The UN mission in the DRC is confronted by demonstrations demanding its departure. Long under pressure while Kabila was in power, it is now being pushed out by the Tshisekedi administration. Twenty-three years after its arrival in Congo, is it time for it to pack up? A deep dive into the operational difficulties of the UN's most expensive operation - $1.5bn.
Mattresses piled on the heads of the demonstrators, chairs carried at arm’s length, sometimes even some imposing metal water tanks dragged along a dirt track…
On Tuesday 26 July, one of the bases of the United Nations Mission (Monusco) in Goma is taken by storm. The crowd seems organised. It is mostly discontent. For several days now, the anger against the Blue Helmets has been rising again.
With its budget exceeding one billion dollars each year and its 14,000 soldiers and policemen in charge of protecting civilians, Monusco is regularly accused of being ineffective against armed groups.
It had been preparing for several days for this new wave of demonstrations. Monusco even sent a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 18 July to warn against “the risk of hostile acts against Monusco personnel and installations” following speeches by “state representatives” or “public figures”. Three days earlier, Modeste Bahati Lukwebo, the president of the Senate, one of the three main figures of the state, took advantage of a visit to North and South Kivu (East) to call on the mission “to pack up”. Like others, he is accused of having thrown fuel on the fire.
Among the diplomats, several questions the particularly violent turn these events have taken.
Their scale was surprising and contrasts with that of the marches organised by civil society. “Preliminary investigations show that the demonstrations targeting Monusco were not spontaneous, but rather well organised and coordinated,” notes the UN group of experts in its confidential report of July, which we have consulted.
A senior Monusco official goes so far as to state that “according to elements available to the mission, the processions were infiltrated by members of armed groups”. But “to only raise the spectre of manipulation of the elites is to ignore a whole part of the problem”, says an elected official from the east.
“Some politicians under pressure have exploited the situation. But Monusco must also review its own actions,” says Juvénal Munubo, MP for Walikale, in North Kivu. There is legitimate exasperation among the population, who do not understand that such a costly mission is producing so few results against the armed groups.
From Uvira to Butembo via Goma, demonstrations have followed one another in recent weeks, often turning into the looting of UN installations and leaving 36 people dead, including 4 peacekeepers. The climate, already extremely tense, was aggravated by an incident on 31 July at the Kasindi border post, where soldiers from the Monusco intervention brigade (FIB) opened fire, killing three people.
Under pressure, the Congolese authorities have hardened their tone towards the mission. On 28 July, they demanded the expulsion of its spokesman, Mathias Gillmann, after he explained in mid-July that the deployment of a large part of the mission’s resources and the Congolese army in the fight against the M23 rebels had negative consequences on other regions. According to Kinshasa, these statements amount to an acknowledgement of Monusco’s inability to fulfil its objectives.
In the face of growing public discontent, the government also announced its intention to review the transition plan organising the definitive withdrawal of the peacekeepers, currently scheduled for 2024, bringing this crisis to a level not seen since the arrival in power of Félix Tshisekedi.
The timing of this discussion seems very unclear. “We will work to shorten the timeframe for Monusco’s departure, but this will depend on the indicators defined,” a Congolese minister simply said.
“Monusco is welcome”
Whether it was a simple announcement or not, this position marked a shift in the Congolese president’s approach. After years of being criticised by Joseph Kabila, Monusco has benefited from a welcome respite on the political front since the election of Félix Tshisekedi.
In September 2020, the president also made a strong plea to the UN for the allocation of additional resources to the UN force so that it could “continue to fulfil its mandate effectively. A speech at the opposite end of the spectrum from that of his predecessor, who, in his last speech at this same forum in 2018, demanded the withdrawal, within two years, of a mission with a “largely mixed record”.
At the time, this lull was based on one essential parameter: when he took power in January 2019, Félix Tshisekedi had very little control over the Congolese army, where Kabilist generals were legion.
Monusco and its boss, the Algerian Leila Zerrougui, were not the main critics of the controversial December 2018 elections. They are becoming the interlocutors of choice for a vulnerable head of state. At the beginning of his mandate, Félix Tshisekedi met regularly with Zerrougui, who also used her position to occasionally act as an intermediary with the former president’s camp. “Monusco is welcome in the DRC,” the Congolese leader said at the time.
However, alongside a more reassuring political discourse, the mission, which arrived under the name of Monuc in 1999, must also prepare for an increasingly uncertain future. For a long time one of the UN’s most expensive operations, with an annual budget of around $1.5bn, Monusco has been living with budget cuts and the closure of several of its provincial offices in recent years.
The strategic review conducted in 2019 by Tunisian diplomat Youssef Mahmoud called for “a phased, progressive and comprehensive withdrawal plan for the next three years”. Several hundred employees have already seen their contracts expire.
After more than two decades in the DRC, insecurity remains and, for many Congolese, Monusco has failed in its objective to protect civilians. If ten years ago, opinion was mainly in favour of a more offensive mandate for Monusco, demands have gradually evolved to the point of demanding its departure. “No one wants to be the one to turn off the lights here for good,” said a Monusco official.
Will Guinea’s Bintou Keïta, who arrives in March 2021, be the one to close this long page of Congolese history for good?
One month after the start of the demonstrations, the tension has not subsided on the ground, where the image of the mission, its secure bases and its staff in white pick-ups, continues to deteriorate. According to several sources, some of Monusco’s non-military personnel in eastern DRC are now limiting their movements.
The M23 factor
In November 2019 and April 2021, Monusco had already been confronted with large-scale demonstrations, because of the continuing massacres perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
But the mission has once again found itself in the public eye with the resurgence of the M23. These rebels, who were defeated in 2013 thanks in particular to the help of the FIB – created for this purpose – have resumed and intensified their fighting against the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) since November 2021.
This conflict has rekindled tensions between the various Great Lakes neighbours, with Kinshasa accusing Rwanda of supporting the rebels, something Kigali continues to deny. The capture by the M23 of the strategic town of Bunagana, a commercial crossroads on the Ugandan border, on 13 June, as well as the sophistication of the equipment used by the attackers, have nevertheless contributed to strengthening suspicions of external support from Rwanda and complicity from Uganda.
Monusco’s communication on this issue has at times been ambiguous. While the US embassy in the DRC and the US Senate have both referred to the alleged involvement of Rwandan soldiers, the mission has never gone that far. On 29 June, before the UN Security Council, Bintou Keïta certainly stressed that the M23 was “behaving more and more like a conventional army and not like an armed group”. But the diplomat was careful not to mention Rwanda by name.
However, for several weeks, intelligence obtained by the Monusco services has pointed to Rwandan involvement, at least in terms of logistics, alongside the M23. These elements were discreetly communicated to diplomats in Kinshasa. They also fed into the confidential report of the UN group of experts, dated July, which was transmitted to the Security Council.
This cautious discourse has placed Monusco in a doubly uncomfortable position. It has been targeted for several months by Kigali, which accuses it of supporting the Congolese army – itself suspected of fighting the M23 alongside the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – and Monusco has been criticised by the entourage of Félix Tshisekedi, which is struggling to obtain an international condemnation of Rwanda.
“Our statements gave the impression to some that we were no longer justifying our presence here, whereas by saying that the M23 was behaving like a conventional army, we were going in the direction of the DRC. But we can only do so within the constraints inherent to the nature of our mission,” said a senior Monusco official.
Tshisekedi under pressure
These difficulties have been reinforced by the imbroglio surrounding the vote, at the end of June, on the new resolution concerning the arms embargo imposed on the DRC by the UN Security Council. Although this embargo has only concerned armed groups since 2008, there is still a lack of understanding in the presidency regarding the notification obligations in the case of arms supplies to the government.
READ MORE DRC: Protests turn violent as the public turns on UN peacekeeping mission
Several sources within the mission recognise a communication ‘glitch’ but also believe that they are paying the price for the pressure that the Congolese authorities are under from the population. “There is such a disavowal that we cannot remain insensitive,” a Congolese minister acknowledged by message. “We must lower the tension by responding to the demands of our people.” A year and a half before the presidential election, scheduled for December 2023, Félix Tshisekedi is also in a delicate situation in the security field, where his various strategies, whether the establishment of a state of siege or the joint operation with Uganda, are struggling to provide results.
Lack of cooperation
But, beyond the legitimate exasperation of the population and the warning of the authorities, is an early departure of Monusco realistic?
The capacity of the Congolese army to take over is far from clear. Félix Tshisekedi himself seems to be aware of this. After denouncing the “mafia” that reigned over the Congolese army in June 2021, the head of state was publicly annoyed by the persistence of killings in Ituri. “Either our army is incapable, or Codeco [Cooperative for the Development of Congo, one of the armed groups operating in the east] is benefiting from the complicity of our officers,” he said.
Monusco is experiencing chronic difficulties in its cooperation with the Congolese army. In addition to the presence of high-ranking FARDC officers suspected of human rights violations, some of whom are even under UN sanctions, the lack of joint planning is also a problem.
Asked to participate in the “large-scale” offensive against the ADF announced by Félix Tshisekedi in October 2019, but kept out of its preparation, Monusco limited itself to technical support, such as reconnaissance flights. The mission was not informed of the establishment of the state of siege, nor was it involved in the preparation of the joint offensive by the Congolese army and its Ugandan counterpart in November 2021.
The UN force, which is also faced with a lack of military resources, has appeared weakened on the ground, while negotiations are continuing on the launch of a regional force of the East African Community (EAC). Burundian troops officially entered South Kivu on 15 August to fight hostile movements in Gitega. But the timetable for the intervention of the other participants is still unclear, as are the modalities of cooperation of this regional force with Monusco.
“The post-Monusco era is to be feared”
An early departure of the mission would, above all, have repercussions on the logistics of the Congolese army. Much of its behind-the-scenes work consists of providing support ranging from conducting reconnaissance flights to delivering food rations.
The mission also provided discreet assistance during the start of the dialogue between the Congolese government and several armed groups in Nairobi in April. Initially, only a bilateral dialogue with the M23 was planned, and the head of Monusco was only informed of this change of strategy in the hours following the EAC summit that decided on it. She was given the task of helping to bring in the representatives of the armed groups the day before for the following day. This unpreparedness partly explained the slow start of the dialogue.
“We have opened the door to a departure of Monusco, a timetable has even been established. Should we push this door open and anticipate this departure when our armed forces will have difficulty taking over?” asks MP Juvénal Munubo. The post-Monusco era is to be feared because our main task to date remains the reform of our own security sector.