The Grand Congolese Bargain, as seen by many foreign diplomats, was supposed to be: Get rid of the M23 and the FDLR, and you will have removed the linchpins of the Congolese conflict. This approach makes sense, insofar as most other armed groups––as deadly and brutal as they may be––are extremely limited in their reach without regional backing. While it does not deal with the violent dysfunctions of the Congolese state, it could have been a useful first step.
The second part of this equation, however, has been stuck in political mud. Military operations against the FDLR were supposed to begin in January 2014. “The number one priority for MONUSCO is now the FDLR,” Martin Kobler, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo, tweeted on 12 December, 2013. To that end, the UN wanted to employ its Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which had played an important role in defeating the M23. Two problems initially arose: First, the Congolese army had other priorities in mind. They launched operations against the ADF in the Ruwenzori foothills in January 2014, informing the UN that other joint military operations would have to wait. While the UN has the mandate to carry out unilateral operations, given the strength of the FDLR and the optics of going it alone, the mission decided to wait, instead lending support to the ADF operations. (Those operations are now bogged down in controversy, as well, as the ADF have come back to massacre dozens.) Then there was a second, more political reason. The FIB is made up of troops from the Southern African Development Community (SADC)––from Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi. The first two countries, in particular, had initially intervened in part due to their opposition to the M23 and its Rwandan backers. Indeed, the FIB was initially supposed to be a SADC military mission in support of the Congolese army against the M23 before, following extensive international pressure, it was integrated into MONUSCO. South Africa and Tanzania were consequently less than eager to apply the same military élan against Rwanda’s archenemies, the FDLR. In May 2013, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete urged Kigali to open political negotiations with the FDLR––anathema to the ruling party there––and his foreign minister referred the FDLR as “freedom fighters” in a communiqué in July 2014. Members of the South African government, angered at what it considers to be repeated attempts to assassinate Kigali’s opponents on its soil, have echoed similar sentiments in private, although officially they still back military operations. South African leverage was particularly important in pushing through a SADC/ICGLR resolution in July 2014, allowing for a six month moratorium on military operations against the FDLR, to allow them to disarm peacefully. The pretext for this delay had been conveniently provided by the FDLR just weeks prior, when they had sent some 200 soldiers to regroupment camps in North and South Kivu as a gesture of goodwill. This was just the first group, the FDLR said, and the Congolese government said they would be transported to Kisangani. Neither turned out to be true––no further FDLR soldiers have laid down their weapons, and they have refused to move to Kisangani. Five months later––and a mere six weeks ahead of the deadline given by SADC of 2 January, 2015––there has been almost no progress. Two weeks ago, the FDLR, eager to forestall military operations, said that their combatants would go to Kisangani after all. Two days ago, members of the FDLR leadership visited the military camp where they are supposed to be housed. “They complained that there was no adequate provisions for their civilian dependents,” a UN official reported after the mission. Still, it is likely the FDLR will try to provide another gesture of goodwill in the coming weeks in order to postpone the military offensive once again. In the meantime, there seems to be a splintering among the FDLR leadership, between radicals such as their overall commander General Sylvestre Mudacumura, President Victor Byiringiro, and spokesperson LaForge Bazeye on one side, and officers such as Colonel Wilson Iratageka on the other. This latter faction has sway over much of the FDLR forces deployed in South Kivu––perhaps a third of the total of around 1,500––and is also close to a new alliance of Rwandan opposition parties, the Coalition for Rwandan Political Parties for Change (CPC), led by former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu. Twagirumungu is now pushing (see his statement of 6 October here) for the FDLR’s most notorious leaders––including Mudacumura and Byiringiro––to be arrested, but for the rest of the organization to enter into a peaceful dialogue with Kigali that would end with the creation of “a pluralist political space.” That statement caused the FDLR’s leadership to denounce Twagiramungu as a traitor, but it hasn’t prevented the latter from traveling in the region, seeking support for his initiative and finding some sympathetic ears. The Congolese government, the UN, SADC, and the ICGLR all say that a military offensive will begin in the early days of January if the FDLR does not disarm. We’ll see if they live up to their word. In the meantime, efforts are underway by diplomats to see if a military confrontation could be avoided––the last major operation against the FDLR in 2009-2011 displaced over a million people––not through a chimerical government of national unity in Kigali, but by organizing the defection of senior FDLR commanders and their exile in third countries. For now, a surfeit of possible solutions, and a complete lack of actual progress.