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Exclusive interview on Dongo crisis with Refugees International

The following is an interview with Refugees International’s Camilla Olson (advocate) and Steve Hege (consultant) on the Dongo crisis. They will be releasing a report on Wednesday on the situation there – check it out at Alex Engwete has kindly published a French translation of the interview on his blog here.

Q: Can you give us a brief history of the local dynamics of the conflict? How long have there been tensions between the Boba and the Lobala? What are the main issues of contention?

Camilla: A quick word on the political context: Dongo sector is divided into six groupements, almost all being under the customary leadership of the Lobala tribe. The Boba originate from Bomboma sector to the southwest of the Lobala, but, because they don’t have access to the river and have traditionally had greater opportunities to study, they have come progressively to take up important administrative and commercial positions in Dongo centre, the sector capital.

Boba candidates have also sought to win the key political post of Sector Chief, which under customary law should go to the Lobala but under the current electoral system, anyone can run in the election. The Lobala have won the Sector Chief post each election, but just barely.

Because of the Boba’s growing dominance in Dongo centre and surrounding areas, the Lobala have felt more and more marginalized, and they sought with the recent conflict to express their frustrations through military force.

Q: if I understand correctly, the current conflict did not break out between the Boba and Lobala, but between two sub-groups of the Lobala community, the Inyelle and the Manzaya. Can you explain what the conflict between those two groups was and how it related to the larger conflict between the Boba and Lobala?

Camilla: It’s true that the wider conflict between the Boba and Lobala was initially sparked by localized tensions between two ethnic groups, the Inyelle and the Manzaya.

The Ineylle and Manzaya are both Lobala. Their grievances date back to the 1940s and center around access to fishing ponds, which originally belonged to the Inyelle. At the time, a number of agreements were reached in which the Manzaya would be allowed to fish jointly with the Inyelle. In exchange, the Manzaya would provide security for the ponds since they were known as fierce hunters. Over the years, the Manzaya broke this pact on numerous occasions when they over-fished the ponds without informing the Inyelle.

The situation escalated in 2007 when a Manzaya man was caught illegally fishing in Inyelle territory. He, and his Boba wife, were beaten by the Inyelle population as a result. When compensation was ultimately paid to the Manzaya, leaders in the community, including the father of the Boba woman, deemed that it was insufficient. As a result, the Manzaya seized control of the ponds and blocked the Inyelle from fishing there for the next two years. This led to violent clashes between the two groups, most dramatically in July 2009, the displacement of the entire Manzaya village by the Inyelle and the burning of hundreds of homes.

The Manzaya, while Lobala, have historical ties to the Boba – and when their population was displaced as a result of the violence carried out against them by the Inyelle in 2009, they fled to the Boba controlled area in Equateur. This connection to the Boba is the premise under which Lobala politicians and businessmen came forward and supported the initial Inyelle insurgency against the Manzaya to create a larger platform to defend the rights of the Lobala against the Boba, and address their growing grievances.

Q: Who is Odjani and how did he become the leader of the Inyelle rebels?

Steve: After over a year and a half of not having access to their own fishing ponds, in February 2009, the Inyelle attempted to negotiate with the Manzaya. Despite eleven hours of discussions, the latter ultimately refused to cede any access to the ponds.
As a result, the Inyelle called upon the most famous witchdoctor (“feticheur”) in the region by the name of Ibrahim Mangbama. Mr. Mangbama was said to have often conducted special rites and for former President Mobutu. When Laurent Kabila’s AFDL deposed his privileged client in 1997, Mangbama fled to the Republic of Congo side of the river. The Inyelle hoped he would perform the ceremonies to give them the physical force to defeat the fierce Manzaya. As Mr. Mangbama had been training his son Odjani, he decided to send him in his place to begin forming the young Inyelle in traditional practices to defeat the Manzaya.
By July, it was reported that Odjani had already trained over 350 young Inyelle men. All information we gathered seemed to indicate that Odjani’s original ambitions did not go beyond aiding the Inyelle to simply retake the fishing ponds from Manzaya.

Q: What role did national politicians and military officers play in the creation of the insurgency?

Steve: In light of their clear success in retaking the fishing ponds under the leadership of Odjani, external Lobala notables throughout the DRC and in the diaspora joined in supporting his forces with the hope of creating a wider platform to defend their socio-economic and political marginalization at the hands of the Boba. Moreover, a number of FARDC officers requested vacation and came to join the rebels passing through RoC. One particular Captain was said to have conducted military training for the insurgents.
National Deputy Léon Botoko and Provincial Deputy Oscar Molambo were said to be amongst those supporting the insurgents. One demobilized insurgent, who claimed to have been Odjani’s driver, told us that Lobala politicians had sought to link the insurgency with the security force of Jean-Pierre Bemba still guarding his massive compound in Gemena since the post-elections violence in Kinshasa in 2006. Botoko had communicated with the Captain responsible for the unit and they had reportedly agreed to join the insurgents once they reached the District Capital.
The Sector Chief in Dongo during the initial violence between the Inyelle and Manzaya was Mr. Edo Nyabotabe. He was suspended from his duties in early September for having sided with the Inyelle. This move was a critical error on the government’s behalf as not only did Edo eventually join Odjani’s insurgency, but his suspension served to galvanize greater fears that the Boba would soon take the key post of Sector Chief away from the Lobala.
By this time Odjani was going by the alias of “Nkunda II,” reflecting the hope of the Lobala leaders behind him that his armed movement would provide a platform as strong as the CNDP in order force political concessions from Kinshasa.

Q: What role did the presence of weapons in Equateur and disgruntled ex-combatants play?

Steve: The arms that the insurgents employed were said to come from multiple sources; a) those the Manzaya used for hunting, b) those seized from the police, c) those that the Lobala FARDC officers brought with them, d) those that were collected by the sector chief Mr. Edo from MLC arms caches around Dongo sector.

Throughout Dongo sector, there were already numerous demobilized soldiers from the MLC who had never received any reintegration assistance by the National Demobilization Program, CONADER. Upwards of 400 of these ex-MLC began to enroll in Odjani’s service, many of them receiving payments. Ironically, after the CONADER simply withered away as a result of incompetence and corruption, one of its former staff members was appointed the new sector chief in Dongo in order to lead the government’s reconciliation efforts between the Lobala and Boba.

Q: The conflict then escalated on October 21 and 28, 2009. What happened?

Camilla: Since Dongo centre had become the center of the Lobala’s frustrations with the growing Boba control, it makes sense that this is where Odjani would plan his first major attack.

The night before the attack, the acting Sector Chief received a list of names of people who would be targeted – this included Boba politicians who were planning to run for the Sector Chief post in the next local elections.

Early in the morning, Odjani’s forces arrived to Dongo centre and began systematically targeting Bobas – going house to house, and killing people and burning homes along the way. Eventually, according to local people we interviewed, the insurgents began targeting all of the local population who were fleeing the violence.

People flooded the banks of Oubangui River as they tried to escape to the other side for safety. We met with displaced women who told us their children and husbands had been killed in the violence, or they’d become separated and did not know where their family members were.
From what we heard, the insurgents claimed to have retreated from Dongo centre by their own free will on November 7 after achieving their objective of driving out the Boba. They were replaced by a rapid reaction force of the police and a small platoon of Ghanaian peacekeepers with MONUC. Nevertheless, after the commander of the police left to restock rations in Gemena, Odjani’s troops decided to attack Dongo centre for the second time on the night of November 28.
When a MONUC scheduled flight sought to land the following morning, the insurgents attempted to take down the helicopter and injured five MONUC military and civilian personnel, who were taken to Impfondo in the Republic of Congo for medical treatment.
After driving out the Ghanaians and stealing a large armored personnel carrier (APC), Odjani and has backers reportedly began to believe that that they could eventually take Kinshasa.

Q: How did the FARDC perform when they were deployed to quell to rebellion?

Steve: After Odjani drove the Rapid Reaction Police (Police d’intervention rapide – PIR) out of Dongo for the second time, the insurgents headed for Gemena in early December. The first FARDC units to be deployed were the 10th Brigade from Kisangani. On their way to two consecutive defeats at the hands of Odjani’s troops, now utilizing MONUC’s APC which they took from the Ghanaians in Dongo centre, the 10th Brigade behaved much like FARDC units in the east. In Bozene, we heard accounts of rapes and pillaging by this unit on their way to and from the front lines.

By this time, MONUC had helped fly in the Commando Brigade, which had been undergoing training with the Belgians at Kindu. Along with resistance from the Ngabaka population around Gemena (of which Jean-Pierre Bemba is a member) the Commando’s resoundingly defeated the insurgents and drove them back to the village of Inyelle, where the original fishing dispute had started. On January 1st, it was reported that over 150 insurgents were killed by the Commandos.

Throughout the FARDC’s deployment to these areas, outside of those initial abuses carried out by the 10th Brigade, the Congolese Army was reported to have generally respected the civilian population. Nevertheless, we did hear reports of Lobala villages being burned down on the axis between Dongo and Inyelle as well as operations to force the internally displaced to return home, which they referred to as “escorting.”

Q: Does Odjani’s militia still exist? How much of a threat are they?

Camilla: After the fighting in Dongo centre, Odjani’s forces divided into two fronts – one to take Gemena and one to take Mbandaka. In Bobito, about 60 kilometers from Gemena, Odjani’s forces were eventually pushed back by the FARDC to their operations base in Inyelle.

In Inyelle, there was a major attack on January 1, 2010, and Odjani’s forces suffered a near defeat.

At the moment, from reports we’ve seen, there are not many of Odjani’s forces still active. There are rumors that Odjani himself has been injured, but this hasn’t been verified.

There continue to be clashes along the Oubangui River, as the FARDC pursues the remaining insurgents – and this insecurity is causing new displacements, and also preventing people from going home.

At the same time, the fact that Odjani has not been captured or is verified to be dead, is also preventing returns – the mystical elements of his insurgency was cited by many displaced people we talked to as a reason why they continued to be afraid to go back.

The ongoing instability and lack of returns are clear indicators of why it is important for the UN peacekeepers to maintain their presence in Equateur – many people told us they feel safer with MONUC than with the FARDC. And as long as the insurgents are active, albeit, not widespread, there will be ongoing concerns about civilian protection.

Q: How do you react to the allegations that neighboring countries and former Mobutists in exile got involved to support Odjani? Who was the Ambroise Lobala – did he really represent the insurgents?

Steve: Mobutists Ex-FAZ officers who supported the rebellion of President Sassour in the RoC began monitoring more closely the rapid transformation of this local militia into a wider rebellion. However, it appears that they were waiting to see if Odjani was capable of taking Gemena before throwing their weight behind him. Given that the ex-FAZ officers were career military professionals under Mobutu, it was thought that they were hesitant to follow the leadership of a young withdoctor like Odjani.

With regards to Ambroise Lobala, no one on the ground believes that he was anything more than a Diaspora opportunist, those that even had heard of him. We never once heard the name he gave for the rebellion, “Patriots Resistants de Dongo.” However, if I had to conjecture about his identity, I would guess that Ambroise Lobala is a pseudonym (“Lobala” being the name of the tribe) for former FARDC Lt. Col. Benjamin Nyambaka, who provided funds to the insurgents through Odjani’s father. Nyambaka was a Lobala officer working in FARDC headquarters in Kinshasa who was accused of stealing massive salaries before fleeing to London. As Ambroise’s communiqués were said to leave from London, this might be one explanation.

Q: I understand you don’t think enough has been done to deal with the root problems of the crisis. Why not? In particular, how could local elections reignite these antagonisms?

Camilla: The localized grievances between the Inyelle and Manzaya, which sparked the wider conflict, were never really addressed properly by the Congolese government. While they sent delegations to meet with the concerned parties – from what we observed, and in speaking with local authorities, they never took seriously the growing tensions, or expected the crisis to build to such proportions. The principal strategy for dealing with this issue was through paying off local chiefs and calling it “reconciliation.” The same is true for the wider Lobala-Boba conflict. The Congolese government did not seem to think that the situation would turn as violent as it did.

At the same time, there seems to be a lack of understanding of the conflict in general – many news reports state that the violence in Equateur which forced 200,000 people to flee their homes is just over fishing rights, when clearly there are wider economic and political grievances behind this conflict.

The Congolese government is pushing for returns of the displaced, and seems to want the situation to just go away. However, our concern is that if these wider issues are not addressed through proper reconciliation and dialogue, then you will just have more violence and displacement.

Steve: The political elements of the conflict – in particular, the desire of the Boba to take the Sector Chief post, could reignite the violence when local elections take place.

While the current decentralization law would re-affirm customary leadership in the east, ethnic groups in the west would not be guaranteed the political leadership of their territorial homelands. As such the Boba could use their economic power in Dongo to take the Sector Chief position from the Lobala. In order to avoid any backlash, the Boba would like to see Dongo centre receive a special territorial and administrative status outside of Dongo sector, such as a “rural commune.” However, this designation would most likely incite considerable resistance from the Lobala who would see their traditional capital carved out from within their homeland.

Much more serious work needs to be done to resolve these underlying political and economic tensions between the two groups. MONUC has an important role to play in our view, in supporting a more comprehensive and serious response from the Congolese government between now and local elections scheduled for next year. Civil society organizations, already active around Dongo and Gemena, also can contribute positively to the mediation efforts. They should be supported through capacity building and funding by international donors.

In the end, the situation in Equateur is an example of the overall instability that exists in the DRC – and that sits just under the surface waiting to explode. President Kabila’s talk of drawdown of MONUC is premature, and Equateur just shows the inability of the Congolese government to deal with these types of crises without the support of the international community.

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