dangerous escalation, the Congolese government should focus on a strategy aimed at negotiating the demobilisation of Lendu militias while supporting a broader dialogue between the Hema, Lendu and other communities in Ituri. Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi should simultaneously work with neighbouring countries to halt support from actors in the region for the attackers.
The current crisis differs from the 1999-2003 conflict in Ituri, during which Hema and Lendu communities participated in massacres undertaken by associated militias. Today, most assailants are recruited from within the Lendu community and brought together in an association of militias, the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo. In contrast to the previous conflict, Lendu leaders have distanced themselves from these militias. Still, given the limits of the government's military response, the possibility of escalating ethnic violence cannot be dismissed. Lendu militias continue to expand. Thus far, the Hema have not mounted systematic reprisals, but they do not rule out mobilising their youth if attacks continue. Young Hema have organised into self-defence groups and erected roadblocks in Ituri, which should be seen as forewarning of the risk of ethnic confrontation.
The clashes in Ituri could have multiple ramifications. With its growing violence, the province has already attracted fighters from neighbouring North Kivu, the epicentre of insecurity in the eastern DRC. Members of former rebel movements, including some cohorts of the M23 group largely based in Uganda, have also sought to profit from ethnic tensions in Ituri and North Kivu and interfere in the conflict. Furthermore, the violence is exacerbating tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, each of which played an important role in the Ituri war of 1999-2003. The two countries now accuse each other of supporting armed groups in the eastern DRC. A COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 in Irumu, a territory bordering North Kivu, risks spreading, which could further weaken authorities faced with a double threat of disease and unrest.
A number of steps could help to break the cycle of violence in Ituri and prevent outside interference:
The government should resume dialogue with those militias in Ituri that have already expressed willingness to surrender under the right conditions. It should also pursue a dialogue with other militias involved in the Ituri violence to pursue their demobilisation. In order to reach a broad consensus on disarmament methods (including on the issue of amnesty), the government should support the mediation efforts of Ituri deputies' caucus in the National Assembly.
Kinshasa should prioritise the reintegration of militiamen into civilian life, in particular by setting up a framework for support and training to provide them with alternative livelihoods.
Provincial and national authorities should foster talks between the Hema and Lendu communities by inviting traditional chieftains and other eminent figures to discuss local issues - such as land disputes - that generate violence and identify measures to better manage security on the ground. Subsequently, Kinshasa should organise a broad dialogue in Ituri, including communities not directly involved in the crisis, to ensure that these measures meet the population's general expectations.
In order to advance Ituri's development and security, Kinshasa should set up a special fund for the region, and, as far as possible, mobilise bilateral partners and the World Bank to contribute.
Congolese President Tshisekedi should put the Ituri conflict on the agenda for the next Quadripartite Summit, which will bring together Angola, the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. He and his Angolan counterpart, João Lourenço, should press Rwanda and Uganda to use this forum to discuss reciprocal accusations of aid to armed groups in the eastern DRC, including in Ituri, and commit to ending this support.
Until these steps are taken, the conflict risks escalating in the years to come. A long-term solution to the Ituri crisis would help break the cycle of violence in the eastern DRC and ease tensions in the Great Lakes region.
Nairobi/Bunia/Kinshasa/Kampala/Brussels, 15 July 2020
Almost eighteen months after President Félix Tshisekedi's election in December 2018, several provinces in the DRC are experiencing a high degree of insecurity. Violence perpetrated by armed militias - the remnants or consequences of successive conflicts since the 1990s - persists in certain areas in the east. In the far north-eastern province of Ituri, violence has resurfaced fourteen years after an inter-ethnic war that claimed thousands of victims between 1999 and 2003. The clashes were first limited to Djugu territory, with small-scale attacks between the Hema and Lendu, the province's two major ethnic communities. But Tshisekedi's arrival in office coincided with the intensification of attacks by militiamen, largely Lendu, against members of other communities and the national army.
The new conflict in Ituri has become a national issue for the president. On 30 June 2019, the country's Independence Day, he travelled to Ituri to demonstrate his willingness to put an end to a conflict which he described as a "genocide" and an attempt to unsettle his hold on power. Since then, Kinshasa has led military operations aimed at neutralising the militiamen, while provincial authorities have sought to initiate a dialogue with them through Lendu intermediaries of high standing. In the meantime, fighting in Ituri has raged on, displaying increasingly close links with conflicts in the nearby North Kivu province, itself marked by numerous past wars in which neighbouring countries were involved. During the Second Congo War of 1998-2002, the conflict in Ituri contributed to the worsening of relations between Rwanda and Uganda, countries which intervened militarily and supported armed factions in the DRC, including in Ituri, and which today accuse each other of destabilising eastern Congo along with the whole region.
This report presents a chronology of the events that led to this upsurge in fighting, analyses the conflict's cyclical nature and its underlying causes, and identifies its main actors in order to understand why it persists. Finally, it puts forward recommendations for breaking the cycle of violence. It is based on dozens of interviews conducted in Bunia and Kinshasa, in the DRC, as well as in Kampala, Uganda, from July 2019 to May 2020. These interviews involved political leaders, including Hema and Lendu public figures, diplomats, former members of armed groups, security and natural resources experts, civil society actors, non-governmental organisation staffers, representatives of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and aid workers.
II. Ituri: The Politics of a Tormented Province
For several centuries, the Hema and the Lendu, Ituri's two main ethnic communities, have been fighting for access to land and local power. In this rural province, land is an essential resource. The Lendu are largely farmers, while the Hema are herders. During the era of Belgian colonisation, authorities helped place the Hema higher up the local hierarchy; their chief had significant powers, allowing them to establish dominance over the Lendu. The colonists also pursued a discriminatory education policy in favour of the Hema, who acquired more and more advantages, notably access to positions in the administration, the Catholic Church and businesses. After independence, Hema elites continued to benefit from the policy of "Zairianisation" (nationalisation of the means of production held by foreigners from 1973) under former President Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (1965-1997), and were able to take over a great deal of land.
The authorities in Kinshasa, the political and military elites of other Congolese provinces, and the DRC's neighbours have also taken part, to varying degrees, in the conflicts that have struck Ituri. The regimes of Laurent Kabila (1997-2001) and his son Joseph (2001-2019) attempted to bring this strategic region, rich in minerals, into the fold of the Republic, sometimes by exploiting local inter-ethnic antagonisms. At the beginning of the 2000s, for instance, Congolese elites harnessed the tensions between the Hema and Lendu by mobilising populations and militias to promote their own political and economic interests. The involvement of neighbouring states further aggravated the conflict, which became the Second Congo War, a proxy war between the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.
Between 1999 and 2003, deadly clashes took place between the two communities in Ituri province. Tensions focused on access to land, natural resources and local political power. The involvement of outside actors, from Kinshasa or neighbouring countries such as Rwanda and Uganda, who supported opposing militias, exacerbated the hostilities. In May 2003, as a transitional government took office in the DRC, the UN Security Council authorised the European Union to carry out the Artemis military operation in Ituri, which put an end to the fighting and managed to take the provincial capital, Bunia, from the control of militias who had divided the city's main districts among themselves.
After the war, Kinshasa's government succeeded in establishing a fragile peace. Hostilities ceased, and national authorities instituted a power-sharing system aimed at ensuring intercommunal cohesion. They appointed members of different ethnic communities to positions in Ituri's interim administration - a system which remained in place even after the 2006 elections. Between 2003 and 2006, a special administration regime was established in Ituri. The militias were never dismantled, however, and some held on to their weapons. And, though Kinshasa extended its authority over Ituri, the problems that led to the war - land disputes and rivalries over the control of natural resources - were not durably resolved.
After Ituri acquired the status of province in 2015, Kinshasa appointed Jefferson Abdallah Pene Mbaka, a Lendu, as special commissioner with the powers of a provincial governor. Two deputies and other administration officials assisted him, following the same logic of power sharing. In the gubernatorial election of March 2016, Pene Mbaka was confirmed as governor of Ituri, along with the vice governor Pacifique Keta Upar, a member of the Alur community, which is the largest in Mahagi territory, and with Hema individuals heading several important provincial ministries.
The sudden outbreak of violence, starting in December 2017 and mostly led by Lendu militias against the Hema, marks a new period of high political instability in the province. Under pressure from civil society actors, who denounced the governor's mismanagement of the security situation, the authorities in Kinshasa dismissed Pene Mbaka in December 2018; meanwhile, several hundred people had already lost their lives. Vice Governor Keta Upar acted as interim governor until the April 2019 election, when Jean Bamanisa, a Hema and independent candidate, was chosen as governor, and Chalo Dudu, a Lendu, as vice governor.
The change in the province's leadership did not end the violence. Accused of mismanagement, Jean Bamanisa was removed from office in November 2019 following a vote by provincial deputies. But the Hema community condemned the motion of no confidence. A serious political crisis resulted, pitting the provincial assembly against the government, and paralysing the dialogue initiated by Bamanisa with militiamen and between ethnic communities. The justice system rehabilitated Bamanisa, and he returned to Ituri on 28 February 2020. His three-month absence was marked by a rise in violent incidents.
III. Increasingly Ambitious Attacks
After fourteen years of relative peace in Ituri, highly violent clashes broke out in December 2017 in Djugu territory, before spreading elsewhere in the province. Unlike the 1999-2003 war, which saw generalised fighting between militias associated with the Hema and Lendu, the current violence largely involves specific militias composed of Lendu youths but not necessarily supported by the majority of the community. At the start of this new wave of violence, Lendu assailants targeted members of the Hema community in Djugu territory. The attacks have now multiplied, targeting the military and other communities, including the Alur in Mahagi territory, north of Djugu. Some Hema youths have been involved in small-scale attacks or reprisals, but the Hema have not yet mobilised militias as in the clashes between 1999 and 2003.
A. Ethnic Tensions and Apparent Lendu Mobilisation
In Ituri province, occasional local clashes between the Hema and Lendu have morphed into systematic attacks by Lendu militiamen against the Hema, mainly in Djugu territory and in the north of the province.
The death of Father Florent Dhunji, a Lendu priest, during a stay at the presbytery of the Bahema abbots at Drodro on 5 June 2017, was the spark that ignited the gunpowder. The Catholic Church remains vague as to the circumstances of his death, allowing rumours to proliferate. Later, certain Lendu accused the Hema of planning to exterminate their leaders, with the priest representing the first victim.
This allegation led to a resurgence of hate speech, with memories of the 1999-2003 conflict still fresh in both communities' minds. After several months marked by low levels of violence, tensions were rekindled by an altercation on 17 December 2017 between a soldier and a Lendu youth at the military post of Uzi, in Djugu territory, near Ladedjo. Hema youths pursued and beat up the young man. The next day, Lendu youths retaliated by injuring three Hema women with a machete in a field in Ladedjo, on Lendu territory. In retribution, Hema youths attacked the village of Tete, setting fire to several dozen houses.
A local initiative then led to a lull in the violence. On 22 December 2017, in a tense climate, Governor Pene Mbaka took a peace delegation to Blukwa-Mbi (a Lendu locality of the Ladedjo groupment, chiefdom of Walendu-Pitsi) and then to Blukwa-Etat (a Hema locality of the Buku groupment, chiefdom of Bahema-Nord). During public meetings, he called on the two traditional chiefs, Logbe (a Lendu) from Walendu-Pitsi and Pilo (a Hema) from Bahema-Nord, to exchange messages of peace and forgiveness. "The chief of Bahema-Nord and his counterpart from Walendu-Pitsi must help us find the instigators of the crisis. They know them, and I have come with civilian and military judicial authorities to seize these individuals", he insisted. Following this firm speech, no major incident was reported for more than a month.
A fresh series of attacks occurred on Djugu territory in February 2018, with the principal target being the largely Hema chiefdom of Bahema-Nord. On 10 February 2018, assailants killed at least nineteen people from Hema villages in Bahema-Nord. That same day, armed individuals also killed five Hema and set fire to houses in Bahema-Bajer. The violence reached its climax in mid-February, when 60 members of the Hema community lost their lives as their village, Rule, burned. The assailants' identity was not confirmed, but several testimonies converge on a militia that was reportedly formed in two principally Lendu chiefdoms, Walendu-Pitsi and Walendu-Djatsi, in Djugu territory.
B. Lendu Militias Target the Army
From February 2018, Lendu militias began targeting army positions. For the militiamen, these attacks served a dual purpose. They aimed, on one hand, to push the army out of its positions and, on the other, to obtain weapons and ammunition. A Lendu political leader and Congolese army officers describe the modern equipment and heavy weaponry carried away by the militiamen as spoils of war. On 20 February 2018, assailants identified by both civil and military authorities as Lendu killed two soldiers in Tche (Bahema-Nord) and Bakome (Walendu-Djatsi). As of then, attackers continued to set their sights on army and police positions. On 16 September, militiamen killed nine members of the armed forces in Muvaramu, Songamoya and Tara.
While between September 2018 and April 2019 the violence was steady but not intensive, from May to June 2019 Lendu militiamen started carrying out more large-scale attacks. On 10 June 2019, suspected Hema actors killed four Lendu traders on the road to the village of Bembu-Nizi, a predominantly Hema area. The Lendu immediately launched reprisals against nearby Hema villages, which they systematically burned down, killing the inhabitants. At the end of June, several sources reported 160 dead. The survivors fled. Since then, the conflict has been marked by a grave humanitarian crisis. At least 360,000 people have sought refuge in secure neighbouring areas of Djugu, in the nearby territories of Mahagi, Aru and Irumu, and in the provincial capital, Bunia. According to the witness testimony of several survivors, the attacks on Hema villages at the start of the crisis were carried out by young people who spoke Kilendu, the Lendu language, and most of them came from Lendu villages.
In response to these attacks, the army launched Operation Zaruba ya Ituri ("Ituri Storm" in Swahili) in June 2019, aimed at getting militias "out of the way", but it faced several challenges. The army liberated several areas, including Wago forest, the presumed sanctuary of Lendu militiamen, which it regained on 26 June 2019. While doing so, it dispersed the militiamen in an area under their control, where they benefit from the protection of certain members of their Lendu community. Subsequently, the militiamen were able to spread terror among civilian populations, including in internally displaced person (IDP) camps, and reoccupy localities from which they had been expelled. These military operations also rekindled tensions between the Hema and Lendu; the latter have a negative view of the military, which they consider to be the Hema's natural ally. Finally, army officers publicly accused the Lendu of colluding with local and foreign armed groups, further souring intercommunal relations.
During this same period, attacks spread beyond Djugu territory, affecting a vast geographical area that notably includes the neighbouring territories of Mahagi and Irumu, and also targeting the Alur community. On 16 July, suspected Lendu militiamen killed eight Alur in the Babulaba groupment in Irumu territory (south of Djugu), about 15km north of Bunia. They went on to kill two other members of this community on 17 July in the same region. On the same day, they also killed five people in the village of Soloya, in the same groupment. In the space of two weeks in September 2019, militiamen shot or decapitated dozens of victims in the territories of Djugu and Mahagi (north of Djugu) during six different attacks. On 18 September, an attack targeted an IDP camp near the temporary MONUSCO base in Roe. By the end of December 2019, at least 700 people had been killed and thousands of houses burned down.
In January 2020, after violence escalated in the neighbouring province of North Kivu, the army withdrew from its positions in Ituri, leaving the way open for Lendu militiamen to regain control of 22 villages in the chiefdoms of Bahema-Bajere and Bahema-Nord, in Djugu territory. They also took back two Mokambo chiefdom groupments in Mahagi territory and all of Walendu-Pitsi in Djugu.
IV. The Actors: Between Local Antagonisms and External Interference
For the most part, the violence spreading from Djugu territory is attributable to Lendu militiamen, some of whom came of age as part of the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (Front des Nationalistes Intégrationnistes, or FNI). The FNI is itself a former Lendu armed group based in the same territory, allied with the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (Force de Résistance Patriotique d'Ituri, or FRPI), a Lendu armed group based in Irumu, which took part in the Ituri war of 1999-2003.
At first, no one claimed responsibility for the attacks, but later, an association of militias called the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO) came forward. It then appeared that several small groups of assailants were in fact working independently, with no overarching command structure. Some of these different militias scattered across Ituri claim to be part of a different group, the Union of Revolutionaries for the Defence of the Congolese People (Union des Révolutionnaires pour la Défense du Peuple Congolais, or URPDC), and ask to be referred to by this name. But civil and military authorities as well as public opinion recognise no fundamental difference between CODECO and URPDC, considering the latter to be an extension of the former.
At the start of the latest conflict in Ituri, the identity of the attackers was difficult to confirm, even if everything pointed to a group of mostly Lendu youths, based in the Walendu-Pitsi sector. Authorities later named them as being part of CODECO, an association of militias. On 12 June 2019, eighteen months after the violence started, Congolese armed forces announced that they had identified the leader of this association, a certain "Ngudjolo". Several witnesses claim that CODECO helped mobilise Lendu youth with anti-Hema hate rhetoric. Similarly, its sanctuary in Wago forest reportedly served as a training base for the youths involved in the attacks. Governor Bamanisa himself designated the militias as Lendu: "At this stage, the perpetrators of this violence have been identified. They are Lendu militias based in Wago forest and led by a certain Justin Ngudjolo". In June 2019 on local radio, Ngudjolo declared himself leader of the "armed group of Wago forest", heading a force of 2,350, armed and trained to defend the Lendu population against the Hema.
Indeed, the links between CODECO and the militias responsible for the violence perpetrated during the Ituri war of 1999-2003 are now more evident. CODECO was founded in the 1970s by the late Bernard Kakado, with the aim of promoting agriculture in the chiefdom of Walendu-Bindi in Irumu territory. During the 1999-2003 war, Kakado organised a Lendu self-defence operation before joining the FRPI, while CODECO - as an agricultural cooperative - ceased to exist. At the war's end, the various ethnic militias did not completely dissolve; some, like the FNI and the FRPI, continued their activities and hid their weapons in the different communities. When militia attacks began in 2017, Lendu civilians in Djugu attributed the violence to "CODECO", suggesting a link to Kakado and the FRPI. But according to security forces, some of the Lendu attackers who fall under the authority of Ngudjolo and use the CODECO brand name have stronger ties to the FNI.
Although the militiamen have specific demands that have mobilised the Lendu for decades, it remains difficult to determine to what degree this community supports them. Their demands revolve around two major issues: the reclaiming of land allegedly taken by the Hema, and a refusal to accept foreign exploitation of local resources. That said, prominent Lendu figures denounce the violence. They claim that, far from being a local movement, the militias are the product of outside manipulation, in particular by Congolese politicians living in Kinshasa and Uganda. Finally, they point out that they never met with the aim of creating a militia, but rather to weaken CODECO, notably by dissuading young people from joining the movement and by advocating for dialogue as a means of ending the crisis. Thus, in a declaration signed on 18 October 2019 in Réthy, the members of the Lendu community encourage all Lendu to work toward peace.
From March 2020, Lendu militias suffered a series of setbacks on the ground but continued to put pressure on civilians. The army arrested several militiamen and others were killed, including Justin Ngudjolo himself on 27 March at Mokpa, in the Buba groupment in Djugu territory. As retaliation for Ngudjolo's murder by the army, however, in April Lendu militias intensified their attacks and regained control of several localities in the Djugu, Mahagi and Irumu territories. On 10 April, militiamen killed seventeen people in the village of Dhalla; on 13 April, they killed 28 people in two separate attacks on Ndoki-Koli and Dzathi, in the chiefdom of Bahema-Nord. On the same day, they attacked army and police positions in the locality of Mwanga, 10km from Bunia, killing at least five people, including three government soldiers and two police officers.
Following Ngudjolo's death, CODECO's organisational structure became opaque, and the group's degree of influence and control over other Lendu militias remains uncertain. Several factions are vying for CODECO leadership, including the URPDC, which has positioned itself as the prime candidate. This political and military movement, which was created on 19 September 2018 and spoke out on 28 January 2020 to claim responsibility for "guerrilla" actions in Djugu territory, rejects the names "CODECO" and "Ngudjolo armed group" as imposed by "third parties". Its objective is to unite all the ethnic militias active in the province, not only the Lendu.
B. Prominent Hema Figures
Faced with increasingly regular attacks from Lendu assailants, prominent Hema figures have chosen restraint. They try to dissuade young people from organising themselves into militias and counter-attacking, but they are not always able to avoid minor incidents such as the erection of barriers by Hema youth on Ituri roads, used to screen Lendu movements.
The return of Yves Mandro Kahwa Panga (known as "Chief Kahwa") to the DRC on 20 June 2019, after years of exile in Uganda, could presage a more serious threat. Former leader of the Hema militia Party for Unity and Safeguarding of the Integrity of Congo (Parti pour l'Unité et la Sauvegarde de l'Intégrité du Congo, or PUSIC), Kahwa is one of the deadliest warlords of the Ituri war. The government appears keen to involve him in the dialogue, given his ability to mobilise the Hema. Kahwa, one of former President Joseph Kabila's most virulent critics before the December 2018 election, does indeed have strong support from part of the community. He claims to have returned to support Tshisekedi in bringing peace to Ituri. For the time being, he has resumed his position as traditional chief and has engaged in a dialogue with a few Lendu leaders. But if the clashes continue, civil society figures in Bunia and MONUSCO representatives fear that he could reactivate his local network of warlords and fuel the conflict.
C. Close Ties with North Kivu
During the Second Congo War of 1998-2002, political and military movements from North Kivu established links with local militias in Ituri. These relations persisted after the war and continue to this day. The escalating violence in Ituri could once again attract violent actors from North Kivu, the epicentre of insecurity in the sub-region, to the detriment of security in the DRC. Some members of the Allied Democratic Forces, a Ugandan rebel group based in North Kivu, have already crossed into Ituri during the present tensions. If this trend continues, frictions between Uganda and Rwanda, which have historically supported different armed groups in the two provinces, are likely to grow. The two countries have recently accused each other of contributing to insecurity in North Kivu, and Rwandan officials denounce Uganda's involvement in the violence in Ituri, an allegation denied by Kampala.
In recent years, armed groups have moved between North Kivu and Ituri, heightening the concerns of provincial and national Congolese officials about the interactions between conflicts in the two provinces. These movements continue to this day, for example with the arrival of members of the Allied Democratic Forces in Mambasa territory, in Ituri. Even if Mambasa is not directly linked to the conflicts between the Hema and Lendu in Djugu, Congolese officials fear that these movements of armed groups herald the start of more widespread hostilities encompassing North Kivu and Ituri.
The movements of armed groups are accompanied by massive displacements of populations from North Kivu to Ituri, in particular a significant exodus of Hutu migrants (locally called Banyabwisha) after 2015. The Hutus' presence fuels tensions between the Hema and Lendu, who accuse each other of collaborating with them. A senior Congolese government official claims that the Banyabwisha are implicated both as military trainers of Lendu militiamen, and alongside the Hema, whom they help protect their herds from militiamen. In February 2018, a few Hutu were reportedly arrested alongside Lendu attackers by Congolese authorities, and another was lynched in Djugu by the population, who believed he was an assailant. On 22 June 2019, the Catholic bishop of Bunia spoke of the Banyabwisha presence in the territories of Irumu and Djugu as well as in the vicinity of Bunia as a factor likely to fuel violence. On 12 July 2019, the governor echoed this assessment.
Hutu migration also worsens tensions across the region and in North Kivu province. Some local authorities suspect the Banyabwisha to be part of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda militia (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, or FDLR), which is hostile to the Rwandan government and accused by Kigali of receiving Ugandan support. The migration of Hutu and possibly FDLR members from North Kivu to Ituri is also a contentious issue for the other large community in North Kivu, the Nande, many of whom are established in Ituri as traders and landowners. The Nande accuse Hutu migrants of participating in massacres in the Beni area of North Kivu.
These movements between the two provinces also contributed to the spread of Ebola in 2018 and, today, potentially to that of COVID-19, complicating not only measures to eradicate violence, but also the fight against the disease. On 27 March, the National Biomedical Research Institute of Kinshasa, responsible for managing the pandemic, announced the first COVID-19 case in the territory of Irumu, which shares its southern border with North Kivu. Other cases have since been recorded in the territories of Mahagi and Aru, north of Ituri. The province has only recently recovered from the Ebola epidemic that ravaged the territory of Mambasa, which borders Beni, the North Kivu territory that was an epicentre of that disease. In Beni, as in Ituri, the Ebola response was hindered by armed groups' attacks on the medical personnel in charge and their facilities. The epidemic reappeared in Beni on 10 April 2020, raising renewed concerns about a possible spread to Ituri.
Though Kampala closed the Ugandan border, and North Kivu is allowing only limited movement between provinces, COVID-19 could quickly spread throughout Ituri. CODECO attacks could deprive entire populations of aid due to the inaccessibility of certain areas and security constraints. The equipment available to help fight the coronavirus is also limited. As in almost all DRC regions, health infrastructure is inadequate or non-existent; in Ituri, it was destroyed by successive waves of violence. Displaced people live in overcrowded makeshift camps, in dreadful conditions, and many have to travel in search of food. Continued militia attacks could prevent most aid workers from reaching them and helping them protect themselves against COVID-19.
D. Rebel Networks Based Outside Ituri
Rwanda and Uganda both have historical ties to armed groups and rebellions in Ituri and North Kivu. Rwanda, which borders North Kivu, has had greater involvement there, while Uganda has played a bigger role in Ituri. Several Congolese actors who were active in previous Congo wars are involved in the conflict in Ituri and operate from Uganda.
Among these different actors, former members of the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Kisangani/Liberation Movement (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-Kisangani/Mouvement de Libération, or RCD-K/ML) play a leading role. During the 1998-2003 war, this predominantly Nande group, led by former rebel leader Mbusa Nyamwisi and supported by Uganda, controlled parts of North Kivu and Ituri. Some of its members are still based in Uganda, in plain view of the authorities, and maintain contact with armed groups active in North Kivu and Ituri. Tshisekedi's election and the return of Nyamwisi to the DRC after years of exile in Uganda have improved relations with Kinshasa, but some former RCD-K/ML rebels nevertheless express their disappointment with the new government. Opponents of Kabila, these former rebels believe that the former president's clan still dominates the power structure. Nyamwisi left the country once again when he realised, contrary to what he had hoped, that he would not obtain a position in the Tshisekedi government.
According to Congolese security services and representatives of armed groups based in Uganda, some members of the former M23 rebel movement established in Uganda are also involved in the Ituri attacks. In December 2017, when that violence flared up, armed elements - identified by Congolese authorities as ex-M23 members - allegedly infiltrated Walendu-Bindi (Irumu territory in Ituri) from the Kamango region in North Kivu via Tchabi, on the border of the two provinces. The movement of former M23 members across the Ugandan border into Aru and Djugu territories in Ituri in 2018 was confirmed by Congolese security officials, who also apprehended certain ex-M23 members as they infiltrated the Berunda forest in Ituri. The interrogations reportedly confirmed the existence of a recruitment network for former M23 members in Uganda.
At the same time, Rwandan intelligence services have accused Uganda of stoking violence in Ituri as part of a larger destabilisation plan that would affect North Kivu and ultimately Rwanda's security. Kampala has always denied these allegations, while it accuses Kigali of supporting the ADF in North Kivu, an accusation which Rwanda also rejects. While it is difficult at this stage to determine the scale of recruitment and exfiltration operations of former rebels toward Ituri, at the local level, certain political leaders and members of civil society remain convinced that links exist between the violence in Ituri and the involvement of external actors.
V. Stopping the Spiral of Violence
Restoring peace in the eastern DRC, including in Ituri, is a priority for President Tshisekedi. He travelled to Bunia on 30 June 2019, the country's Independence Day, to display his solidarity with the victims of violence. He promised to end the fighting. But the situation in the province remains fragile. The president should focus his efforts on disarming the CODECO militias and their allies, which would require more extensive dialogue with the Lendu and Hema communities, in particular regarding the conflict's underlying causes. He should also consult with neighbouring countries to ensure that militias and violent actors in Ituri are deprived of material and political support from outside the country.
A. Disarmament Negotiations
The government should pursue dialogue with the militias involved in the Ituri clashes in order to convince them to join reintegration programs that will facilitate their return to civilian life.
The government already initiated dialogue with CODECO in 2019, but civil society and prominent Hema figures urged the authorities to pursue legal proceedings in parallel. The provincial authorities and Justin Ngudjolo were in contact in September 2019, by means of a so-called pacification commission composed of the head of Walendu-Pitsi sector, a member of the association Liberation of the Oppressed Race in Ituri (LORI, bringing together members of the Lendu community), a women's delegate and a youth representative. Ngudjolo presented his conditions for surrender and a ceasefire, including amnesty and recognition of the militiamen's ranks within the army. At the same time, however, Governor Bamanisa published a list of CODECO officers and called for their arrest, a request widely supported by civil society and the Hema.
The military operations against the militias which began in June 2019 have shown their limits. Lendu attackers regained territory after most army units were redeployed in January 2020. They even intensified their attacks after the signature of a peace agreement between the national government and the FRPI Lendu militia in February 2020. After several years of negotiations, the FRPI militia - long active in Irumu territory south of Ituri - was finally granted the conditions that CODECO militiamen now demand: amnesty and integration into the national army.
Following Ngudjolo's death in late March 2020, his successor as head of CODECO, Olivier Ngabu Ngawi, held a press briefing at the provincial governor's office on 4 May. He called on combatants to stop fighting and asked the national army for a ceasefire to facilitate negotiations with Kinshasa. But not all CODECO militiamen heeded the new rebel leader's call for peace; attacks picked up pace, resulting in eleven deaths in a coordinated attack on 14 May in the territories of Djugu and Mahagi. It is too early to say whether negotiations could resume in the near future and under what conditions.
Paradoxically, the agreement with the FRPI could complicate negotiations with members of CODECO and other militias. Authorities are now less open to the idea of integrating Ituri militias into an army already saturated with former rebels and militiamen. Tshisekedi's challenge will be to convince the militias to agree to a surrender without offering them integration into the army. To do so, he will need the support of Ituri's Lendu community, which has already demonstrated its ability to bring CODECO to the table. Lendu backing would put pressure on the militias and encourage them to accept the only viable option: a return to civilian life.
With regard to amnesty, however, the government will have to offer militias the same conditions as those granted to the FRPI, notably selection on a case-by-case basis, excluding actors guilty of serious crimes who must be brought to justice. Tshisekedi will have to try to convince the Hema to support this process, despite their fundamental opposition to an amnesty.
To speed up this process, the president should both facilitate and finance the dialogue between the Hema and Lendu with the support of the Ituri deputies' caucus. The goal is to reach a broad consensus on disarmament methods and amnesty issues regarding CODECO and the other militias. MONUSCO has said it is ready to contribute to the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, which it sees as an important step in preparing for its withdrawal from the country, provided that this does not lead to impunity being granted to criminals.
B. Reintegration into Civilian Life
The main reason for the failure of previous DDR programs was the Congolese authorities' lack of political commitment and inability to resolve the problems underlying the violence. Authorities were reluctant to commit state funds to these programs, and some politicians continued to support a number of rebel groups, using them as auxiliary troops and deploying them back into the field. Furthermore, the programs never addressed the root causes of violence such as unequal access to land and the lack of economic opportunities for young people.
The government will have to formulate concrete proposals to ensure more lasting peace and to compensate the militiamen who are unlikely to obtain military posts. In particular, it should offer them economic opportunities to avoid the phenomenon of cyclical return, a "back-and-forth between civilian and militia life" which has characterised the eastern DRC for several years. To achieve this aim, DDR programs must rely on structures that can offer training adapted to the economic needs of demobilised militiamen. If they were confident that they could make a living in a non-violent manner, most militiamen would join the process. Before the COVID-19 epidemic, some donors were willing to finance such a process provided that the government actively contributed to it.
The government could also set up specific programs for populations distressed by years of violence. Psychological support and healing programs, both for perpetrators and victims, would help mitigate the trauma. Similar experiments seem to have paid off in other countries that have suffered calamity, including Sierra Leone after its 1991-2002 civil war and Liberia following its 2014 Ebola epidemic. Ituri could be a pilot province in the DRC, but these programs could then be expanded to other areas affected by violence.
C. Local and Provincial Dialogues
The negotiations initiated with militias by the provincial government of Ituri are only a first step toward ending the violence. They should be immediately followed by dialogue between local chiefs and other prominent figures in the areas most affected by the conflict in Djugu territory, the hotbed of the crisis, such as Walendu-Pitsi, Walendu-Tatsi, Bahema-Nord and Bahema-Banywagi. In particular, the provincial government should encourage chiefs to consult regularly to identify difficulties at the local level that tend to spark violence - such as land disputes and access to natural resources - and to propose prevention and security measures.
In addition, a dialogue encompassing all the Ituri communities - including those not directly involved in the current crisis - could tackle the province's problems comprehensively rather than limiting talks to Lendu-Hema disputes. This dialogue should focus on questions of management and allocation of public resources; without transparency and equity, these issues risk becoming a source of intercommunal conflict.
National authorities should allocate significant financial resources to help Ituri face these manifold challenges, particularly regarding community development and security. To this end, Kinshasa should mobilise its traditional bilateral partners, such as the U.S., the UK and France, as well as the World Bank, to contribute to a special fund for Ituri. The battle with COVID-19 will undoubtedly draw a large part of the available funds, but there is still a chance that restoring peace in Ituri will remain both a national and international priority.
D. A Constructive Role for Border Countries
In response to reciprocal accusations between neighbouring countries - notably Rwanda and Uganda - and to end the support these countries provide to cross-border armed groups, Tshisekedi should place regional diplomacy at the core of his strategy.
With this in mind, the Quadripartite Summit (Angola, the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda), which met for the first time in Luanda on 12 July 2019, can serve as a useful framework to ease tensions between Kampala and Kigali and defuse the situation in Ituri. Although informal and limited, this summit - initiated by Tshisekedi and his Angolan counterpart Lourenço - is part of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). This intergovernmental body composed of the region's states is one of the guarantors of the 2013 Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement. The Quadripartite Summit previously focused on bilateral tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, as well as on the role of armed groups in North Kivu. The two presidents, Tshisekedi and Lourenço, should now put the Ituri conflict on the agenda, and thus acknowledge its regional dimension.
As Crisis Group has previously recommended, the summit should marshal UN and Security Council member states' support to press Rwanda and Uganda to detail their respective allegations, replete with evidence, of material and political support to armed groups in the eastern DRC, including in Ituri. Subsequently, the UN Group of Experts on the DRC (mandated by the Security Council to investigate allegations of support for armed groups and to disclose evidence) could look into these claims, along with the ICGLR's Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (which has the same mandate at the regional level). These enquiries could help the mediators assisting in the summit to push Rwanda and Uganda to openly discuss their mutual accusations of support for armed groups in the eastern DRC, with a view to agreeing to end this support. The situation in Ituri should be debated during these discussions.
The conflict in Ituri, an area rich in natural resources where weapons and former warlords circulate, could lead to an escalation of violence. Since December 2017, the authorities and the local population have been concerned about this crisis, which could worsen and claim many lives. In addition, interactions with armed groups in North Kivu and the involvement of neighbouring countries raise fears that the crisis could spread. Tshisekedi has prioritised ending the violence in the eastern DRC, including the conflict in Ituri, whose resolution would be a boon for his presidency. To carry out this immense project, and finance it, he will need the support of the DRC's national and international partners as well as regional states.
Nairobi/Bunia/Kinshasa/Kampala/Brussels, 15 July 2020