WHAT’S the difference between a regular soldier from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and a rebel from one of the scores of armed militias that scour this expansive mineral-laden country? The newness of his uniform? His weight? The way he walks? The firearm he carries?
A notable difference is sometimes hard to discern. Therein lies the problem. No one knows who is in control. The army often mirrors its rebel opponents. Large parts of the country are in chaos.
Like the insurgents, Congolese soldiers are regularly involved in robbery, racketeering, rape and the plundering of natural resources, according to a May 2014 report from the International Peace Information Service (IPIS), a think-tank based in Antwerp, Belgium. In the eastern DRC, the armed forces (Forces Armées de la République démocratique du Congo, FARDC) operate in 383 of the 1 088 mines visited by the report’s authors. Despite various attempts to reform the Congolese army, illegal taxation by these regulars is even more frequent than rebel group interference in the country’s many mines.
The DRC’s armed forces are often incompetent, underpaid and powerless in the face of the myriad rebel groups that still plague the DRC. They compete with these groups for control of gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten.
Optimism reached new heights in the DRC when the M23 rebels were defeated in November 2013. But the credit for this victory goes to the UN’s intervention brigade. Its 3 069 peacekeepers from Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania exercised a unique mandate and launched an offensive that crushed the Rwandan-backed rebels. But since this triumph, other rebel groups have filled the space vacated by the M23.
Insecurity has continued to prevail on several fronts with the massacres of more than 250 people in the Beni area of North Kivu between October and early December 2014 (at the time of writing).
Eleven years after the end of Africa’s great war, the DRC remains a fragile state. The army is largely to blame. In early November, the UN Security Council expressed its concern about human rights and international law violations by armed groups and Congolese security and defence forces.
Also in November, the DRC celebrated the 15th anniversary of the UN’s largest operation with a total of 22,016 uniformed personnel from 51 countries, including 19 815 soldiers, with a yearly budget of $1.39-billion. This is more than three times the FARDC’s annual budget of $400-million in 2014, according to Jean-Jacques Wondo, a Congolese military expert.
Time and again, the Congolese military are exposed as the source of trouble. After the M23 victory, 23 FARDC officers and soldiers were accused of the January 2nd 2014 killing of Colonel Mamadou Ndala, the operational commander of the army’s rapid reaction unit, which fought alongside the UN’s intervention brigade.
The FARDC’s chronic indiscipline can be traced back to 1885 when Belgium’s King Leopold II created the Force Publique. Its raison d’être was to protect his economic interests, fight Arab slave-traders and repress those who opposed forced labour recruitment for the collection of rubber and ivory. Apart from the first and second world wars, when this private army was used to fight the Germans in Cameroon, Rhodesia, Tanzania and Togo, the Force Publique’s main role was to keep civilians under control.
It maintained this function under long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who renamed the country Zaire after he seized power in 1965. The Force Publique’s motto was civil azali Monguna ya soldat (“the civilian is the enemy of the soldier” in Lingala) according to Daniel Monguya in his 1977 The Secret History of Zaire. Cases of mutinies before and after independence are well documented.
A legacy of dishonest leadership is one of the root causes of the army’s indiscipline, corruption and brutality. In 1996 generals were selling weapons and fuel to neighbouring states while trafficking in gold and siphoning money off their own Zairian troops, who in turn began increasingly to harass Congolese civilians, Wondo said during an interview. Unfortunately, old habits die hard: in July 2014, FARDC soldiers killed a fellow payroll officer, according to Radio France Internationale.
Poor salaries are also to blame. They range from $56 per month for a rank-and-file soldier to $86 for an army general, according to Mbokamosika, a website which claims to have obtained this information from defence ministry documents.
Low salaries do not attract professional soldiers. Recruitment is often made on the basis of loyalty and ethnicity, not competence, Wondo told Africa in Fact. This is a throwback to the Mobuto era when dancing and singing for Zaire’s “Guide” were required skills to join the army, according to Wondo’s 2013 book on the Congolese army. In addition, many soldiers live with their wives and children in military camps, further lowering professional standards.
Poor, inadequate and inappropriate equipment, such as the heavy Russian-made T-55 tanks bought to chase rebels in the mountains of North Kivu in 2010, also drag down the Congolese army. These tanks were designed to operate in open landscapes and not the craggy and forested terrain of the Kivus.
Also to blame for the FARDC’s problems is the failed demobilisation process following the 1998-2003 war. The plan was for thousands of ragtag rebels from all sides to join the regular army. Some of the responsibility may lie with the UN mission: its presence may have led the military to rely on foreign peacekeepers instead of training these soldiers to do the job.
Another problem related to the demobilisation is the imbalance between the large proportion of high-ranking officers (26%) and low-ranking officers (39%) on the one hand, and the small proportion of rank-and-file troops (35%) on the other. This situation can be traced back to the 2002 Sun City peace talks in South Africa, where the Congolese government and rebel groups promoted many soldiers, regardless of their experience or skills.
In addition, Joseph Kabila, the rebel leader who became president, has steadfastly opposed the presence of a strong army that could challenge his presidential guard. It is an open secret that his 15 000-strong Republican Guard, much like Mobutu’s Special Presidential Division, is getting the lion’s share of armaments and other hardware, according to Christoph Vogel, a political scientist, in a piece published by the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations, a Brussels-based think-tank, in February 2014.
The president’s elite force is not even accountable to the FARDC chief of staff, Wondo stressed in an interview. Kabila wants to keep the army weak to prevent a coup, according to Messrs Wondo and Vogel, as well as insiders in Parliament and the army who spoke on conditions of anonymity.
Attempts to reorganise the FARDC through 29 presidential decrees issued last September are unlikely to work, Wondo added.
Geographical differences among high-ranking FARDC officers also play a role in the army’s disorganisation. Gen Didier Etumba, chief of staff, comes from Mobutu’s Equateur province in the west. He is isolated from other officers who come from eastern provinces such as Katanga (the birthplace of Kabila’s late father), the Kivus, Maniema or Province Orientale.
Clearly coming from the east is more favourable. The defence minister, Aimé Ngoy Mukena, the ground forces chief of staff, Maj-Gen Dieudonné Banze, the air force chief of staff, Brig Enoch Numbi, and the interim commander of the Republican Guard, Brig Ilunga Kampete, all hail from the south-eastern Katanga province.
These appointments have a clear political objective, Wondo said. Kabila is preparing for the 2016 presidential election although his constitutionally-mandated two terms will be up. He is rewarding those who represent the areas where he did well in the 2011 election and making sure those areas where he is weakest have tough top brass. Last September Kabila appointed 40 operational commanders, including the notorious Gabriel Amisi, over the defence area of three western provinces, Equateur, Bas-Congo and Kinshasa, which are hostile to Kabila. (Amisi gained notoriety by crushing a mutiny through summary executions, beatings, rape and looting in 2002 inside the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy, one of the main protagonists of the 1998-2003 war, according to Human Rights Watch.)
The defence budget has increased by over 60% since 2013 to $400-million in 2014, mainly to pay for the war effort against the M23 and arms purchases from the Czech Republic, Serbia and Ukraine. But FARDC forces have shrunk from 330 000 to 140 000 between 2004 and 2014, according to EU and DRC defence ministry estimates.
One of the paradoxes of the DRC is that few countries have received as much foreign technical assistance for such disastrous results. Besides the UN and the European Union, which is training infantry and artillery officers at two military academies, the DRC army benefits from at least 14 bilateral military cooperation agreements, according to Wondo and others.
Angola, Belgium, France, South Africa and the US are training or have trained army battalions. Belarus and Ukraine have trained pilots. The Czech Republic and Russia have provided T-55 tanks and trained officers to man them. Serbia sent instructors to the DRC’s military academies. North Korean and Moroccan trainers are present in the Republican Guard, which also benefits from the anti-riot and artillery skills of Egyptian experts. The Chinese provide training in logistics and communications.
Unfortunately, the training and equipment provided by these foreign partners are not coordinated and the army’s performance remains below par. After training courses are completed, many soldiers are neither integrated into army units nor given a salary or accommodation. Many live on the streets like vagrants, according to October 2014 press reports from Kinshasa, the capital.
Even when the military curriculum includes human rights training, the lessons are not learnt. The UN Joint Human Rights Office reported in May 2013 that members of the Congolese 391st Commando Battalion, who were trained by US special forces, participated in a range of atrocities, including the mass rape of at least 102 women and 33 young girls in eastern Congo, the arbitrary execution of at least two people and the widespread looting of villages. On June 12 2012, the military court of Kindu, capital of the eastern Maniema province, condemned three commandos of the FARDC’s 322nd battalion, who were trained by Belgian instructors, to prison sentences for the murder of a woman, reported UN-backed Radio Okapi.
Clearly, the DRC’s military needs major reform. All the foreign training and dollars will do little good without political will at the top to make these clearly needed changes. Until then, chaos and insurgencies will continue to prevail. The only difference between the army and the rebels is that the Congolese government backs one.
François Misser is a Brussels-based freelance journalist who has been covering Central Africa since 1981
This article first appeared on Good Governance Africa’s website