In February this year, the Congolese army supported by MONUSCO launched large-scale operations against the APCLS in Masisi territory, North Kivu (map). After earlier operations against the M23 and ADF rebel groups, it was the third time MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade participated in combat.
Officially speaking, the operations were the result of an attack by APCLS on army units they suspected were led by or included ex-CNDP elements, their longtime enemies. Three FARDC officers of the 813th regiment were reportedly killed in an ambush against theirs in northwestern Masisi. It was under these circumstances that the 813th regiment (later supported by the 810th) launched massive attacks against APCLS elements on 9 February. The UN peacekeepers supported the army with gunships to root out the groups. Some argue that elements of Nyatura (Hutu) also supported the army against APCLS.
On 17 February, after intense fighting, the Congolese army reportedly took Nyabiondo, one of the main strongholds of APCLS in northwestern Masisi. The army deployed heavy weaponry, including attack helicopters, to target not just Nyabiondo but also APCLS positions in Kashebere. In late February, the group was reportedly dislodged from Kibarizo, Muhanga and Butare without offering much resistance. Following the liberation of Lwibo on 4 March, the Congolese army prepared a final assault on the last bastion of APCLS in Lukweti.
On 30 April, fighting between the APCLS and FARDC broke out again in Nyabiondo. Three South African peacekeepers with the FIB were wounded in the attack. Another six Congolese soldiers were killed and three wounded. A MONUSCO official called the attack “very bold,” adding that “APCLS continues to have very good intel even though they got to be weak these days.” Despite the military successes, in May, the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF declared that the “situation [in Masisi] is untenable.”
For APCLS’s areas of influence as of June, see the mapping of Christoph Vogel.
Liberating areas from APCLS is a welcome development because the group poses a danger to citizens, including Hunde. However, the Congolese army did not behave well either following the operations. “We hear daily reports of human rights abuses at the hands of the FARDC in former APCLS-held areas, a MONUSCO official admitted in an informal interview in May. A representative of a human rights organization later confirmed this.
Why was APCLS attacked?
The incident alone as described above does not fully explain the launch of the operations. The army and APCLS have had a rocky relationship for years now, oscillating between partnership and animosity. A key supporter to the army in repelling the M23 rebel group (largely Tutsi) in 2012-2013, APCLS laments that the army failed to reciprocate. In the absence of genuine trust, APCLS refused to surrender many of its combatants in late December 2013, when 4,000 rebels came out of the bush following the defeat of the M23 a month earlier. APCLS’ attempt to integrate into the army in early 2013 failed miserably, causing many deaths.
Many important figure heads in the Hunde community perceive the confrontations against the APCLS as part of a wider campaign spearheaded by the Hutu and Tutsi community to wipe them out. Members of the Hunde community in Masisi repeatedly reference as proof the large-scale fighting between the Congolese army and APCLS in the town of Kitchanga in February 2013. During the combat, 146 people died and 518 houses were burnt, a government-commissioned report asserts. “They haven’t finished us [Hunde] yet but they want to,” an influential member of the Hunde community said. While this is a claim I cannot confirm, it is important to bear in mind that perceptions matter.
Who is the APCLS?
The Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo, or APCLS, is an armed group in Masisi territory. They largely hail from the Hunde ethnic community, who are native to Masisi but outnumbered by the Hutu community, many of which were transplanted by Belgian colonialists to mitigate growing overpopulation in Rwanda and confront a labor shortage in the very fertile territory of Masisi. Over time, Hunde increasingly lost political power, customary authority and especially land.
In this increasingly tense environment, powerful elites manipulated and politicized notions of citizenship, ethnicity, and land, pitting the different communities against each other. The simmering tensions festered over time, infrequently leading to violent outbursts. It was in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that the unrest finally spilled into large-scale war.
With a strong anti-Rwandan and anti-Tutsi bias, the group’s main arch-enemies are the M23 (successor to CNDP and RDC; largely Tutsi), Sheka’s NDC (largely Nyanga), units of Nyatura (Hutu) and to a lesser extent MAC (Hunde). ‘Since we felt that our country had been overrun by foreigners, we felt obliged to find ways and means to free the country,” APCLS’ self-proclaimed General Janvier Buingo Karairi said.
As explained earlier, the group’s relationship to the Congolese army has been rocky oscillating between partnership and animosity depending on the composition of the army. While APCLS has been a steady supporter of the army in repelling M23, it has also clashed with units of the army in February 2013 and – as shown above – in Spring 2014. In addition, APCLS has mixed relationships to FDLR and certain elements of Nyatura (both Hutu), sometimes co-exististing and collaborating and other times fighting each other.
That said, the dynamics are ever-changing, friends frequently become foes and foes become friends.
Why did MONUSCO participate in the fighting?
When MONUSCO failed to deliver on its promises to attack the FDLR and stumbled instead into operations against the ADF during which the Congolese army was unwilling to cooperate fully, the APCLS proved to be a convenient target to prove the usefulness of the brigade. As per one account, the brigade fought the ACPLS with “mortar and 40mm grenade fire and highly effective strafing runs from two Rooivalk attack helicopters.”
After years of failing to protect civilians, the UN Security Council gave the mission a last shot at improving its performance in the Congo. Many in the donor community are tired and want to slowly draw the mission to an end. To leave a positive mark behind, the Council has given MONUSCO a tool to change things for the better, the Force Intervention Brigade (here and here). As helpful as the brigade is, it also puts enormous political pressure on MONUSCO to deliver results … not only for Congolese.
MONUSCO’s relationship with the Hunde community
Worryingly, MONUSCO’s relationship with the Hunde community as a whole has soured in light of the fighting. Unfortunately, the mission does not fully appreciate the dynamics between Hutu and Hunde in Masisi and has largely failed to reassure the Hunde community of the mission’s neutrality vis-a-vis ethnic groups.
Members of the Hunde community continue to accuse MONUSCO of selectivity, repeatedly citing Mai-Mai Sheka as an example. While MONUSCO is very keen on arresting Sheka, the arch-enemy of APCLS, it so far has failed to do that. Even though this is due to the absence of political will on the side of the Congolese government, many in the Hunde community, however, blame MONUSCO for it.
Many forget, however, that MONUSCO and the army dislodged Sheka from his stronghold in Pinga in late 2013 and that as of recent they are actively fighting Sheka in Walikale territory. Hopefully, this will reassure Hunde community leaders that MONUSCO does not single out a select few groups. The operations are underway. Whether they will be successful is another question.
Generally speaking, not just Hunde but Congolese citizens in eastern Congo have little trust in MONUSCO, as a recent study shows.
Simmering tensions ahead of local elections
While APCLS is severely hit, tensions in Masisi remain and are likely to augment in anticipation of local and national elections to be held in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Prominent community leaders, politicians and senior Congolese army commanders continue to distribute fire arms to members of their ethnic groups, particularly in North Kivu, and will likely do so even more in the lead-up to the elections as happened in 2011. In distributing weapons, politicians gain leverage over armed groups, which they in turn instrumentalize to boast their political standing in provincial and national politics. Influence over an armed group translates directly into political power.
In addition, politicians gain social capital vis-a-vis their own communities. In the absence of a strong army that can protect its people, communities in eastern Congo often need to protect themselves. Distributing weapons is an effective way for politicians to prove their continuous commitment to the community, which in turn is expected to cast their votes in their favor.
- The United Nations Group of Experts has provided the most comprehensive study on APCLS over the past several years.
- Search for Common Ground and International Alert published a very detailed account and photo series about the APCLS earlier this year. They spent several weeks in Lukweti and Nyabiondo – formerly held by APCLS – interviewing key stakeholders.
- Christoph Vogel (@ethuin) published an analysis of the fighting in early March. You should definitely subscribe to his blog, too.
- To learn more about the conflict in Masisi and the origins of the PARECO group from which the APCLS split up, you should read the report of the Usalama Project. Make sure to follow the author Jason Stearns on Twitter and check in on his blog.
- In December last year, independent journalist and researcher Justine Brabandt (@justinebrabant) shared her insights following a visit to APCLS in Lukweti.
- For a critique of the concept of ‘Islands of Stability,’ which is implemented around Pinga, you should turn to Christoph Vogel’s recent piece.