East Africa

Congo: Kabila reshuffles his military pack – By Alex Ntung

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The recent and unprecedented reshuffle of the leadership of the military (FARDC) in the DRC is the most important reorganisation of the institution’s command chains ever made. The FARDC was reconstructed in a form recognisable today following the end of the Second Congo War in July 2003 and the Inter-Congolese Dialogue and Global and Inclusive Agreement on the Transition in December 2002. This agreement envisaged new national armed forces formed from Joseph Kabila’s army (backed by Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia), the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD)  – backed by Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda – the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) – backed by Uganda – and a coalition of Mayi Mayi militia groups (backed by internal nationalists).

In January 2009, following two years of renewed fighting in North Kivu, another peace deal between Joseph Kabila’s new integrated army and the CNDP (National Congress for People’s Defence), headed by General Laurent Nkunda, was signed. As result, CNDP soldiers were integrated into the national army.

The creation of three military defence zones

The present military reorganisation has seen the creation of three National Defence Zones, to be commanded by the FARDC chiefs and the heads of military regions. One zone includes the provinces of Bandundu, Bas-Congo, Equateur and Kinshasa. The second will oversee the provinces of the two Kasais and Katanga. The third has responsibility for the provinces of South and North Kivu, Oriental and Maniema.

This restructure is the President’s new strategy for maintaining military control through his most trusted officers within the army hierarchy, and managing local threats across the country’s regions. From the Army Chief of Staff, to the head of every Defence Zone and Military Region, he has introduced a structure where, in most cases, a senior commander from the former National Army (before the rebel group reintegration) oversees two or four Vice Commanders mainly from the former rebel groups.

Controversy over military leader nominations

General Gabriel Amisi Kumba, widely known by his former radio call sign ‘Tango Four’, is one of the newly-nominated military leaders considered particularly controversial. While General Gabriel Amisi  has always been a loyal ally to Kabila, he was accused in the 2010 UN Experts Group Report on Congo of selling weapons to rebel groups responsible for massacring civilians in the East and ‘profiting from blood gold’.

Soon after the release of this report General Kumba was suspended as Army Chief of Staff and arrested. However, this year the Military High Court found him innocent of all charges. In September 2014, Kabila reportedly faced a coup threat from the Republican Guard, formerly known as Special Presidential Security Guard (SPSG), over the possible nomination of General Kumba as the Army Chief of Staff.  Kabila considered this threat to be the greatest to the presidency since the assassination of his father.  Consequently, General Kumba was instead nominated to head a Defence Zone consisting of Kinshasa and western provinces.

The reshuffle also increased speculation over the deployment of the chief of the 10th Military Region (South Kivu), General Pacifique Masunzu, to Kamina in Katanga province. Masunzu is and remains a symbol of Kabila’s resistance to Rwanda. In 2003, he became a dissident against the Rwandan-backed RCD – the main armed opposition at the time.

General Masunzu claimed to be rebelling against both the RCD movement and the DRC authorities in defence of his ethnic group, the Banyamulenge. Later, he was reintegrated in the National Army and became one of Kabila’s most trusted military leaders in the East and a symbol of resistance against the Rwandan government.

Notably, General Masunzu has been able to maintain order and security in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province. He was completely trusted by Bashi ethnic group leaders who have benefited from his stable leadership which allowed them to trade and secure the city’s commercial interests.

For the Banyamulenge he was a necessary evil – he is unpopular within his own community as he is accused of not intervening to protect them against attacks by Mayi Mayi militias groups and other FARDC soldiers.  Extremist nationalists from Bafulero and Babembe nonetheless perceive his presence in South Kivu as protection for his own community. His deployment to Katanga province raises new fears of violence against the Banyamulenge minority, which could lead to civilian and military self-defence militias.

Kabila: reshuffle, survival and a third term

Kabila is aware that the next elections are likely to lead to renewed violence with many analysts seeing the possibility of secession for some regions. His opposition remains divided and inside the army the culture of violence and impunity remains largely unchallenged.

Politically and militarily, Kabila faces pressure from three groups within his own camp: those who want him to go, those who want him to stay for a third term and those who rely on him for their own survival. Balancing these internal dynamics has created dilemmas and delays within the DRC political leadership.

Those wishing him to go are a minority with limited lucrative advantages or are influenced by nationalist ideas and a perception that a future with Kabila in government threatens their own survival. This is an ‘unstable group’ which Kabila would not wish to rely on.

The group wishing him to stay is relatively weak and lacks political and military influence. The group which continue to support Kabila out of a sense of self-preservation is generally made up by individuals who feel morally indebted for his continued support during his two presidential terms, together with the Rwandophone military leaders who are struggling to remain in the Kivus with the aim of ‘protecting themselves and their own people’.

The Rwandaphone leaders are well aware of the venomous hatred that was expressed towards them in the 2006 and 2011 elections. Candidates expressing the most hostile anti-Rwanda views were considered popular with the Congolese electorate. Kabila knows that this is the only group with a real ‘cause’ which could potentially either remove or support him. Managing this choice will be tricky.

Kabila is aware that it might be dangerous or unpopular to appoint Rwandaphone army commanders to key positions, but he is confident in the loyalty of this group to his leadership. Kabila thus faces a dilemma of re-deploying them across different regions where they are likely to be persecuted by their own troops, or empowering them in other ways which may provide space for ‘external regional influence’ or self-mobilisation like the former M23 and CNDP in the north or the Front Federalistes Republicaines (FRF) in South.

He has chosen the easier option for him, but the riskier one for the Rwandaphone commanders and their communities – re-deploying them across different regions.

Relationship with Rwanda 

Diplomatic relations between Congo and Rwanda (always an up-and-down affair) deteriorated in 2013 following accusations by Congo and backed up by the international community (USA, France and Britain) of Rwanda providing support to M23 rebels. Rwanda has always denied this, but recognised that they have security interests in eastern Congo as the region hosts the former genocide perpetrators (FDLR) which presents a threat to Kigali.

In July 2014, Congolese and Rwandan troops clashed on the border. In November 2013, a new UN intervention brigade launched a joint operation with the DRC army that finally captured the last of the M23 strongholds in the east. For the DRC, this was considered a victory and an important change in Rwandan regional military influence.

A long-disputed security issue between the two countries is the continued existence of the FDLR in eastern Congo. Rwanda has continued to raise concerns about FDLR incursions into the country and FARDC army and FDLR collaborations. General Pacifique Masunzu’s presence in the East was previously considered by Rwanda as an obstacle to defeating FDLR – his deployment to Katanga province is therefore an opportunity to renew diplomatic and military cooperation with Kabila.

Internationally, following the 2011 national election which gave Kabila his second term, Belgium and France increased pressure to arrest General Bosco Ntaganda, who was under an international warrant for crimes against humanity. Kabila’s attempt to respond to this was one of the reasons the M23 rebellion started.

The end of M23 and the current presence of the UN intervention brigade were decisive opportunities for Kabila to reorganise the army to assure Congolese nationalist groups, France and Belgium that the East “will have limited influence by either Congolese or Rwandan Tutsis”. In this reshuffle, Kabila was extremely careful not to make nominations that could be perceived as a threat to his regional partnership which ‘saved’ him from the M23.


The reshuffle reflected efforts to deploy key senior commanders away from their native regions.  To many analysts this is about consolidating democracy and creating an army of national unity beyond local interests. But such analysis is misleading: For progress to take place, Kabila and the international institutions supporting democratic and security reforms must successfully address the underlying issues and implement a policy that promotes national identity and assures physical security for all citizens.

There is no such thing as an army of ‘national unity’ if the country’s ethnic diversity is not recognized and managed successfully alongside a coherent policy to promote common citizenship. An army of national unity is possible if the root causes of the prevailing insecurity are addressed and if the culture of discrimination and divided leadership leading to geopolitical rivalries and regionalisation are tackled head on.

Respect for human rights and humanitarian law, protection of civilians, and recognition of the country’s ethnic diversity and effective military justice must also be embedded into a wider military and security strategy.

Alex Ntung is author, lecturer (conflict studies), professional member of the UK Expert Witness Institute, a DRC analyst and expert adviser on the Great Lakes Region of Africa

Twitter: @AlexMvuka


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