With deadline fast approaching, politics and logistics get in the way of operations against the FDLR

Congolese Minister of Information Lambert Mende, on a visit to FDLR combatants in Kanyabayonga with Deputy SRSG for MONUSCO Abdallah Wafi/Courtesy of Radio Okapi

It has been exactly one year since Martin Kobler, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo, tweeted: “”The number one priority for MONUSCO is now the FDLR.” It has now been nine months since a regional organization, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, called for a military offensive against the FDLR. As previously noted here, the UN and foreign diplomats had seen the attack on the FDLR as part of the grand bargain aimed at bringing an end to the regional dimension of war in the country: First get rid of the M23, then deal with the FDLR.

To date, no real operations against the FDLR have taken place. Why the delay?

On 2 July 2014, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and ICGLR decided to give the FDLR six months to voluntarily disarm. The FDLR sent some 200 soldiers and an equal number of dependents to a military camp in Kisangani as a gesture of goodwill, although many of those soldiers were not fit to fight anyway. That goodwill has now in theory come to an end––and yet, with the 2 January 2015 looming, it is likely that we will see little immediate concerted action against the group.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is political. Relations between countries in the region have soured in recent years, and Tanzania and South Africa––the two largest contributors to the UN’s new Force Intervention Brigade (FIB)––are eager to use play the FDLR card against Rwanda. For South Africa, the resentment stems from the repeated assassination attempts against Rwandan opposition members on South African soil, including during the middle of the World Cup in 2010. Pretoria is also keen on securing access to hydroelectric power in the Congo through the construction of various parts of the Inga dam. Just in the past weeks, a blackout in Durban, President Jacob Zuma’s home base, has cost their economy millions.

Tanzania’s involvement is less straightforward. According to several Tanzanian officials, the animosity boils down to a personal dispute between Presidents Paul Kagame and Jakaya Kikwete. On 26 May 2013, Kikwete suggested in a speech at the African Union that Rwanda negotiate with its enemies, just as other countries in the region had done. This then unleashed a torrent of criticism from Kigali, ranging from a dismissive Kagame calling Kikwete’s comments “utter nonsense” and “dancing on the graves of our people,” to the simply obscene caricatures published on pro-government websites in Rwanda. There have also been suggestions, stemming from a WikiLeaks cable, that Kikwete’s wife Salma is a cousin of former Rwandan President Habyarimana (a claim that many Tanzanians say is nonsense).

President Kikwete, carrying FDLR on his back/The Exposer, 22 July 2014
In return, Tanzanian officials have reportedly retorted that Kagame “will be whipped like a small boy” and have referred to the FDLR as freedom fighters. In recent meetings with Tanzanian officials, foreign diplomats report that the former have referred to all FDLR as refugees and depict the conflict in ethnic terms as Tutsi against Hutu. According to those same sources, the Tanzanian government is reluctant to authorize their troops to launch operations against the FDLR. A UN official, speaking under the condition of anonymity, suggested this was one of the reasons that the Tanzanians were being deployed against the ADF in North Kivu and not against the FDLR. (Not all Tanzanian officials, however, toe this line, and others insist that their troops will carry out UN orders regardless).
The other reason that military operations against the Rwandan rebels may be delayed is due logistical constraints. The UN has recently moved the HQ of its Force Intervention Brigade to Beni to counter attacks by the ADF rebellion, which––along with other, nebulous actors––may have killed up to 250 people since October. This means that its main fighting force has been tied down. While the entire peacekeeping force is supposed to participate in operations against armed groups, other contingents have been reticent to take risky, offensive action––as the Crisis Group documents in a new report released today.
Nonetheless, UN officials say that they have been planning joint military operations against the FDLR with their Congolese counterparts for the past several weeks, and that they will try to launch operations following the January deadline. The FDLR, for their part, have told their contacts in the UN that they are planning to announce another goodwill gesture in order to stave off an attack.
We will see in two-and-a-half weeks.