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Coalitions and Defections in a Context of Uncertainty – A Report from Ituri (Part I)

This is a guest blog by Henning Tamm, a doctoral candidate in International Relations at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and a pre-doctoral fellow with the Program on Order, Conflict and Violence at Yale University.

While international media have focused their attention on North Kivu, a lot has happened in Ituri. This district, which used to be the most violent place in the Congo, has been relatively peaceful since 2007, with the notable exception of Cobra Matata’s Force de Résistance Patriotique d’Ituri (FRPI) group in southern Ituri.

However, since early this year, there have been defections from the army, a new rebel coalition, and even announcements that there will soon be a new rebel movement uniting elements from Haut-Uele and Ituri districts. In general, Bunia is awash with all kinds of rumors, some more plausible than others. This two-part guest post provides an overview of these developments.

On February 14, 2012, around the time of Dan Fahey’s update on events in Ituri, an army defection occurred in Marabo, around 40km west of Bunia. The leaders of this mutiny were officers from North Kivu, and several reliable sources confirm that there was a link between the Marabo mutiny and the M23 rebellion in North Kivu. In fact, there have been suggestions that the mutiny in Marabo was supposed to occur simultaneously with M23 machinations in North Kivu but had to be pushed forward due to a leak. The army commander in charge of operations in Ituri, Col. Fal Sikabwe, has openly accused its ringleader Col. Germain of collaborating with M23, although we should be careful not to exaggerate the links between events in Ituri and those in North Kivu.

The Marabo mutiny had consequences for an originally more local issue, that of Cobra Matata’s FRPI (Force de Résistance Patriotique d’Ituri). Cobra has been one of the key FRPI figures since its very beginnings around 2000. In 2002, having killed the FRPI’s first leader (“Col.” Kandro), Cobra became military chief of staff when Germain Katanga – currently on trial at the ICC – was named president of the group. Cobra was finally integrated into the Congolese army in 2007, but defected in mid-2010 and returned to Walendu Bindi collectivity, the FRPI’s stronghold in Irumu territory (southern Ituri). According to a community leader, Cobra himself gave three reasons for his defection: He didn’t obtain a proper position in the army, his housing conditions in Kinshasa were poor, and he did not receive his salary.

Although the FRPI gained some strength after Cobra’s return to the bush, it remained in the Tsey forest and only ventured out into other parts of Walendu Bindi for hit-and-run operations. “Col.” Mbadu Adirodu, who had been in charge of the FRPI after Cobra left in late 2007, moved into his position of second-in-command.

So how did the Marabo mutiny in February 2012 relate to the FRPI? Concerned by these army defections, General Gabriel Amisi (“Tango Four”) came to Bunia. He wanted to speed up the regimentation process, which he had initiated to restructure the army, and asked soldiers to regroup in several military centers. Cobra’s FRPI took advantage of the security vacuum created by these redeployments and took control of most of Walendu Bindi.

At the end of February, a delegation of local officials and community leaders met with Cobra in Bukiringi (Walendu Bindi). Cobra listed his conditions for reintegrating into the army to the officials, who said they would have to forward Cobra’s demands to the provincial level (Kisangani), from where they would be sent to the government in Kinshasa. Somebody present at this meeting suggested that Cobra’s demands were inspired by the (now infamous) agreement between the CNDP and the Congolese government of March 23, 2009 – among other things, Cobra demanded that he and his troops be integrated whilst remaining based in Ituri. At the time, Cobra claimed that his FRPI had 1,500 fighters – a figure that could not be confirmed and was considered exaggerated by observers.

For a long time, the Congolese government simply didn’t respond to Cobra’s demands. In the meantime, local community leaders organized food collections for FRPI troops so that they wouldn’t continue to prey on civilians. While this local arrangement worked relatively well, it is also indicative of a central authority that most (if not all) Iturians consider absent at best and exploitative at worst.

It was only after the M23 trouble had started in North Kivu that the Congolese government and the army command seemed to begin caring about the FRPI. By then, however, there were rumors about links between M23 and Cobra’s FRPI, and a new Ituri rebel coalition (COGAI, Coalition des Groupes Armés de l’Ituri) had formed. As one well-informed observer suggested, the government had wasted its chance to negotiate with Cobra from a position of relative strength.

The second part of this guest post will deal with COGAI and the context of uncertainty in which it has been created and is still evolving. It will also discuss a bold announcement, made last week by representatives of COGAI factions, that they are already working on a new politico-military movement that will span Haut-Uele and Ituri.

Posted by Jason Stearns

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