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Inside the ongoing DRC protests

November 22, 2022
topics: Peace and Reconciliation
by: Robert Bociaga
located in: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Kenya
tags: Africa, civil rights, DRC

Facing imprisonment, torture and death, protest groups in eastern DRC are fighting for their civil rights and the end of the terror caused by rebel groups.

The ongoing fighting between the Congolese army and a rebel group known as M23 has forced thousands of people from their homes in the volatile eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Currently, rebels are fighting kilometers away from the key city of Goma, which is home to nearly one million people. 

According to the UN, M23 is a rebel movement supported by the government of Rwanda. Their members were formerly serving in the Congolese army, but claim that the government was not implementing the negotiated peace agreement to incorporate their soldiers on acceptable terms into the ranks of the army. 

Kenya has recently deployed its forces to protect the local population in eastern DRC. The troops are supposed to strengthen the already present UN peacekeeping force, known as MONUSCO, but thus far they've been unable to quell the violence or protect civilians.

Since the fighting resumed on 20 October, at least 188,000 people have been displaced in the eastern province of North Kivu, which borders Rwanda and Uganda. This has aggravated the world’s largest displacement crisis. In the DRC, almost five million people have become internally displaced as a result of numerous conflicts, and, so far, military interventions have proven ineffective in restoring peace. 

Some analysts estimate that there are over 100 armed groups in the region, but some locals doubt this figure.

Recently, protests erupted over the alleged involvement of Rwanda in supporting the M23 rebels and the failure of MONUSCO to protect civilians. 

LUCHA, a non-violent, non-partisan civil society movement, had been established in Goma, the region’s capital, back in June 2012 to promote human rights and social equity and accountability in the DRC. Some of the NGO's members have taken an active part in the unfolding protests in eastern DRC - an act for which some have been imprisoned. 

Christien Tukobien, a resident of Beni town and a member of LUCHA since 2018, told FairPlanet that he and his fellow protesters "fight for good governance, the reform of our army and the departure of MONUSCO as soon as possible."

UN forces have been present in the country since 1999, but in the eyes of many people, they have failed to bring lasting peace, with killings of civilians taking place on a daily basis in different parts of eastern DRC.

"It is forbidden to be an activist," said Tukobien, who went on to explain his involvement in the protests during to the so-called 'State of Siege' or 'etat de siege.' During this time, the police have been transformed from to a military authority from a civilian entity, and protests were restricted. 

JUSTICE DELAYED, MISSION DENIED

The State of Siege, according to President Tshisekedi, was enacted to protect people and battle armed groups. But over the last year, the number of civilian deaths from armed violence in the area has more than doubled.

"[After one of the protests] in January, I was arrested and tortured by the police," Tukobien added. "In the end, there was no charge, after having been assisted by a lawyer, as I explained that I am from the non-violent movement."

In some cases, activists have reportedly been held behind bars for two or three years without the possibility to face a judge.

Furthermore, not all protesters in the region share the tenet of non-violence.

Dominique N., a 36-year-old motorbike driver, organised an informal group of protesters in July, and said that "to throw stones it was our right."

"If the UN goes away, the war will stop," he told FairPlanet, reflecting the stance held by a sizeable portion of Congolese society, according to which foreign forces - including the Rwanda-backed M23 but also the UN peacekeeping mission and the Ugandan, Kenyan and Burundian military forces deployed in eastern DRC as agreed with the government -  support the rebel groups by supplying them with sophisticated weaponry. The UN has denied this allegation having investigated the claims in the past.

According to the testimonies gathered by FairPlanet, the jihadists from the ADF rebel group often wear blue helmets when ambushing people and have also sourced Congolese and Ugandan army uniforms. Furthermore, it appears that some people tend to get confused by videos shared on social media implying that MONUSCO helicopters supply materials to rebel groups. 

As a result of these perceptions, as well as the deteriorating security situation, civilians have recently set fire to UN vehicles in Goma, accusing them of transporting M23 rebels. 

This comes months after the UN base in the region was attacked by crowds of people who looted its stored items, including weapons. During the most violent stand-off between protesters and MONUSCO forces in July, during which the Congolese police initially took no action, 36 people were killed.  

According to Dominique N., in the early stages of the protest people only shouted at MONUSCO soldiers to leave the country; then they had rubber bullets fired at them by the UN soldiers before being confronted with real ones. However, the rather universal access to weapons by Congolese civilians, as well as the fact that four UN peacekeepers were among those killed, prompted some to call for an investigation of the incident. 

"Each death is one death too many," Ndeye Khady Lo, MONUSCO's spokesperson, told FairPlanet. "Joint investigations by the DRC authorities and MONUSCO are still ongoing to determine the causes of these deaths and allow the culprits to be punished."

However, as months go by, families of the deceased and the survivors of the stand-off continue to blame MONUSCO for these deaths. 

STRAINED RELATIONSHIPS

With M23 fighters approaching Goma and ADF insurgents burning properties, killing and abducting civilians, many Congolese people believe that they are at a critical crossroads. In recent days, hundreds of young men have mobilised to join the army, responding to a call by the authorities. 

The DRC President also ordered the Rwandan ambassador to leave the country after accusing Kigali of supporting M23 rebels who have seized numerous towns, thus raising tensions between the two countries. Rwanda has denied the accusation for years.

M23 rebels allege that they launched attacks following the offensive by the Congolese army. The negotiation they led with the Congolese government in Nairobi, Kenya had stalled, which prompted them to take over the town of Bunagana, they claim. Since then, M23 has only expanded its control of important towns and transport routes in recent months. 

This has magnified the impact of the ongoing Islamic insurgency in the country, which claimed the lives of thousands over the last 20 years. Other armed groups, including Mai-Mai militias, have thrived in these conditions and have been encouraged by the lack of an effective response by the Congolese army and MONUSCO.

Under the current conditions, some in DRC advocate for the resumption of negotiations with M23 rebels, while others fear such a move could be interpreted as a betrayal.

All the while, civilians seem determined to continue to raise their voice in demand for peace and stability.

"We are obliged to be active even if this is forbidden," Christien Tukobien of LUCHA added. "Activism helps the population to express their feelings and teach others of their civil rights."

Image by Kaysha.

Article written by:
Robert-Bociaga__cropWzAsMTMsNDU4LDQ1OF0_FillWzI4OSwyODld
Robert Bociaga
Author
Democratic Republic of the Congo Rwanda Kenya
Fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels has displaced thousands in eastern DRC.
Since the fighting resumed on 20 October, at least 188,000 people have been displaced in the province of North Kivu, which borders Rwanda and Uganda.
Some in DRC advocate for the resumption of negotiations with M23 rebels, others fear such a move could be interpreted as a betrayal.
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