A “Deal with the Devil” in the Heart of the Great Lakes @CrisisGroup @SEMATUMBA & @nicodelaunay
Scattered laughter breaks through the patter of Congolese rumba at Inbox, a restaurant in the centre of Beni, a major town in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North Kivu province.
I make some small talk, too, amid the hubbub, but then the conversation turns serious.
The man I’m speaking to, a member of the local administration and a long-time contact of mine, looks down at the plastic table between us, contemplates his beer and grimaces lightly. I have just asked him a “ticklish” question.
The date is 13 December 2021. For the last fortnight, and with Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi’s approval, the Ugandan army has deployed to the countryside around Beni to fight the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist militia originally from Uganda but based in the DRC’s east for many years.
The Ugandan army’s intervention is a direct response to a triple bombing on 16 November 2021 in Uganda’s capital Kampala, which was attributed to the ADF.
Uganda may also be looking to secure its economic interests in Congo – notably the construction of a road that will eventually link Ugandan border towns to Beni, Butembo and Goma in North Kivu, which should boost trade between the two countries.
Uganda strengthened its deployment from 1,700 to more than 4,000 troops in the first few months, extending their range to the northern province of Ituri this past February.
For Kinshasa, its neighbour’s military support is a boon. The “rapid and robust” response to insecurity in the country’s east that Tshisekedi promised when he assumed office in January 2019 has so far yielded mixed results.
Despite the rosy projections in Kinshasa and Kampala, the Ugandan deployment in the eastern DRC is far from straightforward.
Uganda has a fraught history with North Kivu and, farther north, Ituri. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Ugandan armed forces occupied large parts of these two provinces, engaging in looting, murder and rape, and leaving painful memories among the people.
On 9 February, the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest judicial body, ordered Uganda to pay $325 million to the DRC in damages.
Cocoa, which transits mainly through Uganda before being exported outside the African continent for processing, is an integral part of the war economy that has developed around the Great Lakes region’s natural resources.
“There is gold in Bunia, coltan in Masisi, cassiterite in Walikale, and then there is cocoa in and around Beni”, says Christophe, a farmer who used to grow the plant in Mbau, north of Beni, before armed groups forced him out of his fields.
“Unfortunately, the same thing often happens”, he explains. “We work hard to grow cocoa and then the ADF come and take over our crops at harvest time”.
“Whenever we produce a lot of cocoa, the massacres increase”, adds a woman farmer we meet in Kipriani, a neighbourhood in northern Beni.
Onesphore, who was born in the eastern DRC, sums up the fragility of life here with his usual sense of humour. “We have a saying here: ‘Life expectancy is 24 hours, renewable each day’”.
The most common estimates hold that armed conflict in the eastern DRC and the related humanitarian crises have resulted in some 6 million deaths since 1998.
First, in May 2021, he declared a state of siege in North Kivu and Ituri, the two provinces most affected by the violence. Then, from 30 November 2021, he agreed to military cooperation with Uganda.
Since Kampala received authorisation to deploy its forces, the Burundian army has entered South Kivu to hunt down rebels from the Burundian RED-Tabara group.
Last February, Rwandan President Paul Kagame raised the possibility of sending his country’s troops to the DRC to fight the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, FDLR), a remnant of the Rwandan Hutu militia that massacred much of the Tutsi minority and many moderate Hutu during the 1994 genocide.
Kagame justified his talk of intervention with allegations of links between the FDLR and the ADF.
More recently, he has accused the Congolese army of working with the FDLR to fight another militia, the March 23 Movement (M23).
On 20 November 2012, the M23, a Congolese rebel movement backed by Rwanda and Uganda, attacked Goma, the town in which I have lived for 32 years.
After putting up weak resistance in the northern part of city, the Congolese army retreated to Minova, a town 50km to the west.
Like thousands of other Goma residents who crowded along the roads, I watched in stupefaction as the columns of tanks and soldiers moved westward, leaving the city at the rebels’ mercy.
“This is a politicised war”, some soldiers said to justify their departure when questioned.
Onesphore had warned me before I arrived in the DRC. The numerous issues linked to insecurity in his country’s east are completely intertwined, forming a tapestry whose complexity is sometimes difficult to grasp. And yet I leave Beni convinced that although the violence in the eastern Congo has brought the region to its knees, it will not yield.