Is the Force Intervention Brigade still justifying its existence?

This potentially effective unit is being hamstrung by politics and concerns about using force in peace operations.

The Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), the sharp end of MONUSCO – the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – earned its stripes in 2013 when it helped the DRC’s army defeat the powerful Rwanda-backed M23 rebels in the east of the country.

But not a lot has been heard about the FIB since, though it has remained deployed in the eastern part of the country for four years. What has it been doing?

The unit of some 3 000 troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi has a more muscular mission than the rest of MONUSCO to use necessary force to ‘neutralise’ all the ‘negative’ armed rebel groups in eastern DRC. Its second target was supposed to be the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the armed group founded in the mid-1990s by Rwandan Hutus who fled the country after the genocide against the Tutsis.

That campaign took a long time to get off the ground, including a long delay when the UN withheld its cooperation from the impending campaign against the FDLR by FARDC – the Armed Forces of the DRC – because two FARDC commanders appointed to head the campaign had been implicated in human rights abuses in the field.

The delays fuelled suspicions that in the eyes of President Joseph Kabila’s government and his fellow SADC members in the FIB, the force’s real mandate was to give DRC rival Rwanda a bloody nose. The FDLR, which provided a pretext for Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s military interventions into eastern DRC several times since the genocide, did not seem to be a high priority for the DRC or the FIB.

While the FIB has been under-utilised in eastern DRC, massive violence has run unchecked in Kasai

Instead the FIB conducted some successful operations against the ethnic-Hunde based Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS) and went after another nasty armed group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). 

Through 2014 and 2015 MONUSCO and the FIB’s role in that campaign appears to have been confined largely to logistical back-up and intelligence sharing. But after the DRC government and MONUSCO signed a technical agreement on 28 January 2016, the FIB became directly involved in FARDC’s two large-scale operations against the ADF: Usalama I and Usalama II, according to the UN Group of Experts on the DRC in its report of December 2016.

The UN troops contributed ground combat troops and special forces, artillery and ‘air assets’, as the experts group put it, referring to attacks by South Africa’s Rooivalk attack helicopters. 

The FIB and the rest of MONUSCO did eventually contribute to FARDC operations against the FDLR, the experts said, but not much. And the FDLR now seems to be imploding of its own accord, splitting in two in 2016 when more than 50 of its officers defected to create a new group called the Conseil national pour le renouveau et la démocratie-Ubwiyunge (CNRD). Several other officers were captured, turned themselves in or deserted. 

Countless other armed groups also operate in the region, all of them theoretically on the FIB’s hit list, though what exactly the FIB’s role has been in countering them is not clear.

South African military analyst André Roux says where it has been deployed, the FIB has acquitted itself well. Another military analyst, Helmoed-Römer Heitman, confirms this. Nevertheless Roux questions whether the FIB is ultimately serving its mandated purpose. 

The main reason for his doubt is that the ‘framework’ forces – the other elements of MONUSCO – are not always providing the necessary back-up, he says.

He notes that when FARDC and the FIB clear ADF forces, for instance, out of a camp or stronghold, the function of the framework troops should be to hold the captured ground. But this often doesn’t happen and so the rebel forces eventually return to occupy their previous positions. The UN experts confirm this pattern.

One of the main problems, Roux says, is that several of the governments that contribute troops to MONUSCO have given their troops strict instructions not to put themselves at any risk, so they will not defend territory.

Some observers suspect the UN is contemplating the termination of the FIB mission

He adds that there have been several instances in eastern DRC where civilians have been attacked within a stone’s throw of MONUSCO camps. ‘The local MONUSCO commander then got on his phone to his headquarters back home to request orders. By the time the order went up and back down the chain of command, it was of course too late to help the civilians.’

He prescribes a comprehensive counter-insurgency operation to defeat the negative forces but says Kinshasa politics are frustrating such ambition. 

Another military analyst Richard Cornwell notes that there is a widespread misapprehension that the non-FIB ‘framework’ troops in MONUSCO have a less muscular so-called Chapter 6 mandate which allows only peacekeeping but not peace enforcement.

Both he and Roux also note the anomaly that while the FIB has been relatively under-utilised and frustrated in the pursuit of its mandate in eastern DRC, massive violence has been running unchecked in central Kasai, to the West. 

FARDC troops have been the ones most accused of several massacres in the running battles that erupted last August when government forces killed tribal chief and militia leader Kamwina Nsapu. DRC authorities recently rebuffed a UN threat to launch an independent probe by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights into the violence after the discovery of dozens of mass graves in the area.

The South African government has been vocally opposed to this inquiry. Kinshasa wants a joint investigation it can control, DRC experts say, and Pretoria is backing up its ally by falling back on the tired old argument of national sovereignty. The UN is expected to vote on the investigation this week.

Whether or not the FIB’s mandate technically extends to Kasai is perhaps moot. But the spectacle of a gigantic UN peacekeeping force with a potent spearhead in the form of the FIB not doing much in the east while thousands are massacred in Kasai, does not look good.

It now seems MONUSCO is sending some 3 000 reinforcements to Kasai, though FIB elements will apparently not be among them.

The enormously expensive MONUSCO mission, which has been in the DRC since 1999, is increasingly attracting international criticism and the European Parliament this year deemed it to be ineffective. Some observers suspect that the UN is contemplating the termination of the FIB mission in particular.

MONUSCO’s General Derrick Mgwebi has a potent weapon that he can’t properly use

Last month General Derrick Mgwebi, the South African force commander of MONUSCO, briefed the UN Security Council and complained about the council’s recent decision to reduce the size of the mission when the demands on it were rising, including support for what should be imminent elections and protection of civilians in new theatres like Kasai.

He also alluded diplomatically to the problem Roux outlines above – that the chain linking the council’s intentions to the actions of troop- and police-contributing countries and peacekeeping missions broke when it came to the use of force. 

It is clear that whatever the positions might be of his political chiefs in New York and in Pretoria, Mgwebi the soldier is feeling the frustration of having a potent weapon in his armoury – the FIB – which he cannot properly use.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Picture: WikiMedia Commons

Related content