Was the Congolese army ordered to rape in Minova?

Maria Eriksson Baaz is Associate Professor at the Nordic Africa Institute and the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University. Judith Verweijen is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University and the Faculty of Military Sciences at the Netherlands Defense Academy.

A BBC reportage that aired this week asserts with conviction that the rapes committed last November by the Congolese army (FARDC) in Minova were ordered, claiming they have “uncovered evidence” for this. Yet, the basis of this “evidence” is rather thin. But that is just one problem with  this BBC reportage, which is a glaring example of irresponsible, sensationalist journalism that hampers, rather than facilitates, the efforts to tackle the problems of large-scale sexual violence and army indiscipline in the DRC.

So why is this piece of journalism problematic? Let us start with the nature of the “evidence” presented, which is based on the testimonies of a few soldiers (whom we can only assume were indeed those present in Minova).Their stories are neither cross-checked, nor put in context, or subjected to thorough analysis. Rather, the BBC reportage “reflects the ease with which media headlines turn ‘testimony’ into ‘confirmation’”, as observed earlier by Johan Pottier in relation to reports on cannibalism in the DRC. The reporting fails to recognize that all accounts and testimonies, regardless the story-teller, are also performances informed by various interests and assumptions.  Importantly, they are often shaped by what the storyteller believes the interviewer wants to hear. This general feature of story-telling is not in any way less prominent in conflict settings, on the contrary. As concluded by Danny Hoffman in relation to Liberia and Sierra Leone, following the growing role of media in war zones, visibility has become increasingly important for combatants, as “to be seen is known to be profitable and becomes an end in itself”. This often entails quenching the thirst for stories of brutal, savage African warriors, featuring outrageous atrocities.

We are not claiming that the soldiers in the BBC reportage are necessarily fabricating “untruths”or that one of them did not –  as he states –  rape 53 women.  These soldiers’ narratives, no matter how much induced by the camera (and perhaps the expected or real related fee), are one perspective, one possible truth among many, and they should be valued as such. But they do not allow for drawing conclusions spread in screaming headlines as authoritative, unquestionable truths (“DR Congo Soldiers ‘ordered to rape’ women”).

Moreover, the soldiers’ narratives appear somewhat contradictory to the analysis of the context made by a human rights researcher at the beginning of the reportage. The latter tells us that there was total disorder and chaos, as the withdrawing FARDC fell apart in bands of uncontrolled soldiers, looting and raping. This seems to indicate that the command chain had broken down.  Indeed, as concluded by The Guardian, “commanders had disappeared and the battalion and regiment structures had disintegrated”.

But then one soldier refers to “the colonel who ordered him to rape”. This evokes numerous questions. Most importantly, one can wonder how, in a situation of a breakdown of the command chain and on-going chaotic movement, an order given by what we presume is a regiment or battalion commander (given the rank of colonel) can be somehow passed down to a foot soldier (via company and platoon commanders, who can often only communicate via mobile phones that quickly run out of battery at the frontlines)?

We certainly do not claim that no orders were given; we simply do not know. It might not even be possible to uncover the “truth” in such complex situations as Minova in the first place, in light of the obvious difficulties with self-reporting and eye witness reports, as established by an important body of research (see also here and here).  However, we do think that any analysis of the events should take the nature of the FARDC into consideration. Most importantly, it must consider that what is called in military sociological terms “vertical cohesion”, or the bonding and trust between soldiers and their superiors, is extremely low in the FARDC. This reduces the overall capacity of commanders to control and motivate their troops, while lowering the threshold for the breakdown of discipline.

The reasons for low cohesion in the FARDC are many. One factor is the constant restructuring and breaking up of units, causing soldiers to frequently face new superiors.  In the span of only three years (2008-2011), we have seen the disbanding of the Integrated Brigades, the creation of the Kimia II/Amana Leo brigades and then regiments. However, none of this restructuring has been followed by extensive training. Yet, training is widely recognized as one of the most effective tools for fostering cohesion in armed forces, as highlighted recently once more by Anthony King;  it contributes to the socializing of troops into routinized command procedures, which fosters the standardized and predictable behaviour that is at the core of discipline. None of this is present in the FARDC, where command styles vary per commander and troops very seldom engage in any training, since they are deployed permanently at the frontlines.

Another reason for low cohesion is the distribution of command positions on the basis of political/patronage criteria instead of merit. The frustration engendered by placing troops under the command of officers and NCOs who are less experienced and less educated than their subordinates is profound. This also leads to subordination, since troops simply lack trust in commanders judged incompetent and may refuse to execute orders deemed life-endangering. A final factor are the bad service conditions in the FARDC and the enormous gap in income between superior officers and the rank-and-file.  This creates a strong resentment that is potentially explosive, especially when it gets mixed up with identity-based tensions, power struggles, and suspicions that superiors are in connivance with the enemy.

The findings of our research, based on several years of fieldwork, indicate that due to this low cohesion (in combination with a number of other factors that undermine command and control) abuses in the FARDC are in many cases not explicitly ordered. Certainly, this does not apply across the board, since there are large variations per commander. Furthermore, what can be called “a permissive climate” (or the broad behavioural parameters of troops set by the commandment) plays an important role in all cases of abuse. In fact, it appears that commanders sometimes do not dare to intervene in case of misconduct, as they fear their troops might turn against them.

These findings do not in any sense imply that one embraces an apologetic position: the fact that no explicit orders are given does not diminish command responsibility for misconduct. However, it does indicate that punishing commanders and perpetrators is far from enough to improve the ways in which the FARDC acts on and off the battlefield.  When commanders’ grip over their subordinates is low, breakdowns in discipline might easily reoccur, especially in combat-related situations.

While we do not know whether orders in Minova were given or not, we do know that this incident has highlighted once more the dangers of the fragile cohesion and tenuous command and control in the FARDC. These are phenomena that cannot be solved with judicial action alone, but require prolonged periods of training, the re-establishment of meritocracy, the improvement of service conditions and an end to the on-going integration of rebel fighters.

Unfortunately, such important discussions get overshadowed by sensationalist media reporting such as this week’s BBC reportage. The latter is also questionable for interfering in on-going judicial investigations, since it establishes an interpretation of the events as “truth”, ahead of trial. Finally, it appears unethical in that it does not sufficiently protect the identity of the informants, as many of their personal details are revealed. In sum, this BBC reportage represents a true case of misguided journalism.  The money wasted on flying in the production crew could have certainly been of more use to the victims of the rape and looting in Minova.

Posted by Jason Stearns