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The Beni killings: Our findings

The Congo Research Group (CRG) conducted two years of research into the massacres around Beni, interviewing 245 sources, including many perpetrators and eyewitnesses. The report is 93 pages long (read it here) and worth reading for every sub-clause. For those with limited time, here’s a quick summary, outlining how the Congolese army, Ugandan Islamist rebels, a former rebellion linked to the opposition, and local militias were all involved in the killings:

  1. How did the massacres begin?

We find that this series of massacres began in July 2013, but that its roots go back much further. Since the early 1990s, deep and often ambiguous ties had emerged between the Ugandan ADF rebels, local chiefs and—since 2000—members of the former APC armed group, which used to be led by Mbusa Nyamwisi. This is the trifecta of groups, often operating together, that you need to examine to understand the origins of the massacres:

  • exAPC:

The APC were one of the most successful armed groups during the Second Congo War (1998-2003), in the sense that they had broad-based support among the local population and local elites (the APC were the armed branch of the RCD/K-ML rebellion based out of Beni at this time). An innovative system of providing businessmen with tax exonerations in return for lump-sum payment helped, and furthered a booming import-export market. It did not hurt that this area of the Congo is dominated by the Nande ethnic group, from which Mbusa Nyamwisi comes.

Mbusa joined the government in 2003 and held a variety of ministerial positions until 2010, when he went into opposition. Since then, some of his former officers began mobilizing around Beni in order to preserve their influence. That mobilization increased in 2012-2013, when ex-APC officers struck up an informal alliance with the M23 rebellion further south. Hence, when the Congolese army began operations in this area in 2013, it was perceived by both the APC and ADF as the last in a series of attempts to dismantle their networks in Beni. They launched the 2013 massacres as a means to create space for their new rebellion.

For the purposes of this report, it is important to highlight that the APC developed close ties with both the Ugandan ADF and local militias linked to customary chiefs from diverse ethnic backgrounds around Beni.

  • ADF: 

The Allied Democratic Forces is a Ugandan armed group that has adopted increasing Islamist leanings in recent years. Born in 1995 out of a dispute within the Ugandan Muslim community, it launched a rebellion against the Ugandan government out of rear bases in the Ruwenzori mountains on the Congo-Uganda border. It was initially supported by the Zairian and Sudanese governments. During the various Congo wars, it was attacked by the Ugandan army and its Congolese allies, leading it to forge deep ties with local militias, as well as (at times) with the APC.

Since 2005, the Congolese army has launched at least three major offensives against the ADF. The last one was called Sukola I, and dates to late 2013. This offensive prompted the ADF to engage in massacres––often in collaboration with ex-APC officers and local militia––to protect is supply lines, punish local collaborators, and distract the Congolese army’s attention. The ADF lost many troops and dependents to the Sukola I offensive in early 2014, although some of its members collaborated with Sukola I officers later on. Its leader Jamil Mukulu was arrested in Tanzania in 2015, but it has been able to persist with its chain of command largely intact and two areas of deployment, one close to the border with Ituri, and the other south, toward Lake Edward.

  • Local militia:

While the Nande community forms the demographic majority of Beni territory and dominates local politics and the economy, there are large minority communities. Since colonial times, these minorities have felt marginalized from positions of power and encroached upon by Nande migrants who buy up land. The Bapakombe and Vuba communities provide examples of this trend in Beni, and each mobilized a small militia to defend their rights (they are not the only minority communities to do so in Beni).The Vuba, in particular, also had deep ties––often cemented through marriage and recruitment––with ADF officers.  The Bapakombe militia developed a strong connection with the APC, a relationship that continued after the APC officially disbanded in 2003, and also held ties with the ADF. Our research shows that many of the massacres featured the involvement of local militias, who appear to have taken advantage of the killings to target rival chiefs and Nande migrants, and to assert their influence locally.

In all of these massacres, it is important to note that the participation of the ex-APC, ADF, and local militias was not exclusive of the others: many of the attacks assembled joint killing squads.  This kind of collaboration was not new: the ex-APC and ADF colluded for some military campaigns as early as the Second War, and the report demonstrates similar joint armed group operations occurred in 2010 and 2012-2013 before the killings started. Over the course of the wave of violence started in 2014, this dynamic shifted slightly to incorporate certain Sukola I officers who also grew complicit in the killings, and who often operated through shifting relationships with these actors to do so.

  1. Why would these ex-APC resort to killing civilians to build up a rebellion?

When we interviewed ex-APC participants in the killings of 2013 and 2014, several said that they wanted to “create space for a new rebellion,” and explicitly said that they planned to do so by “sowing terror” or “instilling fear” in civilian populations to prompt them to flee.  As direct participants report, there seem to have been two rationales behind this: First, it would displace people, making it easier to install bases for armed groups without locals knowing what was going on. Secondly, these attacks were planned as anonymous strikes it would allow them to blame the Congolese army for the attacks, or at least for being unable to protect the population, delegitimizing the government and paving the way for a new rebellion.

Motive, however, is also difficult to discern.

  1. Was Mbusa Nyamwisi behind this initially?

In general, the report is cautious about attributing ultimate responsibility, whether in regard to ex-APC, ADF, or FARDC. In both cases, the involvement of senior ex-APC and FARDC officers is clear, but it is not necessarily clear for whom they were ultimately working.

Mbusa was certainly linked to the mobilization of ex-APC during the 2012 to 2013 period, when the M23 rebellion was active. And many recruits for the 2013 and 2014 killings were told that Mbusa was in charge of their group. But some of the ex-APC officers involved, especially General Bwambale Kakolele, are notorious double-dealers. Kakolele, who played a key role in the 2012 to 2013 mobilization, was officially working for the Congolese government at the time. Other ex-APC officers, such as John Tshibangu and Tahanga Nyoro, were affiliated with the M23 and may have working with other networks at the time.

By late 2014 FARDC officers in the Sukola I campaign––under General Akili Mundos––had brought some key ex-APC on board.  Mundos operated alongside ex-APC officers to run Sukola I (including Dieudonné Muhima, Col. Marcel Kaheraya (T1) and Col. Muhindo Charles Lwanga (S3) as well as a long standing collaborator of ex-APC officers, Adrian Loni).   At this point, the initial ex-APC push for the massacres appears to have continued, while another subset switched sides to partner with Mundos, also contributing to the killings from these positions.  Hence, which side some ex-APC officers were on as the 2014 killings continued became difficult to track.

CRG reached out to Mbusa Nyamwisi, who rejected any involvement in the armed groups around Beni or in the massacres. However, he did say that many of his former officers had been bought off by the FARDC and were participating in the massacres, including Kakolele, and that ex-APC officer Samuel Birotsho participated in the killing of the first Sukola I commander, Mamadou.

  1. How did the FARDC get involved?

This is the most disturbing part of this narrative.  While under the leadership of General Bauma the Congolese army had pursued a major offensive against the ADF, losing hundreds of troops, when Bauma died in August 2014, the approach changed. General Akili Mundos took over, and the military offensive slowed down. According to numerous sources, senior FARDC officers were complicit in the massacres that began in October 2014 around Beni town.

It is also difficult to establish intent, but according to testimonies from Congolese army soldiers and local militia combatants with whom they collaborated, Mundos thought it was more realistic to coopt rather than dismantle these local armed groups. Interviews with direct sources indicate that some ex-APC who worked with Mundos in the Sukola I campaign in the FARDC had informed Mundos of the plans that ex-APC had underway to carry out small scale killings designed to “sow terror,” and that Mundos retaliated by responding in kind, organizing his own groups of killers to carry out an independent set of attacks.  While it is not unusual for the Congolese army to collaborate or coops local armed groups, it is unusual for them to collaborate in such extensive violence against civilians.

  1. How you be sure that your conclusions are true?

We interviewed 245 sources, including dozens of those directly involved.  This builds on an additional 88 sources from CRG’s previous rounds of research.  It took us a very long time: over two years of cultivating relations and conducting interviews.  The quality of our sources is important.  Previous research including from the Group of Experts noted that even eyewitnesses to the killings had difficulty identifying perpetrators.  For this reason, we shifted strategy away from relying on witness testimonies as the primary input for the report, and invested in a long process of identifying and meeting with the participants in the killings themselves: these include the rank-and-file perpetrators who carried out the attacks, recruiters, and individuals privy to the planning process.  In every case, interviews were conducted without the need for a translator, ensuring that sources felt comfortable and did not self-edit in the presence of a third party.  For every piece of evidence we mention, we have three independent and reliable sources to back it up.  The report is meticulously cited, with 30 pages of endnotes that demonstrate the diversity of sources for its findings.

Our conclusions build on more tentative evidence provided by internal MONUSCO documents and UN Group of Experts reports.  These reports identify the same cast of characters involved, and also concluded that all of these actors we mention were involved at different stages in the massacres.  Corroboration among independent investigations provides a check on the external validity of our results.

  1. What are your main recommendations?

You can find our list of recommendations at the beginning of the report. Here are the main ones:

  • The office of the Congolese chief military prosecutor should expand its investigation to examine the involvement of senior FARDC officers, including General Muhindo Akili Mundos and his staff.
  • Congolese parliament should set up a serious parliamentary inquiry into the violence, with the mandate to question FARDC officers and other actors involved in the conflict.
  • MONUSCO should suspend military cooperation with the FARDC around Beni pending their own internal investigations into the massacres, FARDC complicity, and MONUSCO’s own conduct.
  • In general, MONUSCO should shift investments from military support to the FARDC to intelligence gathering and analysis in order to map relations among violent networks, including within the national army.
  • The provincial assembly of North Kivu should launch its own fact-finding mission, with a focus on understanding the social dynamics that led to the participation of local chiefs in the violence, in view of proposing long-term reconciliation initiatives.
  • The United Nations Security Council should take action on the reports submitted by the UN Group of Experts and sanction individuals involved in the violence around Beni.
  • Acting under Article 58 of its Charter, The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights should constitute an investigative team to establish responsibility for the massacres around Beni between October 2014 and December 2016.
  • The Ugandan government should set up a comprehensive demobilization, deradicalization and reintegration plan to reduce recidivism of ADF returnees, and it should implement a national strategy to counter the radicalization of its vulnerable citizens to ADF recruitment.