Surrender or tactical deceit - has the FDLR really given up the fight?

Is the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which famously routed the M23 rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last year, now snatching defeat from the jaws of a complete victory against all disruptive forces in the region?

This is what many analysts fear after a controversial decision by regional leaders in Luanda earlier this month to give the other most troublesome armed group in the region, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), six months’ grace to surrender and disarm.

The FDLR, in one or other guise, has been at the very heart of the instability and conflict in the eastern DRC for 20 years. It was originally established by members of the Interahamwe – an ethnic militia composed of Hutus, Rwanda’s ethnic majority – who fled their homeland in 1994 after participating in the genocide against the minority Tutsis.

The FDLR’s presence in eastern DRC has been a two-fold agent of instability and conflict. It has itself preyed on the local population like so many other armed groups and warlords, and it has developed entrenched economic interests in the area. But its presence in eastern DRC has been even more destructive in terms of regional stability, because it has been the reason – or perhaps pretext – for Rwanda to intervene militarily in the area several times, supposedly to safeguard its own security against a group dedicated to the overthrow of President Paul Kagame’s government.

Kagame lost the argument as the FDLR were given a further six months to disarm 

The Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a 3 000-strong South African, Tanzanian and Malawian force, was set up under the wider United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, but with a more robust mandate to go after the armed groups terrorising the eastern DRC.

Late last year it helped the DRC army (the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, or FARDC) to defeat the feared ethnic Tutsi-led M23 rebels, whom the UN had accused Rwanda of supporting. Then, earlier this year, the FIB and FARDC also defeated the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan armed group, dislodging it from its redoubts in the eastern DRC.

The next armed group in the cross hairs was the FDLR. But then in April, FDLR interim president, Victor Byiringiro, wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, DRC President Joseph Kabila and other regional leaders announcing that the FDLR had decided to lay down its weapons and henceforth fight Kagame’s government politically instead.

A deadline of 31 May was set for the voluntary surrender of the FDLR. But only approximately 200 of its estimated strength of 1 500 to 2 000 surrendered during May and June and handed in their weapons. Rwanda is convinced the surrender was a ruse intended to buy time for the FDLR to regroup and reinforce itself for battle with the FIB and FARDC later, when it feels stronger.

At a joint ministerial meeting in Luanda on 2 July of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Kagame lost the argument as a decision was taken to give the FDLR a further six months to surrender and disarm – with an interim progress check after three months – or face ‘military consequences.’

Stephanie Wolters, head of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis division at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, shares some of Rwanda’s scepticism about the sincerity of the FDLR’s surrender. One of the reasons for her doubts is the UN Expert Group’s June report, which said the FDLR was still recruiting and training combatants.

She finds it inexplicable that the Luanda meeting apparently ignored the UN group’s findings and effectively took the FDLR at its word. Official sources say that South Africa was one of those pushing hardest for the FDLR to be given six months’ grace. One source said that South Africa, as one of the nations that would be on the frontline if fighting broke out with the FDLR, argued that it was entitled to demand that peace first be given a chance.

South African officials also say the FDLR did not surrender ‘out of goodwill,’ but was forced to do so because it saw what had happened to the M23 and feared suffering the same fate. However, this logic does not exclude the possibility that the FDLR might indeed have balked at engaging the FIB and FARDC now – but chose to ‘surrender’ so it could fight another day.

South African officials acknowledge that the demobilisation and disarming of the FDLR is a ‘work in progress,’ much complicated by the fact that demobilised soldiers would mostly have to return to Rwanda, where they fear what awaits them.

The FDLR has been weakened but still remains a formidable force

All of this, though, has left Rwanda feeling suspicious and resentful – not a happy mood for anyone in the region. Under the framework for peace agreement signed by the international community, regional countries and the DRC in February 2013, the FDLR was clearly identified as one of the ‘negative forces’ that would have to be eliminated.

There was general agreement that the FARDC and the FIB would go after the M23 first, because it posed the most immediate challenge to the government and to stability. But removing the FDLR was supposed to be the quid pro quo for eliminating the M23, as Wolters observes. 

She notes that the FDLR and the FARDC have collaborated in the past to fight the M23, and might still be collaborating locally, raising Rwandan concerns about the DRC’s real determination to go after the FDLR. She says that Kagame’s suspicions were further inflamed when it emerged in June that international envoys to the Great Lakes had met with FDLR officials in Italy at peace talks organised by the Catholic NGO, Sant’Egidio (which had helped broker an end to the Mozambican civil war).

Byiringiro has been demanding that Kagame engage in political dialogue about the future of Rwanda in exchange for the FDLR laying down arms. But Kagame remains adamantly opposed to talking with ‘genocidaires,’ and in any case seems allergic to any kind of talk of greater democracy back home.

‘I don’t think it’s a good development,’ Wolters concludes of the decision to give the FDLR six months to lay down arms. ‘It slows everything down and opens the door to let Rwanda back in.’

She acknowledges, though, that the FDLR’s offer to surrender has complicated matters for regional and international actors such as the ICGLR and SADC, as well as MONUSCO, and this may be a tribute to Byiringiro’s shrewdness. ‘Because how would it have looked if the FIB attacked people waving a white flag?’

Wolters agrees with other analysts that the FDLR has been weakened over the years but still remains a formidable force – in some ways more so than the M23, which was a more conventional army while the FDLR is more of a guerrilla operation that has insinuated itself into the civilian community. That would make any attempt to defeat it messy, with a higher probability of civilian casualties. And, in any case, if a strong FDLR offers Rwanda a reason for intervention, even a weak one serves as a convenient pretext for doing so.  

The ICGLR and SADC will have to sharpen their monitoring skills – perhaps with the help of US surveillance drones – to ensure that the FDLR does not exploit the respite it has been given to re-gird itself for battle early next year. At the very least they must ensure that by the end of three-month interim review period, 2 October, they have a pretty clear picture of what the FDLR is up to.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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