The Democratic Republic of Congo: the scourged Ituri province

UN peacekeepers in Ituri province UN peacekeepers in Ituri province AFP/ S. Tounsi

30 September 2020

The DRC is a troubled country with rebel groups’ insurgencies, a corrupt government and the growing insecurity ensuing in Eastern Ituri province

 For several years, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which already suffers from a serious instability situation, has been the focus of national and foreign media attention, due to growing insecurity in the eastern province of Ituri.

The most recent news came about two attacks: Ituri’s province interior minister, Adjio Gidi, says 23 were killed in Irumu territory on Tuesday 8 September, followed by 35 on Thursday 10 September, for a total of 58 people overall. The minister attributed responsibility of the attacks to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). “It was ADF, fleeing military pressure in [neighbouring] North Kivu province, namely in Beni”, Mr. Gidi said.

But what is ADF? It is a Ugandan armed group operating in eastern DRC for more than 30 years, well-known for its attacks on poor civilians with knives and firearms. The United Nations (UN) says violence attributed to the ADF has soared since the start of the year, following the launch of a large-scale army campaign to wipe it out. It also said that ADF fighters have killed more than 1,000 civilians since the start of 2019. Several attacks attributed to the ADF have also been claimed by the Islamic State (IS) armed group, though researchers and analysts say there is a lack of striking proof that can support this affirmation. Furthermore, since the start of 2020, violence committed by a constellation of more than 100 armed groups has forced more than half a million people in the east of the country to flee their homes. In addition, the military and security forces are also reported to have committed gross violations of law, including killings and sexual violence, as reported by the UN.

Focusing for a moment on rebel groups and the alleged relationship between ADF and IS, as reported by The Washington Post, we cannot be sure about it: in its article, the journalist explained that a wide narrative has been constructed by national and international news media, the Congolese government and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, to blame all the fault on the rebel movement. Of course, the rebel group have carried out a substantial proportion of the attacks for strategic or retaliatory reasons; yet, indeed, research institutes, journalists and other close observers of the situation in Beni suggest that other armed groups and government forces are also involved in the violence. As further noticed by The Washington Post, the narrative that ADF, Congo’s only Islamist rebel group, is the sole perpetrator of violence in Beni, has evolved alongside a parallel story – that ADF is linked to or is part of the Islamic State, as mentioned before. Similarly, the Islamic State has even claimed responsibility for some attacks on the Congolese army in Beni, but once more, a June report from the U.N’s Security Council’s Group of Experts on DRC found no direct evidence of substantial links between ADF and IS. Further they stated that claimed attacks by the group did not fully match events on the ground. Moreover, as the Group of Experts pointed out, ADF continues to use crude improvised explosive devices, which are different from the advanced bombs made and used by the Islamic State. But why, then, does The Washington Post continue noticing, for years, international media coverage and activism by several local and international organizations have amplified the narrative of ADF as an Islamic State affiliate? This posture further encourages the diversion of attention from the need for better information about the full story behind this violence. Misidentifying the perpetrators or ignoring their collaborators may ignore the local conflicts, elite competition, and economic racketeering that have been key drivers of earlier waves of violence, as we’ll see later, and leave unaddressed the root causes of violence. And indeed, an example of those other important factors may just be that of government-run demobilisation camps, like the one (of many) present in Ituri province, where hundreds of militiamen arrived in January, only for deserting it a few weeks later, with their children and wives, citing hunger, dismal conditions and broken promises by local authorities. As a result, violence is now peaking again in a province where more than 1.2 million people have already been displaced by a two-year conflict that has divided communities and revived memories of past wars that rank among Congo’s bloodiest. One of the root causes of conflict in this area is the long-time divide between the region’s marginalised ethnic Lendu and Hema community, who hold much of Ituri’s economic power. As reported by The New Humanitarian, the recent violence appears linked to the killing of CODECO’s (a rebel group) self-described leader Justin Ngudjolo last month. This triggered an internal power struggle within the group, now scattered across Ituri’s vast countryside. But at the same time, the violence also highlights the continued absence of an effective process to disarm fighters in Congo and help them build new lives as civilians.

Rich in natural resources, Ituri has been the theatre of some of Congo’s worst fighting. Tens of thousands died between 1999 and 2007 after a power struggle between rebel groups devolved into ethnic violence – much of it, once more, between the Hema and Lendu. After a decade of relative peace, conflict started again in late 2017 when hundreds of mostly Hema civilians were killed in waves of attacks that caught residents off guard and overwhelmed local authorities and aid agencies alike. CODECO entered talks with the government last September to begin a process known as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR). The negotiations afforded civilians some rare respite. But as the process lagged, a group of disaffected CODECO fighters formed a splinter group known locally as Sambaza, or “to scatter”, and violence against civilians resumed. Among the remaining combatants, several hundred entered a run-down transit centre with their families in early January – but left a few weeks later carrying the same weapons they arrived with. “Terrible” conditions and food shortages were the reason for them to leave, said Xavier Kisembo, the director of Justice Plus, an Ituri-based rights group. Others said fighters resented perks given to another Ituri armed group undergoing demobilization, the FRPI. Similar problems, as noted by The New Humanitarian, have plagued past DDR initiatives in Congo, with many combatants failing to complete the process, and some dying of starvation and disease while waiting. Dissatisfied with civilian life, or spurred into action by new conflicts, those who disarm often remobilise. Provincial governors recently launched a new DDR initiative – the national program fizzled away as international donors pulled out – but a common framework is still needed to steer efforts, UN officials said, as is central government funding, clearly lacking in many demobilization sites.


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Author: Pasquale Candela; Editor: Shrabya Ghimire

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