When DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi took office 18 months ago, he breathed life into hopes of ending bloodshed and lawlessness in the east of his vast country.
Eyeing the armed groups responsible for the mayhem, he revived the offer of an amnesty, money and the chance of a new life in the military if the fighters renounced violence.
“The new government is reaching out to you,” he declared.
Today, little of that pledge seems to have turned into action.
Frustration among militiamen who are willing to lay down their arms is growing, as is the death toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s east.
Over eight months, around 1,300 people were killed in the provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu, according to a UN estimate in June. More than 100 armed groups are active in the region, according to experts.
Ituri legislator Gratien de Saint-Nicolas Iracan said an incursion into the city of Bunia last Friday by several dozen heavily-armed militiamen was aimed at “putting pressure on the government” over the reintegration programme.
Several sources say the fighters belong to the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO), a notorious ethnic militia blamed for the massacring of hundreds of civilians.
“They were telling the government, ‘we want money in exchange for giving up our weapons,” the legislator said, adding that failure to push ahead with Tshisekedi’s plan was “not making it easy for them to return to the peace process.”
– ‘Nobody has called us’ –
Members of one armed group, the Ituri Patriotic Resistance Force (FRPI), signed an agreement in February with ministers from the central government, but say they are still waiting for the deal to be implemented.
In neighbouring North Kivu, 485 members of another group called the Nduma Defence of Congo-Renovated, or NDC/R, have mustered on Rumangabo military base near Goma after surrendering in late August.
“We told the authorities in Kinshasa about what we wanted to do, but nobody has called us so far,” said NDC/R leader Desire Ngabo.
Bertrand Bisimwa, head of a Congolese Tutsi group called M23 that was defeated in 2012 after mounting a rebellion in North Kivu, said that “the Congolese government has no serious programme to support (Tshisekedi’s) appeal to armed groups.”
Researcher Christoph Vogel said that since early 2019, there had been “several large waves of surrenders” in North and South Kivu, with a thousand fighters at each mustering point in those provinces.
But many fighters headed back into the bush, “because there was no support”.
Incorporating former Congolese militiamen into the armed forces has been a routine practice since the Sun City agreement of 2002 which ended the Second Congo War.
World Bank and western countries have typically contributed to previous demobilisation, disarmament and reinsertion initiatives.
But, “I haven’t seen the Congolese government approach funders to finance a new overall and national programme” of this kind, noted Vogel.
Adding to the entanglement is a moral debate about who should have the right to benefit from such funding.
“We cannot continue to reward killers,” the UN’s representative in DR Congo, Leila Zerrougui, said last week, angered by the “handing out of ranks” to former militiamen.
– ‘Discouraging’ –
NDC/R leader Ngabo said “it’s not the right time to make remarks like this. It’s discouraging armed groups who want to leave the bush and surrender their weapons.”
Researcher Judith Verweijen noted the UN had supported the peace agreement with the FRPI in Ituri, under which a law would be drafted to offer an amnesty, excluding war crimes and sexual violence.
One of the bloodiest groups is the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group initially founded by Ugandan Muslim rebels.
Months after Tshisekedi’s offer of an outstretched hand to armed groups, his armed forces last October launched an offensive against the ADF.
The militia has since killed hundreds of civilians in the Beni region as a further warning against the authorities, giving another spin to the cycle of violence.