Guerrillas in the Congo’s Midst: What is General Nkunda up to?
With the sharp increase in fighting and displacement in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has been identified as the key player in the current crisis. Greg Mills met the General earlier this year and argues that the problem lies much deeper in Congo’s unresolved governance deficit, leading to the prevalence of armed groups who aim to secure the rights and security of its many minorities.
By Dr Greg Mills, RUSI Council Member and chairman of RUSI's Research Committee.
Six months ago I travelled to visit Laurent Nkunda in his headquarters in the wild and high Masisi territory of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I wanted to hear why the rebel general thought it necessary to continue to wage war. Today Nkunda’s forces are threatening to capture the provincial town of Goma after routing government troops.
En route from Kigali to Gisenyi, the Rwandan town bordering on Goma, town after town had groups of soldiers patrolling along their main road, their camouflage uniforms picked up in the car’s headlights. ‘It’s like this every night’, explained my colleague earlier this year, ‘it is the cost of living close to the Congo.’
Fourteen years ago the remnants of those responsible for the Rwanda genocide fled into what was then Zaire. About 8,000 remain there today, grouped into the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), occupying a chunk of the Walikale territory in North Kivu where Congolese Tutsi among others have become a proxy-target for their schemes to one day again capture Kigali.
This partly explains why war continues to rage in the Congo.
Mobutu Sese Seko was removed from power in Kinshasa in May 1997 by a (largely) Tutsi-inspired force wanting to put an end to his misrule which had allowed the Rwandan genocidaires to set up camp in Zaire and operate there with relative impunity. His installed successor, the onetime revolutionary colleague of Ché Guevara, Laurent Kabila, proved little better. He soon turned against his Rwandan and Ugandan sponsors as he tried to reverse notions he was simply a foreign stooge and cement his Congo support base, showing little heart and plenty of darkness as he went easy on the genocidaires.
After Kabila senior was assassinated by his bodyguard in January 2001, his son and successor, Joseph, toed his father’s line. Well before the first-ever democratic elections in October 2006 won by Kabila there were rumblings in the jungle to Congo’s east.
This is about the time and place where General Laurent Nkunda comes into the frame.
A native of North Kivu, Nkunda had abandoned his psychology studies to join the Rwanda Patriotic Front in 1990. After the RPF seized power and stopping the genocide in Rwanda in July 1994, as an officer of the Alliance for Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), Nkunda was part of the invading force which so quickly toppled Mobutu. By 2003 he was a Congolese brigadier-general, the regional commander in Goma, the capital of North Kivu. He left in disagreement when he says he saw the three key issues for Tutsi security – the right of return of dispossessed Congolese Tutsi, the safeguarding of their national identity, and the disarmament of the genocidaires – not being handled properly.
Today Nkunda is viewed by many as an international outlaw, the leader of the National Congress for the Defence of the Congolese People (CNDP), a broad anti-government front purportedly pursuing the defence of minority tribes in the Kivus. Controlling an area claimed to be ‘half the size of Uganda’, the CNDP has refused to disarm and integrate its 8,000 (or so) troops into the government’s 135,000-strong Forces Armées de la Republic Democratic du Congo (FARDC). The Congolese government has issued an arrest warrant for Nkunda on charges of insurrection, war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to his role in the suppression of an army mutiny in Kisangani in May 2002 and the Bukavu incident in June 2004.
Such obduracy has pitted Nkunda and his men against more than Kinshasa. The UN is leading the world’s largest current peacekeeping mission in the Congo, with over 19,000 UN military and civilian peacekeepers in the Central African nation at an annual cost of US$1.15 billion. Despite a UN arms embargo and targeted personal sanctions against him, the 20,000 FARDC troops deployed against Nkunda have so far failed to defeat the renegade general. He and his men have a cause for which they are clearly willing to fight that bit harder than the FARDC.
A tentative cease-fire signed this January allowed the first-hand visit through government lines to Nkunda’s HQ.
At first, AK47-toting government troops, would not allow us through the peage, a single poll across the road, in Sake outside Goma. After much haggling and several phone calls to mon general in Kinshasa and mon colonel in nearby Goma, our jeep was able to break free of the gathering crowd, their bloodshot eyes habitually flicking over the vehicle’s contents, and head off through the demilitarised buffer zone and up into the hills.
The General was to be found in the town of Kitchanga, at the end of a four-hour backbreaking ride over some of Africa’s worst roads. A slushy earth track climbed through the forest, breaking through the rain and mist into green meadows spotted with grazing cattle. We could have been in England, save the omni-present, camouflage-bedecked, stoic-faced troops en route, the shoeless snotty-nosed, pot-bellied small children splashing in puddles, and men and women, young and old, hauling enormous loads carried by a rope slung around their foreheads. As we progressed, avoiding four-ton trucks heaving with charcoal bags and sheltering human bodies slipping and sliding their way down the mountain-sides, the slush giving way to a corrugated volcanic topping bisecting bright green jungle.
We waited in a non-descript, functional wooden house replete with an Oxfam-sponsored outhouse for the General to arrive. The pink-draped wooden furniture and concrete floor spoke of a certain if humble privilege in a town where ramshackle reed huts were de rigeur. The General’s arrival was announced by the entry of a rail-thin, tall soldier carrying a grenade launcher. He snapped a quick salute, presumably not to me. His smart appearance and professional manner contrasted with the earlier FARDC encounter. Outside were several more, two unsmiling types carrying belt-fed machine-guns and looking a little more than purposeful.
Enter the General. Dressed in a dark three-piece suit carrying a large cane with a silver-eagle as its handle, he was less Fidel Castro than Wesley Snipes. His affectations display the wear and tear of his being at war for nearly two decades. But he denies waging war for war’s sake.
After he left his post in the army, Nkunda recounts that he ‘organised an intervention’ against killings of local Tutsi, Banyamulenge, in Bukavau in South Kivu in 2004. ‘For me it seemed like another genocide’, he says. ‘For me to sit and do nothing and to watch the FARDC and FDLR co-operate would be to betray the blood of my Rwandan brothers.’ And so the Nkunda legend was born.
‘The elected government is the one which is causing this suffering today’, he argues that this was, ‘allowed by its support for foreign armed groups. This is unacceptable.’ But it is not only about his Tutsi people. ‘There are plenty of other tribes suffering – Bachi, Hundi, Hema, and others. Kitchanga, right here,’ he says, ‘has grown from a town of 6,000 in 1993 to more than 40,000 today as a result of the activities of these militia organisations and the numbers of IDPs [internally-displaced people]. Lots of other areas of the country are also suffering.’ The orange and white plastic-sheeted IDP huts dotted on the hillside during the journey were evidence of this.
There seems to be little likelihood now, as then, of Nkunda backing down without government acting decisively against the genocidaires. In that case, the fragile peace is unlikely to hold. While government has spoken of the CNDP’s military defeat, CNDP supporters talk of taking the fight to Goma ‘to ensure the government and the UN cannot use planes against us.’
Nkunda sees the UN as part of the problem since it is working with the government and thus, by implication, the FDLR against him. ‘We do not expect anything from the UN which is like a club of state chiefs – they have come to support the government and not protect the population.’ While some portray the General as a psychotic, bloodthirsty war criminal, what he is asking from the international community is not unreasonable: pressure on Kabila’s Kinshasa to disarm the FDLR. Unless Kabila does this, he says ‘the UN will always be in the Congo.’ And not only would he be willing to join with the government to deal with the FARDC, but he threatens, ‘we will do it with or without them. It’s our major mission.’
A failure to deal with the FDLR – and by extension Nkunda’s CNDP and the other militias in the area – will probably only perpetuate the prevailing climate of impunity which has led to the displacement of 450,000 people since 2006. And curbing the FDLR should probably go hand-in-hand with a regional process to encourage its cadres – some of whom are apparently too young to have participated in the genocide – to Rwanda, even if it is to face the music.
If the FDLR is successfully dealt with, then the 40-year old father of six says he would like to complete his psychology studies and rejoin the national military. ‘The most important thing to give our people is to liberate and educate them. I want to be an instructor to help change and professionalise the Congolese army.’ He may first have to answer to the charges against him, however, if he is to clear his name and follow his dreams.
My Goma contact was getting quite anxious by the time we finally got back into cell-phone range as we splashed our way down the mountain, the rain now coming down in the white sheets illuminated by the cars headlamps. ‘Anything can happen in the Congo, you know’, he spluttered, ‘It is never safe, even with a cease-fire.’ It is even less safe today as refugees flee the fighting and diplomats scurry to once more make peace.
There is no doubt that the UN has failed to carry out its mandate. As calls mount to send more troops, it is fair to ask what those already there have been are today doing to alleviate the crisis? Being a UN soldier should involve more than picking up a per diem and showing the blue beret, especially given MONUC is a Chapter Seven peacekeeping mission authorised ‘to take the necessary action’ to protect itself and ‘civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.’ UN troops have not been able to deliver security by, for example, acting decisively against the FDLR since they lack the special soldiering skills, fighting intent, numbers and mandate to do so.
Nkunda’s own materiel reflects other failures and unintended consequences. The Congolese army, which has proven considerably more dangerous to Congolese citizens than Nkunda’s troops, is a ready source of ammunition and arms. Government FARDC troops remain weak, lacking not only the will to fight Nkunda’s outfit, but also to act against the comparatively well-equipped, organised and motivated FDLR, traditionally Kinshasa’s ally against the threat posed by Nkunda. While critics allege that Rwanda is supplying Nkunda, it is more likely that the demobilisation programmes of the Rwandan army – which has seen that force shed 60,000 soldiers over the past decade – is providing a steady source of private recruits, many of them native Congolese fighting on the Rwanda side during the wars against Mobutu and Kabila senior.
But such factors are more symptoms than direct causes of the conflict.
Fundamentally, the presence of armed groups, including Nkunda’s, which are not under government control, indicates a bigger problem for the Congo – the extension of governance and authority countrywide. One thousand Congolese are estimated to die each day from war and poverty, effects of this governance deficit. For all of its obvious natural resource riches, will Kinshasa one day be able exercise its rights and responsibilities across a territory one-quarter the size of the US that today lacks the physical infrastructure and primordial social and political ties necessary to bind it together?
The answer to the puzzle is not to expect the Congo to operate as a state so long as Kinshasa attempts to control things from the centre. Mobutu’s solution was essentially to run the country by both running it down, using state resources to fund patronage, and to keep it dislocated by never building the infrastructure and other services that would have enabled it to communicate over its vast expanse. The same mentality pervades today. Kinshasa has continuously seen anything that goes on in the periphery as a threat to its authority – and has continuously undermined any attempts at development in the provinces. As such it has until now been in Joseph Kabila’s interests to keep both the FDLR and Nkunda’s army alive as strong, stable and united Kivus could pose a threat to his centralised rule. All this while Kabila has sought to bolster his weak position not by ensuring better government but through marginalising rivals from the now indicted warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba to political veteran Étienne Tshisekedi.
Disarmament, pacification, demobilisation and repatriation/reintegration programmes of the various militaries could help to dilute the extent of the security threat to the civilian population. But this will require holding Kabila to task over the FDLR, removing the fig-leaf of respectability to his indecision and weakness in filling the vacuum with UN troops. But it will require more than a new style but a new system of government with the practice and not just the polemic of federal decentralisation at its core.
The West thinks too simply about the Congo. It should not spend its effort on trying to bolster Kinshasa’s rule, but rather encouraging it to decentralise government. To do otherwise only perpetuates the lie that the Congo’s vast territory can be governed by one state.
In the short-term, it is not in General Nkunda’s best interest to capture Goma. Not only would he then have to devote resources to running something his movement does not need – akin to the dog finally catching the tyre – but he would deflect attention away from his cause: the importance of finding an inclusive solution to Congo’s inherent problems of weak statehood and the rights and security of its many minorities.
Dr Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, and was on secondment in Rwanda as the president’s strategic adviser from January-August 2008.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.