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

This is the second part of 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.

As discussed in the first part of this guest post, the Congolese government initially didn’t respond to the demands that Cobra Matata expressed in February 2012 for integrating his Force de Résistance Patriotique d’Ituri (FRPI) into the army. An appeal by Ituri’s civil society was also left unanswered. Then, in mid-May, a new Ituri rebel coalition (COGAI, Coalition des Groupes Armés de l’Ituri) was announced.

COGAI officially consists of four groups: the FRPI; the Front Populaire pour le Développement Durable de l’Ituri (FPDDI); the Force Armée pour la Révolution (FAR); and the Forces Armées d’Intégration de l’Ituri (FAII). COGAI’s founding document suggests that “Col. Hitler” leads the FPDDI, as the creation of this rebel platform is said to have taken place “under the watchful eye of General Cobra Matata and Colonel Hitler.” The FAII is headed by “Col.” Charité Semire, his co-signatory is “Lt. Col.” Saidi Cedrick. Amos Lopa and Blaise Ngbathema signed for the FAR. The coalition’s spokesperson is John Mpigwa (FPDDI).

Who are these groups and their leaders? Apart from Cobra’s FRPI, none of these groups and individuals is well-known. The most significant characteristic of their coalition is that it is multi-ethnic: Mpigwa, “Hitler,” and Semire, for instance, are all Hema; the latter two are former UPC combatants. Although Ituri’s “war within a war,” which began in mid-1999, initially pitted Hema and Lendu against each other, rebel alliances that cross ethnic boundaries are not a new phenomenon. Since the conflict shifted to a struggle between the central government and the UN peacekeeping mission versus rebel remnants around 2005, there have been several such coalitions, e.g., the Mouvement Révolutionnaire Congolais (MRC) between 2005-7 and the Front Populaire pour la Justice au Congo (FPJC) between 2008-2010.

However, ethnicity remains an important issue. At the end of July, five Hema were murdered on their way from Kasenyi to Uganda. Radio Okapi initially reported that they had been killed by the (Lendu-dominated) FRPI. Mpigwa, the COGAI spokesman, then rejected these allegations. A civil society leader in Bunia suggested that this attack might possibly have been staged in order to increase ethnic tensions and thus weaken the rebel coalition. True or false, this example suggests that cross-ethnic cooperation remains frail.

Nonetheless, local sources believe that there is at least one issue that unites Iturians – immense frustration with and mistrust in the central government. COGAI, like the MRC before it, is trying to tap into these grievances: its founding document calls for the creation of Ituri as a province in line with article 226 of the 2006 constitution. Other demands include the creation of a new military region; the honorable reinsertion of ex-combatants into society; the reintegration of “soldiers” and the recognition of their ranks; the closing down of illegal army roadblocks; and the immediate departure of Col. Fal Sikabwe, the Congolese commander of Ituri.

Opinions on how seriously COGAI should be taken are divided. One community leader considered COGAI to be an “empty wardrobe that might be stocked in the future.” On the other hand, there have been reports of recruitments in Djugu territory (central Ituri) in both July and August that were linked to Col. Hitler and Semire. Moreover, last week, an army colonel defected with around 30 men and – according to Col. Sikabwe – joined COGAI. Earlier in August, an army major and some of his men joined Cobra’s FRPI.

It is extremely difficult to assess this rebel coalition’s cohesion and origins. We spoke to a COGAI member who played an important role in the UPC rebellion and who had been authorized by Semire and Mpigwa to speak on their behalf. According to him, the idea of COGAI was born when Semire and other Hema heard of rumors that M23 had contacted Cobra Matata and had asked him to form an alliance. Afraid that Cobra would then grow powerful enough to threaten their villages, they decided to act swiftly and offered Cobra to become the head of a new rebel coalition, which he accepted. They further claim that they added 480 fighters to Cobra’s troops.

Up to this point, the representative’s story doesn’t seem implausible, although the number of fighters might well be exaggerated. There have been all kinds of rumors regarding M23’s involvement in Ituri. For instance, unconfirmed reports from May suggested that John Tibasima – a former MRC combatant, not to be confused with well-known Ateenyi (“John”) Tibasima – was recruiting young Hema on Bosco Ntaganda’s and Rwanda’s behalf. In July, there were rumors about Rwanda being in contact with Cobra through Tibasima. These reports should not be taken at face value. (It is also noteworthy that many Iturians use “Rwandan” and “rwandophone” interchangeably.) The point is that the last few months have been marked by a high degree of uncertainty, which adds some plausibility to the COGAI representative’s account.

Similar to the rumors about Rwandan involvement, COGAI statements about their plans and external alliances should be taken as interesting claims rather than facts. The COGAI representative said that Semire and Mpigwa would be working on a new politico-military movement that would bring together elements from Ituri and Haut-Uele districts. It would fight for the security and economic autonomy of Ituri and Haut-Uele and hence demand the re-creation of Kibali-Ituri province. Negotiations for support from the Ugandan and South Sudanese armies are allegedly ongoing, and he claimed the latter have already accepted to provide support. While there were reports on relations between Jérôme Kakwavu’s Forces Armées Populaires du Congo (FAPC) and the SPLA/M between 2003-5, this alleged South Sudan link still appears rather dubious.

Moreover, the COGAI representative claimed that the Hema faction wouldn’t want to work together with Rwanda or M23. They consider M23 to be close to Bosco and believe that the latter betrayed General Floribert Kisembo (former military chief of staff of the UPC), who was killed by the Congolese army last year after being accused of launching a rebellion. It is not clear whether Semire and Mpigwa are speaking on behalf of all Hema elements within COGAI, or even whether these statements accurately reflect their opinions.

As the rumors concerning John Tibasima suggest, even those Hema willing to fight might be divided between seeking contact to Rwanda or to Uganda. Furthermore, other local sources pointed out that there are many Hema businessmen who have heavily invested in Bunia and wouldn’t want to see their investments threatened by renewed conflict. It is thus unlikely that these bold announcements about a new, powerful armed group spanning Haut-Uele and Ituri will become reality unless there is significant external support for such a project.

What about Cobra’s FRPI in these grand schemes? Semire and Mpigwa would want to keep COGAI, which would then be a coalition between the FRPI and their new movement. However, given Cobra’s current negotiations with the government, they said they were suspicious that he might give up his armed struggle. In fact, the Congolese government has finally reacted to Cobra’s demands. In June, President Kabila sent Major General Dieudonné Amuli, who himself hails from the district, to Ituri in order to negotiate an end to the “Cobra problem.” Since then, talks have been ongoing and the Congolese army has begun to provide the FRPI rebels with food.

Given the government’s experience with the CNDP, we should not expect that it will accept Cobra’s conditions for reintegration. On the other hand, Cobra now has his new COGAI allies as a bargaining chip, and he might hold out to see how things develop in North Kivu. It is thus difficult to envision how the ongoing negotiations could succeed in the near future. Ituri is bound to remain fragile.

Posted by Jason Stearns

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