January 24, 2019, is an important day in the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) because it marks the date of the first peaceful handing over of power by an outgoing president to an incoming president. For Congolese citizens, this nonviolent transfer of power raised hopes for peace and improved livelihoods after decades of violence and misery. Several electoral promises contributed to the election of President Félix Tshisekedi. Perhaps the most popular promise to the suffering people of the eastern DRC was to end insecurity and violence. Soon after his election, he reiterated that “peace will be restored in the east and in all parts of the national territory. The strategy put in place will undoubtedly lead to this result. I firmly believe that.”1Belga, “Félix Tshisekedi, president de la RDC: ‘La paix sera restaurée dans l’est et dans tout le pays,’” RTBF, January 1, 2020, https://www.rtbf.be/info/monde/detail_felix-tshisekedi-president-de-la-rdc-la-paix-sera-restauree-dans-l-est-et-dans-tout-le-pays?id=10398407. Quote translated by author. Driven by multiple armed and insurgent groups, the conflict has resulted in a death toll of over six million people and the displacement of many others. Two years into President Tshisekedi’s administration, people continue to go through harrowing experiences in the conflict zones of the eastern DRC.

This essay is a reflection on the persistence of the cycle of armed conflicts in the eastern DRC even after President Tshisekedi took office in early 2019. It argues that the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) have failed to defend the country due to a lack of discipline, corruption, and inadequate resources. It also shows how the exacerbation of endogenous and exogenous factors continues to fuel violence and armed conflict in the region.

Armed conflicts are not new to the DRC, as they started almost immediately after the country’s independence from Belgium on June 30, 1960. As far back as 1964, Pierre Mulele’s rebellion in Kwilu region was violently crushed. Three years later in 1967, the Jean Schramme-led uprising against Mobutu, involving attacks on Katanga province as well as in Kisangani, Kindu, and Bukavu, was similarly defeated. Since Laurent Kabila’s Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) successfully carried out a rebellion to oust Mobutu in 1996, the eastern DRC has not known peace. Among other factors, the conflict has been driven by certain foreign powers and neighboring states seeking access to and control over the abundant mineral wealth of the region. Such actors have operated through local proxies and provided them with resources and tactical support, fueling the proliferation of armed groups.2Filip Reyntjens, The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996–2006 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

One of the strategies used for demobilizing armed militias has been to integrate those willing to accept peace into the FARDC.3Judith Verweijen and Claude Iguma Wakenge, Understanding Armed Group Proliferation in the Eastern Congo, Usalama Project briefing (London, Rift Valley Institute, 2015), http://riftvalley.net/publication/understanding-armed-group-proliferation-eastern-congo. However, some of the ex-rebels who have become generals in the FARDC as a result of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs have reportedly been engaged in perpetuating insecurity and human rights abuses.4Bart Klem and Pyt Douma, The Struggle after Combat: The Role of NGOs in DDR Processes: Synthesis Study (The Hague, Netherlands: Cordaid, 2008), https://www.cordaid.org/en/publications/struggle-after-combat-role-ngos-ddr-processes-synthesis-study/. Meanwhile, some armed groups and militias have continued to occupy and exploit resource-rich territories and have used this as leverage to pressure the government into giving them higher positions in the army or administration while overlooking their excesses, including involvement in human rights violations. Members of armed groups who are excluded from the sharing of the spoils or government patronage often leave to form new groups, take up arms against the government, seize control of mineral-rich areas, and terrorize local communities. In 2019 and 2020, the activities of over 130 armed groups in North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri resulted in the death, abduction, or displacement of thousands of people.5Human Rights Watch, “Democratic Republic of Congo: Events of 2019,” Human Rights Watch World Report 2020, accessed March 27, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/democratic-republic-congo#.

Another source of insecurity is the high level of armed robbery that has become endemic in most towns and cities in the eastern DRC, where the authorities lack the capacity to protect the populace. For example, in May 2020, the military prosecutor’s office in North Kivu announced investigations into rampant cases of armed robbery and assassination in the cities of Beni and Butembo.6“Nord-Kivu: début des enquêtes sur les cas de vol à mains armées et assassinat à Beni et Butembo,” Radio Okapi, May 12, 2020, https://www.radiookapi.net/2020/05/12/actualite/securite/nord-kivu-debut-des-enquetes-sur-les-cas-de-vol-mains-armees-et. In Bukavu, the level of insecurity is so high that most inhabitants have experienced armed robberies and hear reports of assassinations daily.7Michel Thill, A System of Insecurity: Understanding Urban Violence and Crime in Bukavu, Usalama Project report (London: Rift Valley Institute, 2019), http://riftvalley.net/publication/system-insecurity-understanding-urban-violence-and-crime-bukavu.

Youth organizations in the region are demanding effective, locally based civil protection mechanisms, while also requesting an end to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) after twenty-two years of existence. Unfortunately, many activists, including those from Struggle for Change (LUCHA), have been detained without trial. Even though Human Rights Watch applauded President Tshisekedi for freeing political prisoners and allowing the return of those in exile, the subsequent increase in human rights violations and abuses has raised fears that the new administration would follow in the footsteps of its predecessor.8DR Congo: Repression Escalates,” Human Rights Watch, January 28, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/01/28/dr-congo-repression-escalates. The number of violations and abuses, which have been committed by several actors including state security forces, militiamen, and rebels, increased by an estimated 21 percent between 2019 and 2020.9Jean-Jacques Wondo, “What Is the Assessment of the Tshisekedi Presidency, Two Years after Coming to Power?,” AFRIDESK, February 3, 2021, https://desc-wondo.org/en/what-is-the-assessment-of-the-tshisekedi-presidency-two-years-after-coming-to-power-jj-wondo/.

President Tshisekedi’s promise to dismantle armed groups and halt the cycle of insecurity in the eastern region of the DRC was applauded within and outside the country. However, given the exacerbation of violence in the eastern DRC since he took office, it is becoming obvious that the president did not take the complexity of the region’s armed conflicts fully into consideration at the time the promise was made. His regime has so far failed to provide the state with the resources and capacity needed to effectively address the sources of insecurity in eastern DRC. Security forces lack adequate logistics and appropriately trained and highly motivated troops. The monthly salary of soldiers in the FARDC ranges from a meagre CDF 171,500 to CDF 248,209 (the equivalent of US$87 to US$125).10Wondo, “Assessment.” Poor wages in the national army continue to provide a fertile ground for corruption, impunity, and treason. Soldiers seek to supplement their low wages and meet their personal and family obligations by engaging in corrupt activities that tend to undermine their roles as providers of protection to the populace and country. A 2015 United Nations report noted that some members of the FARDC were arrested for working in complicity with the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) armed group. They allegedly, among other offenses, killed fifteen civilians.11Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office on International Humanitarian Law Violations Committed by Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) Combatants in the Territory of Beni, North Kivu Province, between 1 October and 31 December 2014, May 2015, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/CD/ReportMonusco_OHCHR_May2015_EN.pdf. This collusion is the result of existing collaboration with the ADF for the illegal exploitation of natural resources. The Kivu Security Tracker confirms that “some commanders become businessmen” and that “there are more than twelve army generals (in the Beni region), but the population continues to be massacred.”12Eric Topona, “Les liens entre des officiers de l’armée congolaise et les rebelles ADF,” Deutsche Welle, December 16, 2019, https://www.dw.com/fr/les-liens-entre-des-officiers-de-larm%C3%A9e-congolaise-et-les-rebelles-adf/a-51648751. Quote translated by author. It is evident that such army officers have no interest in ending the violence. To further compound the problem, the justice system is weak and suffers from severe limitations when it comes to discouraging or penalizing such abuses.

Apart from the limited capacity of the justice system, diplomacy offers another pragmatic alternative for addressing the security challenges in eastern DRC. Yet the diplomatic approach has not proved to be effective in stemming the tide of violence. After their invasion of the DRC in 1996 and 1998, neighboring countries, including Rwanda and Uganda, supported the formation of armed groups that have either splintered into many insurgent militias or continued to operate in different forms. Some have argued that the aim of these neighboring states was to perpetuate conditions of instability that would allow them easier access to and control of minerals and other natural resources in the region.13Bob Barry, “Le role trouble des voisins de la RDC dans la guerre dans l’est du pays,” Deutsche Welle, December 17, 2019, https://www.dw.com/fr/le-r%C3%B4le-trouble-des-voisins-de-la-rdc-dans-la-guerre-dans-lest-du-pays/a-51712502. However, despite the current head of state’s numerous trips abroad aimed at strengthening diplomatic ties and drumming up support for peace in the country, reports indicate that several other foreign armies have entered the DRC.14“RDC: des incursions d’au moins six armées étrangères depuis le début de l’année 2020,” RFI, July 8, 2020, https://www.rfi.fr/fr/afrique/20200708-rdc-incursions-dau-moins-six-arm%C3%A9es-%C3%A9trang%C3%A8res-depuis-le-d%C3%A9but-lann%C3%A9e-2020.

President Tshisekedi’s attention seems to be divided between consolidating power in the form of a coalition with the former president, Joseph Kabila, and delivering on electoral promises. In the current 500-seat parliament, the former president’s allies hold a majority, with over 300 seats. This situation can only lead to mixed outcomes at best, as it hampers the implementation of the reforms announced by Tshisekedi. Does Tshisekedi’s appointment of a new prime minister following the resignation of the coalition government signify the onset of a new direction for his administration? A positive answer to this concern depends on how proactive and strategic the incoming government will be in providing an adequate and sustained response to the prolonged instability. The remaining three years of Tshisekedi’s mandate may restore the marred image and popularity of the man of le peuple d’abord (the people first). Optimal resource mobilization focused on the improvement of livelihoods coupled with a strengthened diplomatic presence will help ameliorate the socioeconomic conditions and inequities that provide a fertile breeding ground for violence. Improved wages will also boost the morale of security forces and reduce their vulnerability to corruption. A strong and independent justice system that is capable of penalizing human rights abuses will go a long way in reducing the insecurity that poses a serious threat to peace and development in the DRC.

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