During a public press conference on Wednesday, chief of MONUSCO Martin Kobler lamented that FDLR had interpreted a six-month timeframe to disarm or face military operations as a call to stall previously scheduled demobilizations (see transcript and media report). But as much as the FDLR willingly misunderstands the process as much was it led to conclude just that. In addition, Kobler did not admit that MONUSCO was pressured into a process it actually disagreed with from the very beginning.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) granted FDLR a respite in early July after the group had surrendered around 200 of its men as a sign of its good will (here and here). However, two months into the process, the FDLR has yet to enter transit camps in Kisangani (Orientale Province). As of recent, they refuse it altogether. Kobler rightly says that “we don’t advance much,” echoing earlier remarks by his military spokesperson.
Let’s bear in mind that …
First, the decision to grant FDLR more time was made largely by the regional bodies, leaving MONUSCO no real chance but to support it. Both sides disagree over how to handle the FDLR. This discord was obvious from the beginning: After the rebels surrendered a first batch of men, the Executive Secretary of SADC said that they are “extremely encouraged by the disarmament of FDLR members.” However, the statement of SADC stands in stark contrast to an earlier assessment by the Special Envoys, who had called the first number of surrendered combatants “insignificant.”
A few days later, on 2 July, SADC members agreed to suspend military operations for six months against the FDLR in order to give them more time to lay down their arms. Angola’s Foreign Minister – chairing ICGLR – said: “Of course there will be no military operations during the six-month period.” But just a day later, Kobler sent a different message to the rebels, specifying that the rebel group had days, not weeks, let alone months to respond to his final offer.
Unfortunately for MONUSCO, the SADC members South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania are the very countries that staff the Force Intervention Brigade, which MONUSCO would use to fight the rebels in cooperation with the Congolese army. Even though the UN Security Council recently encouraged its mission and the Government of Congo to actively pursue military action against those leaders and members of FDLR who do not engage in the demobilization process, MONUSCO has first to get a reluctant SADC on board.
It is important to bear in mind, however, that it were African countries that initiated the brigade. They wanted it, albeit for a different armed group, the M23. Like the Government of Congo, it seems as if SADC members – especially Tanzania – are reluctant to confront the FDLR in earnest.
Second, from the beginning, MONUSCO had little hope that this process might actually work in the absence of a credible threat. One offered carrots while forgetting the stick.
Third, Kobler is losing patience. After defeating the M23 just three months into his posting, he now has to realize that his earlier success was the exception rather than the norm. All the while, he has to mend relations with neighboring Rwanda, which is increasingly frustrated with the process and MONUSCO altogether (here, here, here, here, and here). His relations with Kinshasa could certainly also be better.
Fourth, Kobler is under significant pressure from New York to prove the effectiveness and usefulness of the FIB not just in the case of Congo but for UN peacekeeping around the world. Increasingly tired of the mission in Congo, the FIB is the last shot to make things work. After fifteen years in the country, MONUSCO wants to leave on a successful note.
What does that leave us with?
In less than a month, on 2 October, the six-month reprise will be re-examined. As things stand now, the FDLR will not pass the test. But that does not necessarily mean that the FIB either unilaterally or in cooperation with the army would start using force. The new UN Special Emvoy to the region Saïd Djinnit promised it would.
Before then, US Special Envoy Russ Feingold will visit Goma and Bukavu on September 10-11 and will certainly use his clout to push the agenda once again.
P.s.: This post does not suggest that military options are the only and best way to neutralize the FDLR. Elsewhere I have argued for a multi-thronged approach, involving means other than military ones (here and here).