In the city of Beni, the Capital of North Kivu region situated along the Congo-Ugandan border, a new wave of violence has spread, tensions have increased in a land that traditionally suffers from the presence of numerous armed groups, poverty persists, there is a race to exploit the land’s natural resources, and new cases of Ebola virus have emerged in the past few months. North Kivu has traditionally been, and still is, a peculiar region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its uniqueness depends, among other factors, on its complex ethnic composition, the porous borders with Uganda and Rwanda, the continuous presence of foreign and Congolese armed groups on its soil, and the natural riches that divided the population between competing ethnic groups and ruthless mercenaries. In the past 20 years these elements perpetuated the political and economic instability of the country and have left the DRC off of the list of wealthiest countries in the world despite being one of the richest in terms of mineral resources .
The dense presence of armed groups throughout the territory represents one of the most contributing factors to the precarious political stability of the region. More than 70 armed groups reside permanently in North Kivu, although the majority of them are small in members, resources, and extension of territorial control . The number of armed groups has been growing for the last 10 years, and nowadays both North and South Kivu are experiencing a proliferation and fragmentation of factions within the regions, thus enhancing potential tensions and clashes between them . The smallest groups are the Mai-Mai rebels, who are traditional Congolese local defence forces often divided from each other and backing different sides. Mai-Mai rebels occupy a relevant, although dishomogeneous, extension in the regional chessboard .
Currently the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) is the strongest Congolese armed group in eastern Congo. The group can count on approximately 1,000 – 2,500 members and its operations have recently been concentrated in the periphery of Beni through sudden and bloody attacks, occupation of strategic roadblocks and trading mineral resources. FDLR and Kinshasa government fought together and defeated the so-called Movement 23 (M23), a Tutsi-led rebel movement and Rwanda’s main ally within Congolese territory. The demise of the rebel group in 2013 has created a vacuum in the geopolitical structure of the region and has strongly reduced the influence of Rwanda’s capital of Kigali over Eastern Congo. Due to the absence of the M23, new groups have been emerging and gaining ground .
Since 1995, in the aftermath of the Congolese Wars, the Allied Democratic Force (ADF) penetrated the Congolese territory, and became another relevant player in North Kivu. The ADF rebels have a long history of widespread violence and have caused hundreds of deaths in North Kivu. They are strengthening their position and potential in order to achieve their ultimate goal of overthrowing Kampala’s government..
The presence of the government in North Kivu occurs through the deployment of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC). FARDC was formed in 2003 from the merging of different, and often opposing factions, and since then it has suffered from the same weakness of its ancestors: inefficiency of the troops, shortcomings in the organization, corruption, and outdated equipment which do not allow the state to exercise proper control over its territory . FARDC’s ultimate objective is to assure the stability of the country without the assistance of any foreign force and to prevent external aggressions. Officials in the capital of Kinshasa have employed several attempts to improve the quality and the efficiency of its forces but and although the promising intentions, alleged shortcomings still prevail on the vast portion of the territory .
The international community’s biggest contribution in DRC is given by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Its objective is to help Kinshasa to stabilize its country and set up a variety of democratic and security institutions. Although this process has made some encouraging progress, the military approach of the mission has been constantly criticized being ineffective at reducing the level of violence. MONUSCO forces have been under siege during their presence in North Kivu, mainly by FDLR and ADF rebels. Within the region, MONUSCO and Congolese troops have strengthened their strategic positions by taking over sensitive areas, but their advancements have had overwhelming humanitarian and financial costs. At least 7 “blue helmets” have been killed and several more injured in one of the latest joint military operation launched to seize a key city in North Beni this November; less than one year ago, both UN and Congolese army mourned the loss of 15 peacekeepers . The UN mission in DRC will probably persist for a long time, but experts and critics have observed that the increasing number of fatalities and future budget and operations cuts ordered from Geneva might significantly affect the international community’s ability to maintain and strengthen its position in the region .
Two new causes of concerns are currently aggravating the situation in North Kivu. The first one is the awakening of tensions between two historical communities in Ituri, the Hema and Lema. This clash could force the Congolese personnel to reconsider its priorities and withdraw resources which were intended to fight the armed groups and redirect them towards the resolution of the Hema-Lemadispute . The second concern is the threatening re-emersion of Ebola virus in the region. The number of the victims is increasing day by day and medical authorities do not have the ideal work environment to efficiently tackle the spreading of the disease. In fact, the increasing level of violence in the region is preventing the Congolese and international humanitarian officials from managing the issue and promptly assisting local communities. What is at stake is not only the safety of the people living in North Kivu, but also the safety of the neighbouring countries such as Rwanda and Uganda .
In addition to all of these factors that have destabilized the region, the political horizon of the DRC remains blurry due to the uncertainty of the outcome of upcoming and long-awaited elections, which might break away from previous leadership. The latest polls give little chances to Joseph Kabila Kabange who has been in power since 2001, when his father and former President of DRC, Laurent-Desiré Kabila was assassinated. According to political polls, it is improbable that Joseph Kabila will preserve his influence over the country and it is unlikely that his legacy will be transferred to Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, his preferred and loyal candidate . With elections approaching, the country is experiencing a new wave of violence, especially along the eastern border. International institutions and observers, which are monitoring the final days before the vote, openly warned about the possibility of armed groups interfering with electoral results. . Each actor on the Congolese chessboard is conquering squares at the expenses of various opponents, and each move has tremendous costs. The time has come for the Congolese to make a decisive move in their attempt to restore stability and prosperity in their country.
D. V. Reybrouck, Congo: The Epic History of a People. De Bezige Bij, Brussels, 2010.