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The “quasi-official” relationship between FDLR and FARDC

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Extortion by FARDC soldiers is rampant. Bisie cassiterite mine, North Kivu, April 2008 (Courtesy photo)

Kigali: In the latest series of adapted from the Global Witness report released Monday, RNA is showing how the two forces operate. The relationship between the FDLR and the FARDC is rooted in the earlier years of the war, when the two groups collaborated against a common enemy: Rwanda. One MONUC official said: “There is informal, unofficial collusion between FARDC and FDLR. It is not necessarily structural. The government denies it but we see it. A Human rights activist said “The collaboration is quasi-official”.  

Although the FARDC have been deployed to areas where the FDLR operate, their presence has not had any effect in curbing the FDLR’s exploitation of minerals or other activities. On the contrary, through mutual agreement, the FARDC and the FDLR have operated side by side, granting each other freedom of movement through each other’s territories and allowing each other to trade without interference.

The relationship between the FDLR and the FARDC is rooted in the earlier years of the war, when the two groups collaborated against a common enemy: Rwanda. The FDLR, allied with the Congolese national army, fought Rwandan troops and their allies, the RCD-Goma. The RCD seized control of large parts of eastern DRC from 1998 and remained in a position of power in the Kivus until it eventually joined the transitional government in 2003. Following the demise of the RCD, which suffered a heavy defeat in the 2006 elections, a new Tutsi-dominated rebel movement was formed, the CNDP, some of whose leaders had previously been members or sympathisers of the RCD. In particular, Laurent Nkunda, the CNDP’s leader until January 2009, had a long history of fighting alongside the Rwandan army and with the RCD. Many among the senior ranks of the FARDC therefore still feel sympathy for the FDLR, despite their history of extreme violence in both Congo and Rwanda.

There are frequent reports that members of the FARDC supply the FDLR with arms, ammunition and uniforms. Global Witness researchers met senior FARDC commanders who did not attempt to conceal these sympathies. They used the term “we” when referring to the FDLR, describing them as “our brothers” and identifying with their demands, in particular for political dialogue with the Rwandan government. One senior FARDC official, speaking in a personal capacity, told Global Witness: “They [the FDLR] just want guarantees of security [...] You have to get to know them and get to know their reality here [...] The FDLR survive from natural resources because they have no money or help. God did this – made for them to be in an area where there are natural resources.
Otherwise [...] people would have died.”

Congolese civilians interviewed by Global Witness in North and South Kivu described a happy co-existence between the FARDC and the FDLR in certain areas. For example, one man said that the FDLR and FARDC were sometimes seen fraternising in a market at Birhala, in Haut-Burhinyi (Walungu, South Kivu), an area nominally under FARDC control. In parts of North Kivu, the system is slightly more formalised, with the FDLR and the FARDC having to obtain advance permission to travel into each other’s areas. The FDLR then use roads controlled by the FARDC, and vice versa, without difficulty. However, this apparent harmony between the two groups can be misleading: many Congolese civilians, including local authorities and community leaders, describe a brutal forced cohabitation with the FDLR, in which they have no choice but to submit to the FDLR’s military and administrative control.

A human rights activist explained that the proximity of the relationship between the FDLR and the FARDC sometimes depended on external developments: “In North Kivu, the FARDC and FDLR are sometimes close, sometimes separate. But they don’t attack each other. Where both are present, they share the spoils and both extort from the population. When there is a Rwandan or CNDP presence, they get closer together.” These dynamics may change in 2009 following the joint Congolese and Rwandan military operation to dislodge the FDLR. At the time of writing, it is too early to assess the lasting impact of this operation – a new collaboration between two armies which have been sworn enemies for more than ten years. The joint operation could have tested the resolve of the FARDC to tackle the presence of the FDLR; in practice, it appears that the FARDC left most of the implementation of the operation to the better-trained and better-motivated Rwandan forces.

In the second half of 2008, local sources reported that the FARDC rarely challenged the FDLR, and that if anything, the FDLR had the upper hand in terms of military strength. It is an uneven balance of power, as despite foreign training and attempted reform programmes, the FARDC remains a disorganised and ill-disciplined army. An NGO representative in Goma told Global Witness: “Around Walikale, the FDLR are in
control even when the FARDC are there. They are stronger and more numerous than the FARDC. They are experienced soldiers, much more experienced than the mai-mai or the FARDC. They are masters of the place.”137 A similar situation prevailed in South Kivu.

A source in Bukavu described seeing a group of around 20 or 30 FDLR, wearing new FARDC uniforms, carrying new weapons, radios and other equipment. Soldiers rom a nearby FARDC camp said that they had seen the FDLR column, but had not reacted as they had not received orders to do anything about it; and that anyway, they had neither the transport nor other means to block an armed FDLR battalion. It is not clear to what extent the FDLR and the FARDC systematically share the proceeds of mining. Overall, it appears that they each exploit the mines in the areas they control, independently of each other but with mutual consent – an arrangement which has proved highly beneficial for both parties. Some sources allege a more active form of  collaboration; for example, Global Witness was informed that the FDLR sometimes give oney to FARDC officers to buy cassiterite in Walikale and sell it in Goma.139 There are also frequent reports of FARDC and FDLR dividing up the “taxes” they collect from the civilian population at roadblocks.

Along some roads in South Kivu, there may be successive FDLR and FARDC roadblocks. According to a source from Shabunda, in some locations, the FDLR and the FARDC are both present at the same roadblock; this was the case, for example, at Nyalubemba, a location where minerals are traded, about 100km from Bukavu.

A researcher explained the arrangements between the FARDC and the FDLR in strategic locations in the territoire of Shabunda:

“The groupement Bamuguba Sud used to be entirely controlled by the FDLR, from the border with Walungu territoire. Since the end of 2007, the FARDC have been deployed there. The headquarters of the FARDC is Kigulube, a big mining centre. The aerodrome is at Nzovu, another mining centre […] Yet the FDLR are still there too. They have divided up the zones. They have contact with each other. More than 70% of zones in this area are controlled by the FDLR. FARDC have to go through FDLR areas. They negotiate with each other. They agree not to attack each other. They respect each other’s zones. They each administer their own zones and collect ‘taxes’. In this groupement, it is mostly cassiterite, especially in Nzovu and Kigulube [...] Before 2007, all the centres were controlled by the FDLR. When the FARDC came, they agreed that the FDLR would liberate the commercial centres. These came under the control of the FARDC but other areas are still under the control of the FDLR.”

The situation in Shabunda illustrates the extent of collaboration between the FARDC and the FDLR. The FDLR control large parts of Shabunda and the mineral production there. In order to transport their minerals out of Shabunda, they are dependent on the cooperation of the FARDC, who control the local airports. Thus minerals produced and sold by the FDLR are accompanied to the planes by FARDC soldiers; from the local airstrips in Shabunda, the minerals are then flown to Bukavu or Goma.142 Although the airstrips are under FARDC control, a miner from Shabunda reported seeing some FDLR members at Nzovu airstrip in early 2008.

Another local source reported that in 2007, a FARDC colonel used to personally take the FDLR’s cargo to Lulingu aerodrome. The collaboration between the FARDC and the FDLR is particularly significant at Lulingu, one of the main aerodromes from which minerals produced by the FDLR are flown out to Bukavu or Goma.xiii The Group of Experts reported that more than 90% of minerals arriving at the airstrip at Lulingu come from FDLR-controlled areas.145 The FDLR regularly sell their minerals to traders in Lulingu, apparently in full view of local civilian and military authorities, without anyone challenging them.
The FARDC based at Lulingu profit directly, both from their own trade and that of the FDLR. A local researcher told Global Witness:

“Minerals leave from there [Lulingu] in big quantities. The centre is built on cassiterite. It is controlled by FARDC. Minerals go out by plane from Lulingu to either Kavumu (Bukavu) or Goma. They use Antonovs or other planes. They go out with cassiterite and come back with oil. The airport is controlled by FARDC for ‘official’ traffic. State agents are there and tax it. The FARDC don’t tax at the airport. They use civilians to export their minerals for them, using civilian names. The commanders are big traders but they don’t show themselves. Their wives or commissionnaires sell it and travel for them. Commanders feel lucky to be posted there. All fines, bribes, etc are paid in cassiterite.”

Officially, the FARDC, and the Congolese government, deny collaborating with the FDLR. The commander of the 10th military region in Bukavu, General Pacifique Masunzu, told Global Witness: “There are no places where the FDLR and FARDC are together [...] It is not true that the FDLR and FARDC have relations or share minerals. We are not allowed to collaborate with foreign armed groups. There are directives from our hierarchy. We respect them at the level of our units. There is no case of military collaboration with the FDLR.”

He confirmed that FARDC military were present at Shabunda, Lulingu and Nzovu airports “for security” but denied that the FDLR sent their goods out through Shabunda or came to the airports themselves. The FDLR have also vehemently denied any form of collaboration with the FARDC. In practical terms, the close ties felt by many FARDC towards the FDLR pose a serious challenge for the broader strategy to disarm and disband the FDLR. In November 2007, as a result of the Nairobi agreement signed between the Congolese and Rwandan governments, MONUC developed plans to work alongside the FARDC in a series of joint operations against the FDLR. One of the elements of this strategy was to take steps to cut off the FDLR’s economic bases, including by reducing the FDLR’s ability to control mines in four designated areas – two in North Kivu and two in South Kivu. The FARDC, with MONUC support, were also supposed to search aircraft and deploy in markets, trading centres and trafficking routes.

However, when Global Witness met MONUC military officials in Goma in July and August 2008, just before this phase of the operation was scheduled to begin, it was apparent that the impact of the relationship between the FDLR and the FARDC on these plans had not yet been addressed. Yet senior MONUC personnel were clearly aware of the challenge it would pose.

One MONUC official told Global Witness: “There is informal, unofficial collusion between FARDC and FDLR. It is not necessarily structural. The government denies it but we see it. There are local relationships but also at some senior levels. This makes it difficult for our operations as the FARDC are not necessarily committed.”

This phase of MONUC’s operations was due to begin in September 2008, but was delayed by the resurgence of fighting in North Kivu between the CNDP and the FARDC. Ten FARDC battalions which were supposed to be deployed in operations against the FDLR were diverted to fight the CNDP. MONUC was planning to resume these operations in December 2008, but in January 2009, Rwanda and Congo launched their own joint military peration against the FDLR in North Kivu, in which MONUC was not directly involved.

The Rwandan troops officially withdrew at the end of February 2009, with Rwandan and Congolese officials declaring “success” in breaking some of the key FDLR command structures. In February 2009, the Congolese government announced that further FARDC operations against the FDLR, with MONUC support, were planned for South Kivu. The status of these operations remained unclear for several weeks. Eventually, on 28 April, Minister of Defence Charles Mwando Nsimba announced publicly that the operation would be launched around ten days later and would last three months. In the meantime, the March 2009 report of the UN Secretary-General had noted that “the continued presence of the FDLR in key areas remained a source of concern [...] FDLR elements are present in Mwenga territory [South Kivu] and control the area both militarily and economically. The FDLR also controls the mines and collects ‘taxes’ from civilians in the territory.”


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