Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi recently announced the launch of a long-awaited Disarmament, Demobilization, Community Recovery and Stabilization program, meant to encourage thousands of fighters from more than 100 armed groups to lay down their weapons. The country has needed an effective framework for decades, as removing guns from fighters, prosecuting those responsible for serious crimes, and reintegrating others into communities is critical to ending eastern Congo’s cycles of violence. But Tshisekedi’s appointment of former rebel leader Tommy Tambwe to coordinate the new program raises serious concerns.
Tambwe was a leader of major Rwandan-backed rebel groups responsible for countless human rights abuses in eastern Congo over the last 25 years. In 2002, while he was the Congolese Rally for Democracy (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie, RCD) vice-governor of South Kivu, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders alleged he had ordered the arrest of journalists he deemed to be critical of his movement.
In 2012, United Nations investigators reported that Tambwe led the separatist Alliance for the Liberation of Eastern Congo (Alliance de Liberation de l’Est du Congo, ALEC) while having “found protection in Rwanda.” The group was allied with the M23 rebellion, which was responsible for widespread war crimes, including summary executions, rapes, and forced recruitment.
It is no surprise that many Congolese quickly raised concerns following Tambwe’s appointment. Nobel peace laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege expressed his wariness and reiterated the joint call, endorsed by Human Rights Watch, for a vetting mechanism that would “exclude from public institutions those responsible for human rights violations.” Dozens of groups from North and South Kivu warned that Tambwe’s appointment “already bears the seeds of the program’s failure.” A coalition of Mai-Mai militia described it as a “disguised tactic for destabilization.” Some members of parliament have also called on Tshisekedi to reconsider his appointment.
Attempts at disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating fighters into Congolese society have failed over the last two decades, despite the many millions of dollars injected by international donors. Thousands of surrendered fighters instead later returned to the bush while known abusers have been rewarded with promotions rather than held to account.
To succeed, this new program needs the confidence of communities in eastern Congo. Starting on the wrong foot risks turning it into yet another missed opportunity to ensure the security of the region’s population.