Analysis on Eastern Congo/Uganda
Some seventy soldiers apparently mutinied in the town of Beni on Monday, June 4 when ordered to deploy to Equateur province, the home base of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the leader of the Front for the Liberation of Congo. These troops are evidently loyal to rebel leader Mbusa Nyamwisi. This was only the latest episode of a string of factional rebel disputes in Congo that over the last two years had left countless civilians dead, and caused untold suffering among survivors.
In an attempt to disarm the mutineers, a senior ALC commander lost his life. Fighting intensified on Wednesday, when another senior ALC commander and his soldiers reportedly switched camps and joined the mutineers. By Sunday, June 10, a tense stand-off prevailed in Beni, with a spokesperson for the FLC telling Human Rights Watch that some thirty mutineers, whom he described as armed bandits, had surrendered, and that operations were underway to round up the others. At the same time, the mutineers circulated a declaration, a copy of which has reached Human Rights Watch, in which they claimed that they had the upper hand, and gave the other ALC troops a 24-hour ultimatum to return to their native Equateur. The Front for the Liberation of Congo is unraveling largely along ethnic and regional lines, notwithstanding claims by both factions that they resorted to fighting in an attempt to end the other camp's abusive behavior against the local population. The Front resulted from the merger, in January 2001, of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, which controls much of Equateur province in the north of Congo, and another less-organized rebel group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML), also known as RCD-Kisangani, which claimed to control parts of North Kivu and Orientale provinces in northeastern Congo. At the time of the merger negotiations, the head of the RCD-ML, Wamba dia Wamba, opposed the process and left the region to live in exile. However, several other RCD-ML leaders joined the Front, most prominently Mbusa Nyamwisi, RCD-ML's prime minister, and a native of Beni. Mbusa in turn left to exile in South Africa soon after the merger, reportedly due to his discomfort at the predominance of MLC cadres in the military and civilian command structures of the new Front.
The current fighting pits soldiers from Equateur province, described as Lingala speakers, against local fighters, otherwise known as pro-Mbusa or Swahili Speakers, who remained loyal to Mbusa Nyamwisi, even during his prolonged and continuing absence. The pro-Mbusa forces have reportedly complained about the absence of local representatives in the senior military and civilian echelons of the FLC. Uganda initiated the establishment of the FLC in late 2000 by proposing a merger of all the Congolese rebel groups under its patronage: the MLC, RCD-ML, and the less known RCD-National. Underscoring the urgency of the unification process from the Ugandan perspective, Lt. Col. Noble Mayombo, chief of military intelligence, and considered by many observers as the architect of the merger, declared: "Uganda wants the rebellion in Congo to merge and to have one territory, one army, one programme, one enemy and to sustain itself economically by organizing the resources it controls." (See: Congo rebels agree to merge, New Vision, Kampala, January 16, 2001.) Wamba, the RCD-ML leader who refused to join the new front, insisted at the time that the Congolese partners were not allowed to discuss the merger among themselves, and later complained that the creation of the FLC was "imposed" by Uganda on its Congolese rebel allies.
During the current crisis, the Ugandan army dispatched its acting chief of staff, Brig. James Kazini, on Friday, June 8, to help diffuse the growing tensions within the FLC. Commenting on the visit, the official New Vision on June 9 said that the insecurity in the region has forced the Ugandan soldiers, who were getting ready to pull out of Congo, to redeploy, and added that the Ugandan army had recently reinforced its positions in Beni. The newspaper also reported, without further details, that Ugandan army was forced to join Bemba's troops when the pro-Mbusa militia appeared to be gaining ground.
The ongoing fighting in Beni is reminiscent of the situation that plagued the neighboring town of Bunia throughout the year 2000. The Ugandan army appeared to be supporting both sides of a similar rebel dispute there as partisans of Mbusa Nyamwisi, then prime minister of the RCD-ML, repeatedly attempted to oust Wamba dia Wamba, the chairman of the group, with civilians killed in the crossfire at each attempt.
It was the disintegration of the RCD-ML following these repeated coup attempts that led the Ugandan backers to engineer the creation of the FLC. The merger appears at present to be failing due to rejection by the local RCD-ML cadres of what they perceive as MLC dominance in their region. Here as in Bunia, Uganda had trained both armed groups for rebel strongmen whom it had elected as allies, even when it seemed likely that these groups would be used in local ethnic and partisan conflict rather than as part of a disciplined military force.
Due to the remoteness of the region, and lack of modern means of communications there, little of this situation has come to the attention of the international community. A United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo has no presence in Beni, having deployed military liaison officers and observers to the neighboring town of Bunia, which used to be until late 2000 the headquarters of the RCD-ML. The U.N. peacekeeping mission has yet to deploy liaison officers and observers in Beni, where the chief of the FLC had elected to establish the eastern headquarters of the front.
In mid-2000, fighting between the occupying Rwandan and Ugandan armies and their respective Congolese rebel clients for the control of Congo's third largest city Kisangani, and its rich diamond trade, had led to the deaths of more than 750 Congolese civilians and the injury of thousands. Hundreds of schools, dozens of hospitals and clinics, and infrastructure necessary for the survival of the population were partially or totally damaged in the crossfire. That tragedy took place less than a year after a first round of fighting between the two camps in which 200 Kisangani residents were killed.
As the influence of the FLC comes under increasing challenge in northeastern Congo, not only the town of Beni, but the entire northeastern Congo, including its other urban poles of Butembo and Bunia, appear on the verge of total destabilization.