'The Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) should not be tampered with,' the Southern African Development Community (SADC) insisted at its annual summit on Monday this week. It said this was the message it sent to United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres in response to UN Security Council proposals that the force be reconfigured.
The FIB is a special component of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) - the UN's peacekeeping mission there. It has a more robust mandate than the rest of MONUSCO, to enable it to mount offensive operations against the myriad rebel groups that make the lives of those living in the eastern DRC miserable.
The FIB was set up in 2013, consisting of battalions from three SADC member states - Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi. Initially it focused on eliminating the threat posed by the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels in eastern DRC. M23 had got as far as capturing Goma, the North Kivu province capital, the year before.
The FIB defeated M23 but since then its mission and operations have drifted. It never seemed to really engage with the next rebel group on its to-do list, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). And then, after several skirmishes with lesser rebel groups, from 2017, the FIB came up against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). This rebel outfit was originally from Uganda and is supposedly now affiliated to Islamic State.
It is against the ADF that the FIB has had its bloodiest battles. On 7 December 2017, 14 Tanzanian peacekeepers were killed and over 50 injured in a large ADF attack on a MONUSCO base in Beni territory, North Kivu.
On 3 September 2018 in another ADF attack in Beni, two South African troops were wounded. And then on 14 November 2018 a combined offensive by the FIB and the DRC army went badly wrong and six Malawian soldiers and one Tanzanian were killed. A further eight Malawian troops were reported wounded and several missing.
This last, costly battle seems to have changed the FIB mandate, de facto though not de jure. The FIB has since played a different role, more in support of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) than in active combat. It has been conducting joint planning, strategising and patrols and sharing intelligence with FARDC, but has left the fighting to the Congolese.
At the UN Security Council the United States (US) seems to be leading the charge to reconfigure the FIB, as part of its mission to cut peacekeeping costs. The US takes the view that after the peaceful - though few would say democratic - 2018 elections, MONUSCO should start winding down its operations.
When the UN downsized MONUSCO to 16 215 troops in 2017, however, SADC objected that the 'FIB is not to be tampered with in the force reduction.' The core FIB remained largely intact though it lost some backup strength, including the effective close air support from South Africa's Rooivalk attack helicopters which were instrumental in defeating the M23.
But now, SADC officials told ISS Today this week, the UN Security Council wants to reconfigure the force by replacing one of its three SADC battalions with one comprising non-SADC troops. SADC objects, partly because it says it wasn't consulted.
An official recalled that the FIB had originally gone into the eastern DRC 'to rescue a situation which MONUSCO was unable or unwilling to address.' This was clearly a reference to the embarrassing fiasco when MONUSCO troops stood by helplessly as M23 took Goma.
Now, this official seemed to be suggesting, the UN was effectively planning to transform the FIB into just another unit of the not very effective MONUSCO. Already in 2017, a SADC assessment mission sent to the DRC complained that MONUSCO was allowing the FIB 'to be bogged down by undertaking traditional peacekeeping roles.' And that was in a MONUSCO where the non-FIB components 'are not engaging even in defensive operations,' SADC said.
In 2013 the FIB injected dynamic new purpose into MONUSCO and raised hopes that it could help the DRC's military restore peace to the chronically violent and unstable east. But now much of that hope has faded. The labels, affiliations and perhaps objectives of the rebel groups have changed over the years but the brutal persecution of the local people seems to have worsened.
'Between January and June 2020, fighters of armed groups were responsible for the summary executions or arbitrary killings of at least 1 315 people, three times more than in the same period in 2019,' the UN Joint Human Rights Office said about eastern DRC.
The Congo Research Group has plotted a steadily rising civilian death toll exacted by the ADF since June 2017, spiking in November 2019 when it killed about 120 people. The 2019 attack was apparently in retaliation against a big FARDC operation conducted against its bases - without FIB support.
These massacres have provoked vehement civilian protests in eastern DRC, with much of the anger directed at MONUSCO for failing to curb the killings. And M23 seems to be making a comeback.
If the FIB has, de facto if not de jure, lost its original mandate to aggressively go after rebel groups, why is SADC so insistent on maintaining its special SADC character? For, in effect, it seems that the FIB has become what SADC insisted it shouldn't - just another element of MONUSCO. UN sources suggest that some SADC countries in the FIB are really more worried about losing the money the UN pays them for contributing troops.
What seems to be needed here is not so much an insistence on the FIB remaining an all-SADC operation, but that it fully regains its original mission and purpose.
Which was, according to UN Security Council Resolution 2098 that established the FIB, to 'carry out targeted offensive operations ... either unilaterally or jointly with the FARDC, in a robust, highly mobile and versatile manner ... [to] prevent the expansion of all armed groups, neutralize these groups, and disarm them in order to contribute to the objective of reducing the threat posed by armed groups on state authority and civilian security in eastern DRC and to make space for stabilization activities.'
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant