Congo Siasa

What does the arrest of top FDLR commander mean?

Today, the Congolese government transferred General Leopold Mujyambere, the chief of staff of the FDLR, to Kinshasa. He had been arrested several days ago in Goma by the Congolese intelligence service after his return from southern Africa. What does this arrest mean?

First, the government is right to make a big deal of this. This is the most important FDLR commander ever arrested by the Congolese. In fact, there are almost no high-ranking FDLR commanders who have ever been arrested by the Congolese (Ladislas Ntaganzwa, who was arrested and handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in March, was a civilian with no official role in the FDLR). Several have been killed by Rwandan special forces and by local militias, but nobody of this calibre has been arrested on Congolese soil.

Secondly, this could be a sign of a deepening rift within the FDLR. The organization, which is still by far the largest armed group in the eastern Congo, has been whittled down from around 6,000 in 2008 to roughly 1,500-2,500 today (some estimates are even lower). Over the past year, the Congolese army has launched attacks against the FDLR as part of its Operations Sokola II. While the operations have had little impact on the group’s command structure, they did manage to dislodge the rebels from their headquarters around Buleusa and Ihula in Lubero/Walikale territories (the offensive also employed local ethnic militia, which has in turned fanned the flames of local ethnic conflict between the Nande and the Hutu communities). This military pressure has exacerbated internal tensions within the group, which are difficult to parse but seem to be serious.

The leadership is split between those close to General Sylvestre Mudacumura, the overall commander, and those more loyal to General Victor Byiringiro, the acting president of the group. This split is still informal, and officially the FDLR are all part of one cohesive command structure, but some officers suspect that Mujyambere, who was close to Mudacumura, was sold out by his rivals. A similar fate allegedly befell another senior FDLR officer, who was reportedly arrested in Tanzania several months ago. If these tensions are real––we should know more when the UN Group of Experts Report is released in coming weeks––then the UN and Congolese government may make more headway in trying to drive a wedge between the factions and perhaps even encouraging some leaders to leave. Diplomats have toyed with the idea of a third country of exile for FDLR leaders for several years, but have not invested the time and resources necessary to make this a reality.

What happens with Mujyambere himself is also important. According to a 2008 report for the Rwandan demobilization commission, Mujyambere may have been outside of Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and a UN official based in the eastern Congo told me thought that he hadn’t been involved in the genocide. However, Mujyambere may committed crimes on Congolese soil ––Human Rights Watch said he was probably involved in a series of massacres in South Kivu, where he was the commander of the FDLR division, in 2009. If this is true, the Congolese courts could send a strong sign by holding their first trial of a major FDLR officer.