The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is facing its deepest crisis since the end of the 1998-2003 war. Prospects for a peaceful transfer of power, on which the country’s stability depends, look increasingly remote, as President Joseph Kabila appears to be moving ever further from elections. Several areas of the country, most notably the Kasai, are descending into violence and the potential remains high for clashes in major cities and towns. The presence of the UN peace operation, MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo), is critical. But it needs to adapt to meet these new challenges. This means moving from joint military operations with the government and stabilisation activities in eastern DRC toward a role more focused on deterring and documenting violence country-wide and stimulating greater consensus among regional and major powers on efforts to end the crisis. The UN’s forthcoming strategic review offers an opportunity to reorient the mission accordingly, all the more important in view of further mandate discussions early next year.
Last December, a deal between President Kabila and main political opposition groups provided for an election delay of a year and offered some hope that the DRC might find a way out of its latest political crisis. Since then, however, implementation of the agreement has faltered. Successive rounds of talks before and after the signing of the deal, which saw President Kabila repeatedly attempt to split and co-opt his opponents, also contributed to the fragmentation of the political class and further divided and weakened the opposition.
Electoral delays also mean that the president, provincial governors and national and provincial legislatures have outstayed their mandates, further eroding their authority. Numerous political actors and armed groups are now more openly challenging the state, provoking an increasingly violent response from the government. This trend has been documented by the UN’s human rights office, whose data shows over the past months and years a dramatic uptick in violent incidents perpetrated by security forces. The government’s use of the Congolese justice system against rivals has undermined any confidence it enjoyed and its role as a credible umpire. Repeated prison breaks over recent months, massive in scale, further contribute to the image of a state on the verge of collapse.
Popular anger at both government and political elites in general is widespread. It has found expression in several riots since January 2015, all repressed by security forces. A deepening social and economic crisis, affecting a population already suffering from endemic poverty, further aggravates unrest. But with civil society crushed by government crackdowns and the opposition in disarray, discontent is disorganised, without clear leadership or representation.
Local conflicts and inter-communal bloodshed are also on the rise. These include the violence in the Kasai, where reports have emerged of the Congolese government backing armed groups and a UN Human Rights Council resolution expressed concern over reports of a wave of violence, serious and gross human rights violations and abuses, and violations of international humanitarian law...perpetrated by all, including those involving recruitment and use of child soldiers, sexual and gender-based violence, destruction of houses, schools, places of worship, and State infrastructure by local militias, as well as of mass graves.
Armed group activity in the Kivus and Ituri has also flared up. These conflicts affect not only local and national dynamics. Through refugee flows, the presence of foreign militias and trans-border community ties, they also risk renewed regional intervention.
The current forum for regional and international engagement in the DRC is the Peace Security and Cooperation Framework (PSCF). Established in 2013, it was the result mostly of mobilisation within the South African Development Community (SADC), supported by Western powers, to fight the M23, an armed group plaguing parts of eastern DRC, and halt the associated meddling from the M23’s main sponsor, Rwanda. The new political framework was accompanied by a military component, the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), integrated into MONUSCO’s command but with SADC members providing the troops, and with a more assertive posture against armed groups in the east.
The PSCF has since ossified, however, and been overtaken by the now national-level crisis. After fighting the M23, the FIB has shown none of the same determination against other armed groups. Even the limited consensus between Western and SADC powers has collapsed. The DRC’s relations with its main donors have frosted over, with Western powers, in particular the EU and the U.S., attempting to increase pressure on Kinshasa, notably through sanctions on individuals seen as responsible for violent repression of protests and the clashes in the Kasai. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also has been critical, calling for an international investigation of alleged government support for Kasai militias. Kinshasa’s diplomacy on the continent has, however, won it public support from some African leaders. This backing is far from unanimous: some African leaders, including within SADC and the Great Lakes region, recognise that the president’s determination to stay in power lies at the core of the crisis and are more critical behind closed doors. But generally supportive public statements diminish pressure on President Kabila to compromise.
The forthcoming UN strategic assessment, with a UN Secretariat team traveling to the DRC this week and reporting back to the Council in September, presents an opportunity for new thinking on the mission’s role. The overarching challenge – given that President Kabila’s government is now, in effect, the principle source of the country’s instability – will be to redefine the mission’s relationship with Kinshasa. After a decade supporting state institutions, striking the right balance between distancing itself from the government while still maintaining sufficiently good relations to operate in the country will be a tough balancing act. Certainly, it is not one the mission can perform without the active support of, and a reasonable degree of coherence among, international and regional diplomats in the DRC.
For now, the threat of drastic reductions in MONUSCO appears off the cards. The new U.S. administration, which had suggested that it would seek deep cuts in line with its lobbying for reductions across UN peace operations signed off, in June, on a mission budget only slightly smaller than that proposed by the Secretariat. This is fortunate, given the detrimental impact such a signal of UN disengagement would have on the calculations of communities and leaders across the DRC.
But the Secretariat and other Security Council members would be remiss to see this as a vote for the status quo and to back away from serious reform. The U.S. is certain to push again for greater cuts, whether this year or next. It would be better to base reform on a strategic reorientation now rather than on budget pressure later. Plus, more importantly, the mission needs to adapt if it is to remain effective. The priorities should include:
Beefing up the mission's deployment across the country of integrated, mobile teams comprising political affairs officers, human rights officials, military observers and members of the Joint Mission Analysis Centre (JMAC), ensuring a regular presence of such teams in all of the country’s 26 provinces. Such teams can deter, as best as possible, and document violence and human rights violations, including cases of sexual and gender-based violence, through engagement and good offices with local officials, civil society and local actors. They could also act as an early warning mechanism.
Reversing the mission’s concentration in the Eastern provinces. The situation today requires the UN to effectively cover other parts of the country and adjust its approach to protection based on varying levels of violence in different areas. A lighter but more agile military footprint, that would mean protecting civilians by projection more than presence, would allow the mission to address increased militia violence in areas like the Kasai, while retaining a presence in the east to focus on threats of a more strategic nature and deter regional conflagration. Such an approach would require increased mobility, flexibility and logistics capacity. European troop contributors could offer surge logistics support to assist this move.
Integrating the Force Intervention Brigade more fully into MONUSCO. The FIB serves an important function by ensuring some regional involvement occurs under UN auspices. It also deters neighbours’ meddling. But ideally, its operations – namely protection of civilians and a coercive approach toward militias – would fit within MONUSCO, without the need for a separate structure. In this context, the secretariat should consider abolishing the FIB and integrating its forces within the UN mission, ensuring that all force components fulfil their robust mandate. Such a move would provide the mission's leadership with increased flexibility. If this is not feasible, then at a minimum the mission and FIB troop contributors should better allow the FIB to operate outside the east in kinetic operations against armed groups together with other MONUSCO units as required.
Reviewing the mission's military cooperation with the government. Large-scale, joint operations with DRC forces against armed groups, long inappropriate, are now not even defensible. Such offensives only make sense as part of a comprehensive stabilisation strategy, and such a strategy cannot be developed in partnership with a government whose objectives now contrast dramatically to those of the UN.
Reviewing MONUSCO’s long-term stabilisation and developmental activities, and dropping security sector reform altogether. While much good has been done in these areas, political actors at the provincial and national levels now tend to enjoy insufficient public trust to serve as effective partners.
Investing in effective communication between the mission and humanitarian actors, given the critical role they will play as the crisis deepens. This would include better relaying plans for troop presence and posture in conflict-affected areas in which humanitarians operate. Such communication will help further the common goal of civilian protection.
Ensuring the mission’s leadership continues to look for opportunities to nudge forward the transition in Kinshasa, while recognising that its influence over President Kabila is limited. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General, together with the Great Lakes envoy, should also push regional and major powers toward more convergence on their engagement in the DRC, building on the PSCF. While it may not overcome divergent positions toward President Kabila on the continent and further afield, it might stimulate new opportunities for diplomacy, moving away from a sterile debate on sanctions. The strategic review might also offer an opportunity for a frank conversation with FIB troop contributors on their response to the crisis, as effective UN diplomacy requires greater regional support.
The peaceful transfer of power that the DRC needs to escape its current crisis appears ever more remote, given President Kabila’s determination to remain in office, the incoherence of regional and major actors and, therefore, their lack of leverage. But the challenge is not limited to the stalled transition. The whole country faces security threats reminiscent of the 1990s, territorial administration is in chaos, social services are collapsing and state institutions violently contested. The crisis today is national and arguably poses a graver threat to both the country and region than that provoked by the M23 that motivated the PCSF in the first place. Yet regional and international engagement appears to be fading as the danger grows. While MONUSCO alone cannot resolve the DRC’s crisis, it can play a critical role in deterring violence, preventing the worse ravages of the crisis and corralling regional and major powers toward renewed engagement and consensus. The strategic review is an opportunity to shift its mandate in this direction.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno President and CEO International Crisis Group
(c) 2017 International Crisis Group