The expression on the face of Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), revealed nothing as the camera swept over him and various ambassadors seated in front of DRC President Joseph Kabila.
The video recording of the meeting convened by Kabila last Sunday doesn’t show any of the tension between him and the US$1.4 billion-a-year organisation that has been part of the landscape of the DRC for the past 15 years.
‘The head of state officially announced to its partners that the DRC renounces any cooperation with MONUSCO [the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the DRC] in the operation of disarmament against the FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda]’ government spokesperson Lambert Mende said after the meeting. Kabila also warned the DRC partners and ambassadors to refrain from making statements that do not ‘respect the state’. ‘We want to say to the various actors, the DRC is not under guardianship of the UN or anyone else. We are not similar to Somalia,’ Mende added.
The spat between the DRC and the UN is the latest episode in a stand-off that started with the UN’s request to the Congolese government to replace two generals appointed to head the military operations against the FDLR due to allegations of human rights abuses. Congolese army generals Bruno Mandevu and Fall Sikabwe have been on the UN’s so-called ‘red list’ for years and in terms of its mandate, the UN couldn’t be seen to go ahead with the joint operation. Abuses by the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) in the eastern part of the country have been well documented by Human Rights Watch and others.
The disagreement over the FDLR operation raises several questions about the future of relations between the DRC and the UN. The UN withdrawal from the operation against the FDLR also provides a useful argument to those critics of the UN and of Kabila’s government, notably neighbouring Rwanda, which maintains that the actors involved didn’t want to attack the FDLR in the first place.
Following Kabila’s rejection of MONUSCO’s help on Sunday, the DRC government seems to have slightly tempered its stance by stating that nothing is stopping MONUSCO from ‘carrying out is own operations against the FDLR’. In a recent interview, Mende also said that the tension in the relationship ‘doesn’t concern other missions that MONUSCO has been charged with’. Mende says a UN Security Council resolution ‘gives a mandate to the mission to find and disarm the armed groups with or without the FARDC’.
Stephanie Wolters, Head of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis division of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) says the conflict over the FDLR operation is a serious blow to relations between the two players. In the short term, the loss will be felt by the DRC. ‘Now the UN will no longer be providing food, fuel and logistical support to the FARDC as it has done in the past. This is a blow to the Congolese army.’ Wolters points out that this is not the first time Kabila has spoken out against MONUSCO, which has 22 000 uniformed personnel stationed in his country. In fact, the name change of the mission from MONUC (UN mission in the DRC) to MONUSCO (UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC) in 2010 came after just such a spat, when Kabila said a peacekeeping mission was no longer needed in his country.
The UN’s reasons for withdrawing from the FDLR operation are valid but there is more going on behind the scenes, says Wolters. It is clear that South Africa and Tanzania weren’t all too keen on going ahead with the operations due to concerns about possible collatreral damage among civilians, and the reperscussions this would have back in South Africa. South African and Tanzanian troops make up the bulk of MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), set up with a Chapter VII mandate from the UN to undertake offensive operations in the eastern DRC. The FIB was successful in defeating the M23 rebel group in mid-2013.
From the South African side, the main worry has been civilian casualties, since the FDLR are largely embedded in communities in eastern DRC. ‘The possibility of civilians being killed has become been a key concern for the South African authorities,’ Wolters says.
The FDLR operation was high on the agenda at the recent African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, since the deadline for the FDLR to disarm had already expired on 2 January and a joint MONUSCO-FARDC operation was expected. In fact, in the run-up to the Assembly meeting on 30 and 31 January, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said an attack could happen ‘as we are sitting here.’
Asked at the summit about the possible withdrawal of the UN troops from the FDLR operation due to the fear of civilian casualties, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete brusquely answered that the FIB is part of the UN and that it is up to the latter to decide. ‘Ask Ban Ki-moon,’ Kikwete told journalists when he was doorstepped with a question over the role of the FIB in the DRC.
Neighbouring Rwanda, which maintains that the FDLR is a serious security threat, predictably accuses both the DRC government and MONUSCO of finding excuses for not attacking the FDLR. The New Times, a pro-government Rwandan daily, didn’t hesitate to slam the UN for its reticence to participate in the joint operation against the FDLR, largely made up of Hutus who fled after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. ‘Is the delayed offensive an inside job?’ asked The New Times in an editorial. A Rwandan-based website, IGHE, titled a comment article in the same vein: ‘UN playing ping-pong with FDLR rebels.’
Wolters says it would be a blow to peace in the DRC if the FDLR is not eventually disarmed. ‘Rwanda has always used the FDLR as an excuse to come into eastern DRC. You eliminate that and we don’t have to revisit that excuse a thousandth time.’ Besides, the DRC has a legal obligation in terms of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and the region, which was signed in February 2013, that commits all the parties to end their support for rebels in the eastern DRC. The AU, the Southern African Development Community and the Intergovernmental Organisation on the Great Lakes Region are all guarantors to this agreement.
André Roux, a military expert and senior researcher at the ISS, says at this stage there are no signs that the FIB will withdraw from the area just because it has been excluded from the operation against the FDLR. Roux says although the FDLR has been responsible for attacks against civilians in the past, the greatest operational-level priority at the moment is to go after the Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU), which has been gaining terrain and attacking civilians.
Roux notes that ‘not withstanding the political and long-term priority of dealing with FDLR, the FIB’s tactical priorities have been first the M23, then ADF-NALU and thereafter the FDLR.’ The switch to dealing with the FDLR has been driven by more strategic imperatives and influenced by political-level concerns by Rwanda, and the importance of keeping Rwanda positive towards the issue of stabilisation in the eastern DRC. Of late the FDLR has mainly focused on its lucrative economic activities in the resource-rich DRC, notably in the sale of charcoal, and has not been the major destabiliser in terms of acctacks and civillian casualties.
Even if joint military operations continue, mending relations between the UN and the DRC on a political level may prove difficult, particularly since a recent fall-out between the UN and neighbouring Burundi led to the expulsion of a top UN official in the country. In both the DRC and Burundi, controversial plans to extend the mandates of the heads of state makes the UN an unwelcome witness in case of political upheaval. Kobler might not lose his job, but he will have to smile for the cameras to keep it.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant
Picture © UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti