Demands for justice grow after 56 people killed in protest against foreign forces in the DRC

Congolese forces killed 56 people in the city of Goma during a protest against the presence of UN and EAC armed forces in the region. The eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri have been under a state of siege amid a resurgence of attacks by the Rwanda-backed M23

September 06, 2023 by Tanupriya Singh
MONUSCO vehicles patrolling the streets of Goma in 2012. Photo: Sylvain Liechti/MONUSCO via Wikimedia Commons

Several roads in Goma in the DRC’s eastern province of North Kivu were barricaded and commercial establishments shut down as part of a “dead city” protest organized by civil society movements on Monday, September 4.

The action was called in response to the killing of at least 56 people by the Congolese army (FARDC) in the city on August 30, ahead of a protest calling for the removal of UN and East African Community (EAC) security forces from the region.

North Kivu and neighboring Ituri have been under a state of siege since 2021, with conditions worsening due to a resurgence of attacks by the M23 armed rebel group — internationally acknowledged to be a proxy force backed by Rwanda. Since November 2022, the EAC has deployed a regional force (EACRF) to the eastern provinces of the DRC, composed of troops from Kenya, Burundi, South Sudan, and Uganda.

These forces have joined the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), which has been stationed in the country since 2010, taking over from the United Nations Organization Mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC). These forces together form the longest and most expensive peacekeeping operation in the UN’s history.

Despite multiple ceasefire agreements announced under the Luanda and Nairobi peace processes, which are being coordinated by Angola and Kenya (an EAC member state) respectively, the M23 has made significant advances in the past year. It has seized areas in the Rutshuru, Masisi, and Nyiragongo territories, and caused massive displacement.

According to UN estimates, one million people have been forced to flee their homes due to the M23’s renewed attacks in the eastern provinces since 2022. Decades of armed conflict had displaced nearly six million people mainly in the provinces of Ituri, North and South Kivu, and Tanganyika by the end of 2022, a figure likely to be an underestimate according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Armed violence is estimated to have displaced close to a million more people since January 2023 alone. These conditions in turn have continued to fuel unrest against the failure of MONUSCO and the EACRF to stop the attacks.

The protest in Goma last week had been called by members of the Natural Judaic and Messianic Faith Towards the Nations, a group more commonly known as the Wazalendu, which translates into “Patriote” in French.

“Is it right for them to demand the UN forces to leave the DRC, of course, and that is where the discussion should be. The discussion around their [the Wazalendu] religious beliefs is to make them look like lunatics, to diminish the value of their actions even though it is something that many Congolese have called for — they are asking the UN forces to leave because they have been unable to bring about peace,” Kambale Musavuli, a researcher with the Center for Research on the Congo-Kinshasa told Peoples Dispatch.

The killings on August 30 and their aftermath

“The Wazalendu had announced a non-violent demonstration to demand the departure of MONUSCO as well as other foreign forces present in the DRC, in particular the EACRF. However, the group first saw a message signed by the mayor of Goma prohibiting their demonstration circulating on social media networks. They stuck to their firm stance and asked people who had not taken part in their rituals to stay away from the demonstration to avoid becoming victims of repression by the Congolese police and army,” DePaul Bakulu, a member of Fight for Change or LUCHA, a civil society group in Goma, told Peoples Dispatch.

According to Bakulu, around 1am local time on August 30, before the demonstration had started,the FARDC had reached the Wazalendu’s radio station, breaking and seizing their equipment and killing the journalist who was presenting the radio program about the demonstration. Five other people present were also killed on the spot.

“These were in fact the only deaths that the government had acknowledged before videos of the carnage perpetrated by the army and police flooded social media networks,” Bakulu said. The distressing videos in question show Congolese forces dragging and loading bodies onto a truck.

In an official communique issued on August 31, the Congolese government noted that 43 people had been killed and 158 had been arrested. It added that Wazalendu’s actions had “undermined public order” and had caused the death of a police officer by “stoning,” “thus leading to an intervention by law enforcement”.

At the time, LUCHA had warned that the death toll stood around 50, and that other bodies of people who had been killed were being hidden in the military hospital at Katindo camp.

“An in-depth analysis proves that it was a premeditated massacre, because the provincial government had a plan from the outset to hide the bodies of the victims, and thus lessen the impact of the carnage in their [official] communications,” Bakulu said, adding that a number of bereaved families had been denied access to the bodies of victims in the military hospital.

Meanwhile, MONUSCO released a statement on August 31 expressing concern at the “threats of violence made prior to the demonstration,” adding that in “accordance with their primary responsibility for security in the country, the Congolese defense and security forces attempted to prevent the demonstration that was going to be violent, according to its organizers.”

North Kivu and Ituri are currently under direct military rule, with all state institutions, including governance and courts, out of civilian hands, restrictions on movement and meetings, and the military authorized to make “any decisions” deemed necessary. The order for the state of siege is set to expire on September 15.

On September 3, the official Interministerial Commission announced that two military officials, namely Colonel Kanamba Mikombe Mike, the Commander of the Inter-Arms Brigade of the Republican Guard in North Kivu, and Lieutenant-Colonel Bawili Mboltini Donatien, the head of the 19th Regiment of the Republican Guard, had been presented before military justice, and that a trial would he held.

In total, six soldiers were presented before a military court in North Kivu on September 5, on charges including crime against humanity by murder and inciting military personnel to commit acts contrary to their duties. The proceedings will continue on September 6.

The governmental delegation also agreed to pay the costs for the funeral services of the deceased, to manage the care of those injured, and to release Kabanza Mugabo Josué, an activist who had been arrested during a press conference on August 31. Josué was released at 11 pm local time on Monday, Bakulu confirmed.

The military governor of North Kivu, General Constant Ndima Kongba, has been recalled to Kinshasa for a “consultation.”

People demand the departure of foreign forces

Neither the demands raised on August 30— that MONUSCO and EACRF leave Congolese soil— nor the repression meted out to the people, were novel to the country. Over the years, the DRC has witnessed repeated protests and deadly violence, including killings at the hands of MONUSCO forces themselves.

This demand has been echoed by the Congolese government on multiple occasions, including an agreement that was reached with the UN to work towards creating conditions for the withdrawal of MONUSCO from the country. On September 5, it was reported that Kinshasa had officially requested an early withdrawal of MONUSCO citing its “illusory and counterproductive” role in ensuring peace in the country.

“After so many years, so many billions spent, where are the tangible results? Armed groups, including the M23 and Rwandan forces, continue to operate, particularly in the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu,” said Christophe Lutundula, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

“The time is no longer for inertia. Accelerating the withdrawal of MONUSCO is an imperative necessity to ease tensions between the latter and our fellow citizens. It is time to explore new mechanisms for collaboration with the United Nations, more in line with our current realities.”

MONUSCO’s mandate, which is renewed annually, is set to expire on December 20, 2023, the same time as the DRC is set to hold its general elections. A report presented by the UN Secretary-General to the Security Council in August also noted that MONUSCO was entering the “final phase of its presence” in the DRC.

Meanwhile, the mandate of the EACRF was extended by another three months on September 5, just days before it was set to expire. The force’s reluctance to take a more active combat role has drawn criticism both from the Congolese people, as well as the government, which has previously highlighted that the “mandate of the force is, unequivocally, offensive.”

The EACRF has maintained that its mandate is neutral, concerned with the observance of the ceasefire and the withdrawal of armed groups. A meeting between the chiefs of defense staff of the EAC was held in Nairobi on August 24, however its immediate outcomes were not clear.

The role of the EAC in Congo has raised significant questions. In July 2022, Kinshasa became a full member of the bloc, joining the ranks of Rwanda and Uganda – two countries with an extensive history of invasion, violence, and resource exploitation in the DRC.

The deployment of Ugandan forces as part of the regional force and Rwanda’s support to the M23 and evidence of its direct military intervention on Congolese territory have been a serious cause of concern.

“This was a recipe for disaster– you have a regional bloc with two belligerent countries— whose actions unleashed the deaths of over six million people— discussing a military deployment in the DRC. Rwanda was sitting in meetings to discuss the deployment of forces to stop a rebel militia that it itself was backing,” Musavuli said.

Moreover, the DRC’s accession to the east African bloc also makes it a part of the EAC’s Common Market, which places the DRC’s resources (which include minerals such as coltan and lithium which are critical to the fourth industrial revolution), at further risk of exploitation by foreign corporations both within the region and outside.

“It is certifying the illegal pilfering of Congo’s resources. If you read press coverage of the Congo’s decision to join the EAC, it talked about how the “market cap” of the region had increased…Meanwhile, we Congolese are losing our lives due to the exploitation of our resources… but the Congo is looked at as a market,” Musavuli said.

Another key issue to be considered in this context, he added, was the role of Kenya, beginning with its support of Felix Tshisekedi in the 2018 elections, which were widely considered as stolen. “What has happened now is that Kenyan capital is much stronger in the DRC today– Equity Bank [a Kenyan commercial bank] is now processing government payments, it has acquired a privileged status. You can also see it in real estate, in flights— finance capital from Kenya is being deployed much more strongly under the current government.”

In terms of military action, the EAC has failed to take into account the history of troop deployment in the DRC, Musavuli said.. In 2013, the UN’s  Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), composed of forces from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had intervened in the DRC and successfully ousted the M23. However, a decade later, the group re-emerged.

“What went wrong? It must be clear that there is no military solution to the conflict in the DRC. It is a political problem, and we know the roots. We know who the belligerents are.”

Kinshasa has ruled out direct negotiations with the M23, and has declared it a terrorist group. The possibility of the M23 being integrated into the Congolese army has also been rejected domestically. Earlier “peace negotiations” between the Congolese government and rebel groups had included their full integration into the Congolese army, not to mention amnesty and even the ceding of Congolese territory.

The M23’s origins lay in such an integration. Successive agreements with rebel groups over the years resulting in their integration into the DRC’s own forces, a process which is known as brassage, can also be linked to the violence against civilians by Congolese forces— “former rebels continue to commit the same kinds of crimes they were committing before, now in the uniform of the FARDC,” Musavuli said.

Meanwhile, the DRC may soon see the deployment of another regional force, this time from the SADC, whose mandate will be offensive, the Congolese government has said. The southern bloc has already approved the potential deployment.

In the midst of all this, the fundamental demands for justice and sovereignty must not go unheard— not only for the victims of the killings in Goma last week, but the millions of others who have borne the brunt of over 20 years of war.

“Accountability must be the word of the day, justice for the killing of civilians is something we must all be mobilizing for…[However] this is a part of a larger issue in the DRC whereby the Congolese people are not able to determine their affairs, are not able to organize and protest peacefully in their own country, or choose their own leaders,” Musavuli stressed.