Exclusive: Interview with UN Group of Experts

Following the release of their report this week, Congo Siasa interviewed Steve Hege (armed groups expert), Fred Robarts (regional issues expert), and Gregory Mthembu-Salter (consultant, natural resources).

  1. Let me ask you to be reductive, as few will read all 190 pages: What are your three main conclusions?

Our key findings are the following:

–        One serious tension is fueling much of the instability in the East: The conflict of interests between the economic motivations of criminal networks within the FARDC and the army’s constitutional mandate to protect civilians. As a result, these criminal networks have led to pervasive insubordination, competing chains of command, a failure to actively pursue armed groups, and neglect of civilian protection.

–        Seizing upon popular discontent in the Kivus, armed groups, both foreign and Congolese, have increasingly built alliances amongst themselves, strengthening their ability to resist operations against them and to jointly undertake looting operations, often in areas rich in natural resources.

–        Private companies purchasing minerals sourced from the eastern DRC must mitigate the risks of providing direct or indirect support to armed groups and criminal networks within the FARDC by conducting due diligence checks on their supply chains.

  1. In past years, the group of experts reports have focused on non-governmental armed groups, such as the FDLR and the CNDP. This year, the phrase that keeps on popping up in your report is “criminal networks within the FARDC.” Is it fair to say that you see these networks as the main cause for concern in the Kivus?

We’re convinced that these criminal networks constitute an important cause of insecurity and conflict in the eastern DRC. In nearly all the places we visited, local authorities, civil society leaders, and even FARDC officers themselves pointed to the economic interests of these criminal networks as a critical element fueling insecurity and undermining the stabilization process.  President Kabila himself made a similar assessment of the severe negative impact of these networks when he suspended mining activities in the eastern Congo.

The officers and soldiers involved in these networks often compete amongst themselves for economically profitable deployments to zones rich in natural resources. While the FARDC is certainly justified in seeking to dislodge armed groups from the principal mining zones throughout the Kivus, we’ve seen that these criminal networks have been driven more by their own personal economic interests. Their duty to protect the local population and pursue armed groups is consistently trumped by their prioritization of multiple rackets, investments, and extortion arrangements. The number one priority for officers in these networks is personal profit for themselves and their patrons in high command positions. All other tasks are only undertaken in so far as they further this principal objective, leading certain officers to cohabitate and even collude with armed groups. Although the violence that has consumed Walikale in recent months is a dramatic example of the consequences of this conflict of interests, we observed these same dynamics in many other places in the Kivus.

Moreover, these criminal networks are also eroding the process of strengthening the capacity of the FARDC. Insubordination, parallel chains of command, and the creation of special units are almost all linked to the economic interests of officers involved in these criminal networks. The creation of numerous independent battalions or reserve units for specific economic ends has led to the further fragmentation of the FARDC, an army already struggling with the numerous challenges of integrating former rebel groups.

The status quo of perpetual insecurity and interminable operations against armed groups allows for these networks to thrive. The interests of these criminal networks constitute the principal disincentive to reform, as the current state of affairs is simply too profitable for some for them to allow it to be altered.

  1. What exactly are these criminal networks and to what degree are high-ranking Congolese officials involved in them?

First of all, it is important to point out that in referring to these networks we are intentionally not referring to the FARDC as an institution, but rather a series of competing patron-client relationships between high-ranking officers and subordinates strategically deployed to areas rich in natural resources. We describe them as “criminal,” because military involvement in mining and other economic activities is prohibited by Congolese law and numerous orders have been issued calling on all officers to immediately cease such activities.

The networks are constituted when high-ranking commanders consolidate a group of subordinate officers, which often include family members, personal escorts, or loyal soldiers from previous armed groups, for economic ends. Once their deployment to profitable zones is ensured by jostling amongst the high command, these protected officers commonly referred to within the FARDC as “enfants cheris,” are already indebted to their patrons.

As a result, they must immediately set up as many rackets as possible, including illegal taxations regimes, security protection for important traders or buying houses, extortions and pillaging operations, as well as overseeing the direct commercial investments of high-ranking officers. If they fail to ‘report back’ to their patrons with sufficient revenue, often based upon pre-established quotas, these subordinate officers risk being rotated to other units and lose out on the small percentages of profits which they are allowed to keep. This becomes the principal logic behind the functioning of these criminal networks within the FARDC and all military resources, both human and logistical, are diverted to this end.

Criminal networks could not gain access to strategic economic zones without being led by high-ranking officers who can ensure the placement of loyal men in the most profitable locations. However, with competing networks also trying to fight for control over those same zones, high-ranking officers are often forced to create special units or reserve battalions to circumvent the formal chain of command, so that other officers are not able to siphon off a portion of the profits. This leads to serious internal tensions within the army over who gets access to what. In the case of Bisie, some officers even supported the creation of Mai Mai Sheka to undermine the increasing power of networks linked to ex-CNDP officers.

  1. Your mandate is to investigate support to non-governmental armed groups in the Congo – how do you justify your focus on the FARDC?

First, while our field investigations were geared towards uncovering the financing of armed groups, we could not turn a blind eye to the pervasive presence of these criminal networks who have taken over nearly all the principal mining sites. As these economic activities have led them to at times collude with armed groups, as in the case of Mai Mai Sheka, we felt they were important subjects to investigate further.

Secondly, as our mandate included elaborating a series of due diligence guidelines for companies purchasing minerals from the eastern DRC, we examined how the private sector can ensure that those purchases are not exacerbating conflict and insecurity in the eastern DRC. In our view, directly or indirectly benefiting these criminal networks presents a clear risk of doing just that.

Finally, in consultations with the Security Council, the Group was asked to analyze some of the challenges to the integration of former armed groups into the FARDC. As such, the conflict of interests of officers participating in criminal networks came directly to the fore. Many officers that have been integrated into the FARDC are under the impression that access to natural resources constitutes the prize for joining the Congolese Army.

The ex-CNDP’s refusal to be re-deployed outside of the Kivus is linked to these interests, as since becoming a part of the FARDC, they have established extensive profitable ventures in natural resources, including minerals, timber, charcoal, fishing, and land.  However, if those profits are threatened, the CNDP have and will continue to defy the orders of their FARDC superiors and in the worst case scenario could return to rebellion now with upwards of four times as much territory under their control and countless autonomous sources of financing.

  1. There has been some debate about the extent to which minerals fuel the conflict in the Kivus. What is the Group’s view?

There is certainly no doubt that profits from the trade in natural resources (not only minerals, but also land, timber, charcoal, fishing, and poaching) provides, amongst others, an important source of financing for most armed groups, essentially the “fuel” allowing them to purchase weapons, rations, and military supplies. This enables them to continue their armed struggles and presents a disincentive for demobilization, as individual profits left for commanders may be too enticing to give up. In certain cases, the lure of mineral wealth can also impact recruitment as the FDLR’s Montana battalion in Walikale is bustling due to its reputation for successful pillage attacks. On the other hand though, we have heard that since the suspension of mining activities, the FNL has experienced some challenges in recruiting because Burundians fear they will not be able to make any money in going to South Kivu. Nevertheless, there still are armed groups, such as the APCLS, FRF, FNL, and the ADF, who have benefited extensively from financial support from sympathetic local or diaspora communities.

As often pointed out, the actual root causes of conflict may be a different story. We’ve seen that the leaders of armed groups and some of their initial supporters often tend to be dominated by the pursuit of individual power, wealth, and recognition for their communities. Nevertheless, they have been successful in mobilizing local support by tapping into a number of complex socio-political issues which continue to plague the Kivus, including popular discontent with the perceived expansion of the Kinyarwanda-speaking community’s power since the CNDP’s integration into the FARDC, mistrust of the Congolese and Rwandan governments, and unease about or the deep interest in the return of refugees.

As for the criminal networks within the FARDC, economic interests appear to increasingly both be the principal cause and driver behind their creation and behavior. For many officers, operations and deployments to remote territories is where the money is made. Even when the FDLR cohabitates with the FARDC, such as in Lugushwa, the criminal networks impose an “effort de guerre” tax on all shops, traders, and households, a term which was resurrected from RCD days. When interviewed, they immediately exaggerate the threat of the FDLR and other groups, all the while trying to demonstrate the great results that they have achieved in conducting operations, most of which are characterized as “du theatre” by local authorities.

  1. What exactly is the responsibility of foreign companies in fueling the violence in the Kivus? 

By purchasing minerals from the Kivus, foreign companies provide the liquidity that circulates locally in the pre-financing and purchasing of minerals. While foreign companies outside of the immediate Great Lakes region are less likely to negotiate direct arrangements with armed groups and criminal networks of the FARDC, they nevertheless risk providing direct or indirect support to both. When companies do not know the precise origins and conditions under which the minerals they purchase are extracted and transported, it makes it harder for them to take the appropriate measures to mitigate the risks inherent in purchasing minerals from the Kivus, which our due diligence guidelines require.

Due diligence by foreign companies cannot on its own bring peace to eastern DRC, but will induce downstream actors, including comptoirs and mineral traders to improve their own practices and exercise leverage locally, particularly with the military, to progressively demilitarize the mineral trade and sideline armed groups from selling minerals onto legal markets. Pressure and monitoring by local and international NGOs has already proven to be critical, but when it comes from foreign companies providing the financing for the trade, mineral traders and comptoirs are likely to be much more responsive and proactive in engaging Congolese authorities about real solutions.

  1. The due diligence standards that you propose are very rigorous, especially the second option, which I gather is your preferred one. Some will argue that these standards are too high and will prompt an embargo on all minerals from the Congo – what do you say to this? 

The due diligence guidelines are consistent with guidelines on due diligence in conflict and high risk areas drawn up by an OECD-hosted working group to which business has already signed up. We have strived in formulating our due diligence guidelines to to find a middle ground where the obligations are reasonable and doable for companies, precisely so they do not give up and pull out. The essence of the guidelines is to require companies to take all reasonable steps to mitigate the risk that their purchases are providing support to armed groups and/or criminal networks and perpetrators of serious human rights abuses in the FARDC. Where companies discover their purchases are providing support to armed groups, they should stop buying. Where they discover there is criminal involvement from the FARDC, we ask that companies should seek to alter the situation over an initial six-month period before suspending purchases from a certain area. As the involvement of these criminal networks is so entrenched and takes on so many different forms, if all companies had to conduct due diligence on their supply chains and suspend purchases where they were any armed actors were found to be involved, an embargo would be a de facto immediate reality.

The threat of an external embargo is, we think, a catalyst for change. Without endorsing it ourselves, we have repeatedly warned mineral traders and comptoirs about this very real possibility. At the moment, any eventuality of an embargo resulting from US legislation has been pre-empted by the mining ban imposed by President Kabila himself.

  1. The military operations against the FDLR since 2009 have reduced the rebels’ strength by half and pushed many of their units out of mining areas. And yet, you say that the military operations have not been very effective. Why?

The military operations have indeed dislodged the FDLR from many areas where they had established comfortable bases and important logistical liaison offices. Nevertheless, these operations resulted in few desertions amongst the top command structure and the rebels’ principal bases are mostly intact (if relocated in some cases). For their part, the FDLR have adapted to the prevailing scenario by creating more autonomous smaller units. While this strategy has made it possible for many more low-ranking soldiers to desert due to the weakening of strict command and control, it has paradoxically strengthened the position of mid-ranking commanders who now operate more freely. The FDLR have also built alliances with local Congolese armed groups, thereby exacerbating insecurity in the Kivus to press their case that military operations will not solve the problems of the region.

One of the only major offensive operations that took place during 2010 in South Kivu was illustrative of the weakness of operations against the FDLR. After more than five months of joint planning with MONUSCO, the FARDC attacked an FDLR base in the dense Itombwe forest in early August. Having forced the FDLR to retreat for five days, the FARDC soldiers complained of a lack of UN rations and they eventually departed allowing the rebels to return safely. While geography is certainly a serious obstacle, outcomes such as these can also be attributed to the interests of criminal networks within the FARDC, who have little incentive for the war to end.

  1. Much of the focus on the international community with regards to the FDLR has been on their leaders in Europe and the US. Is this focus justified? How crucial are these leaders in running the organization?

Although few funds are actually sent to the military branch (FOCA) in the DRC, the FDLR has an elaborate political structure that supports the organization through multiple regional committees in Africa, Europe, and North America. The arrests of key FDLR political figures over the past year represent important signals that diaspora leaders cannot continue to operate with impunity. FDLR internal statutes stipulate that these political leaders are ultimately responsible for major operational decisions on the ground in the eastern Congo. However, the new President and Vice-President are now both high-ranking military commanders based in the Kivus, signifying a dramatic shift for the organization that no longer needs to rely on “detached” civilian politicians siting in European capitals for directives. This has had the perverse effect of empowering the military leadership on the ground which, according to some sources, always resented the power of the diaspora leadership anyway. This is likely an opportunity for military leaders to take decisions which will benefit themselves personally and operationally and be less concerned with responses from international media and diplomats, as illustrated through the FDLR’s marked rise in kidnappings and pillage attacks.

  1. The GoE was initially intended to prevent arms from entering the region to fuel the conflict. Today, however, your work is only partially related to arms trafficking. Why?

While there still are movements of small quantities of weapons across regional borders into the DRC, as previous reports have pointed out, the majority of weapons used by armed groups in the Kivus are either leaked from FARDC stockpiles or remain from the various phases of the last 14 years of war.  The Congolese government no longer has any restrictions as to the arms that that it can purchase and import as long as they are notified to the Sanctions Committee. However, the improved management of weapons held by the Congolese government is critical to ensuring that local markets are not replenished.

Posted by Jason Stearns at 5:50 AM