VIII. The Political Challenge in the Kivus

The military challenge posed by units still loyal to Laurent Nkunda drew great attention in late 2006 and throughout the first half of 2007, understandably so given the loss of life and property damage that resulted from military skirmishes. But the military confrontation resulted from and has somewhat obscured the fundamental political struggle over the control of North Kivu, and perhaps eastern Congo in general.

The Challenge from Nkunda: “Our Little State”

Not just a soldier, Nkunda is also a politician bent on assuring a substantial political voice for the Tutsi. In August 2006 he told Human Rights Watch researchers, “We need to make sure our cries are heard. We must be listened to.”181 To this end he founded the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) with a program of preventing the exclusion of Tutsi from national political life, assuring the security of Tutsi soldiers in the national army, eliminating the presence of the FDLR in Congo, and assuring the return of Congolese refugees now in Rwanda.182

In an interview with a Human Rights Watch researcher, one of Nkunda’s officers called parts of North Kivu “our little state” and others have spoken of the possible creation of a “Republic of Virunga.”183 These ideas recall proposals for an autonomous eastern Congo, mooted in 2001 by RCD-Goma, Nkunda’s first politico-military base. Such ideas elicited hostile responses from other ethnic groups of North Kivu and may have accounted in part for the formation of one opposition group, the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance (PARECO), a movement claiming to unite non-Rwandaphone peoples as well as some Rwandaphone Hutu of North Kivu.

Nkunda has created a growing base of power in North Kivu, strongest in large areas of Masisi and in some parts of Rutshuru. In these areas Nkunda has made changes in the administration (both civil and customary), the police, the intelligence service, the distribution of land, and the collection of taxes. To increase the number of his supporters, as well as to achieve one of the objectives of his movement, he has encouraged and assisted the return of Congolese refugees from Rwanda. He has also promoted an ideology that claims roots in religion and human rights, making use of a local radio station as well as various ceremonial meetings and programs in schools to convey his ideas to the residents of North Kivu.

Although immediately focused on activities in North Kivu, Nkunda has built some ties with politico-military groups as far afield as Ituri and South Kivu. Two of his most important subordinates, Bosco Ntaganda and Colonel Linganga, have links with militia in Ituri. 184 Some Banyamulenge in South Kivu are said to be followers of Nkunda and have demanded that their military forces also be subject to mixage rather than brassage.185

Civil administration, police, intelligence

During the second Congo war and the years of transition, RCD-Goma, then dominant in the Kivus, attempted to assure its control by naming administrators helpful to its cause, by winning previously hostile incumbents to its side, or by removing those unalterably opposed.

As RCD power waned and that of Nkunda grew, many administrators came to terms with the new force in the region and saw their power grow. Others, remaining apart from Nkunda, saw their authority dwindle, even while remaining nominally in office. Eugene Serafuli, for example, once an extremely powerful governor named by the RCD, stood for election as a provincial deputy in 2006 but found himself excluded from parts of North Kivu by Nkunda’s troops. In October 2006 soldiers attacked several of his campaign workers, killing one person.186In another case in Masisi territory, one deputy administrator became a supporter of Nkunda and then used his new power to attempt to displace his superior, claiming that he now was the principal administrator.187

In Rutshuru a local administrative official claimed that he was not able to carry out his duties throughout most of his jurisdiction because he is not counted as a supporter of Nkunda. He told a Human Rights Watch researcher,

I control only one-third of my territory. Two-thirds is in the hands of the CNDP. I don’t control Bwito, for example. I have no access—I would be killed if I went there. I feel in danger. Some state authorities have received threats in Bwito and one of the chiefs there has been replaced. In Nyamilima the local administrator has had to flee. You have to be faithful to the CNDP, to their ideology. If you don’t accept it, you have no job.188

In at least one case Nkunda intervened in a conflict over the post of customary chief. In February 2007 Nkunda’s soldiers aided Vincent Mwambutsa, a family member of Nkunda,189 by raiding the office of his rival, the son of a previous customary chief and claimant to the post of his father.190 

Associates of Nkunda in the police force usurped control of police authority in such communities as Tongo, Mweso, and Kitchanga after successfully raiding a police command post in Rubaya, Masisi in November 2006. Some 100 police officers initially recruited at the time of the RCD engaged officers of the national police in a firefight and drove them from Rubaya. According to the regional head of police, the rebel police officers, who looted arms and uniforms, were supported by Nkunda’s soldiers. He said, “We have to face the truth, there is a link to Nkunda. All the stolen equipment has gone to Nkunda’s army.”191

Similarly, agents of the National Intelligence Agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignement, ANR) no longer report to the regional ANR headquarters in Goma but to Nkunda. An ANR officer posted in Kitchanga was murdered on April 12, 2006, with the possible involvement of Nkunda’s soldiers.192 According to an ANR official in Goma, agents in Tongo, Mweso, and Kitchanga have escaped his control and are managed by Nkunda. He asked a Human Rights Watch researcher, “How can I pretend to be provincial head of the ANR when there are parts of the province that escape my authority?”193

Taxation, land, and refugees

The power to collect taxes and distribute land, usually attributes of the administration, has been appropriated by Nkunda and his soldiers in areas under his influence.

On roads and at marketplaces throughout Masisi territory, in places such as Kirolirwe and Bihambo, Nkunda’s soldiers collect “tax” from traders. In November 2006 they imposed taxes as high as US$200 for a passing truck transporting timber.194 On occasion they demanded contributions of fuel and food, for which “shipping receipts” were issued.195

Conflicts in North Kivu, as elsewhere in eastern Congo, often are linked to the control of land, in part because land is valuable in this densely populated region, and in part because land was customarily identified with a particular ethnic group and with the authority of its head. Under the RCD, wealthy and powerful local residents, as well as well-placed Rwandans, appropriated large tracts of land, particularly in Masisi. Much of this land had been previously owned or at least controlled by the state. Because many of the new landholders were Tutsi, ethnic hostilities became intertwined with local material interests.196

Control of land has more recently been linked also to the question of the return of the refugees now in Rwanda. Many of these Congolese anticipate problems returning to land they held before their flight and seek assurances that they will be provided with the necessary land—either what they once held or land elsewhere—before they return to Congo. Nkunda recognized that assurance of land could be as important as assurance of security in persuading refugees to return. He arranged to provide land for returnees near Kitchanga and Kirolirwe, including some tracts inside Virunga national park supposedly protected from settlement.197 In some communities, such as Ngungu, local authorities loyal to Nkunda have forced local residents to cede their homes and fields to returnees.198 

According to one UNHCR staff member, Nkunda sympathizers held meetings in the camps in Rwanda, encouraging refugees to return to Congo. Perhaps in part due to such efforts, some 70 percent of refugee men wanted to return as soon as possible, according to a survey done in May 2007 by UNHCR. Most of those wishing to return cited confidence in the security provided by Nkunda as their main reason for being ready to return.199 In at least one case, Nkunda’s troops provided practical assistance as well, in the form of truck transport for some 163 returnees.200

Those who return to Congo at this time do so without assistance from UNHCR, which has judged current conditions of insecurity and complications over land holding inappropriate for an organized return. UNHCR had hoped to sign a tripartite agreement with the governments of Rwanda and Congo in 2007 and to begin organized returns, but is reluctant given the present situation.201 UNHCR is trying to ensure that refugees have access to full and objective information before deciding to return to North Kivu.202 

Raising the flag

Aware that ideology is essential for galvanizing supporters, Nkunda created a flag for the CNDP, solemnly raised on public occasions, and developed a synthesis of ideas and practices meant to characterize the movement. Some of his ideas were drawn from evangelical texts including “A Purpose-Driven Life,” a book by the American evangelical preacher Rick Warren much in vogue among Rwandan leaders. Other ideas, he said, he drew from customary practices of the Congolese Rwandophone community. Well attuned to the importance of publicity, Nkunda welcomes journalists and has enjoyed substantial success with the international press. Throughout late 2006 and 2007 he delivered his message also through large public meetings in Masisi and Rutshuru203 as well as through a local community radio station and programs carried out in schools by School Committees of Social Integration.204

Nkunda appears to accord great importance to reconciliation between the Tutsi and Hutu parts of the Rwandophone community, perhaps because he recognizes that Hutu Rwandophones could constitute an extremely important addition to his thus far largely Tutsi political base. At large meetings in Nyamitaba, Kitchanga, and Nyanzale, his supporters performed songs and declaimed Rwandan poems of self-praise (ibyvugo) meant to remind Rwandophones of their common cultural heritage. On one such occasion at Nyamitaba participants also shared drink and meat, eaten from a single spear.205 According to Nkunda, Congolese Hutu and Tutsi drank and shared meat in this way to signify the end of past ethnic conflict in the 1960s at Nyamitaba, and he wanted to repeat this practice to mark the end of ethnic animosities created during the recent electoral campaigns. He said, “The recent political campaign of Hutu politicians in this area has been very divisive. I wanted to stop these divisions and this is why I held the ceremony in Nyamitaba.”206

Area of FDLR Dominance

Like Nkunda, the FDLR sought to control the economic wealth of areas where it was strong. Some FDLR commanders engaged in exploitation of minerals, but more profited from trade and from taxes, particularly those imposed on commerce. The FDLR also displaced local authorities or obliged them to follow FDLR directives. But it differed from Nkunda’s movement in not aiming to create a distinctive autonomous political unit within the Congolese state.207

During the course of research for this report, Human Rights Watch researchers did not have contact with the FDLR on the ground.

The Response of the Congolese State

The national government failed to respond decisively to the North Kivu crisis throughout the first eight months of 2007, permitting Nkunda to strengthen his military forces and enlarge considerably the base of his effective territorial control. Although displaced by Nkunda’s operations from some usual zones of dominance, the FDLR continued depredations against populations elsewhere in the province. Aware of the weak national government response in North Kivu, Banyamulenge soldiers in South Kivu demanded mixage instead of full integration and fought against other Congolese army soldiers. At the same time, FDLR combatants (and an outlaw group related to them) stepped up attacks on civilians. As deputies in the North Kivu provincial assembly concluded about growing insecurity in their region, “the state has resigned its role.”208

After having apparently approved the mixage arrangement with Nkunda, President Kabila showed no firm commitment to the compromise, although his defense minister, Tshikez Diemu, defended the program before the national assembly, saying it offered a way to increase control over Nkunda’s troops and would lead eventually to full integration.209 Similarly, Kabila left vague the question of Nkunda’s status and eventual fate, allowing speculation to circulate about his departure or even his possible appointment to a regular army post. Only at the end of March did Kabila tell a press conference that the arrest warrant against Nkunda remained valid, but he did nothing after that date to have the warrant executed. 210 In the case of the FDLR, Kabila has committed his government to eliminating the group, but he has not publicly denounced those in his government and army who reportedly continue to offer them support.

As conditions on the ground worsened and the national government failed to respond adequately, the provincial parliamentarians offered their own analysis and recommendations for action in a report adopted by the provincial assembly on March 31 and then sent to the national government. They detailed over a hundred cases of killings, rapes, ambushes, abductions, arbitrary arrests, and looting where civilians had been victimized by soldiers of the national army, Nkunda’s troops, the FDLR, and other groups like the former Mai Mai militia.211

The local lawmakers particularly denounced the creation of a “parallel” administration created in areas under Nkunda’s sway, but they also denounced the collection of “taxes” and exploitation of economic resources by the FDLR, former Mai Mai, and other national soldiers in the parts of North Kivu where they were the dominant local power.

The parliamentarians recommended that mixage be stopped and that the mixed brigades be deployed promptly outside of North Kivu. They proposed that the government renew its efforts to find a political solution but they also recommended that further military operations, should they be necessary, be stronger and better organized and assure protection to civilians. They also asked that all those accused of human rights violations be brought to justice.212 Twenty-five local lawmakers sent a memo to President Kabila, highlighting these complaints.213

The newly elected governor of North Kivu, Julien Paluku (from the Nande ethnic group, the largest in the province), made one small step towards resolving the local crisis by setting up a small administrative unit under his own supervision to deal with ethnic tensions. Beyond that, he saw the problem as one that the national government must resolve. As he told a Human Rights Watch researcher, “The government must assume its responsibilities to bring peace to North Kivu.”214

As it became increasingly clear in mid-May that mixage would not resolve the problems of North Kivu, a delegation of 10 ministers came to Goma, but returned to Kinshasa having proposed nothing more than a roundtable meeting to facilitate discussions among the various political actors. Provincial parliamentarians saw the proposal as most unpromising, particularly since the roundtable was to be held in the national capital. Given the cost of travel to Kinshasa, relatively few people from North Kivu would have the means to attend.215

Deputies from North Kivu in the national assembly asked to meet Kabila to discuss the crisis, but, according to a provincial lawmaker, were refused. At the end of May several national deputies from North Kivu suspended their participation in the National Assembly to protest governmental inaction. Deputy Emmanuel Bahati said, “Our suspension will last until we see clear signs and actions from the government that will restore peace. The government has done nothing to find a solution for the people who are suffering. Instead it sidesteps the issue by proposing a roundtable”216 On September 19 President Kabila arrived in Goma for a four-day visit to consult with military and political leaders, as well as UN and humanitarian agencies.

Despite the president’s visit, at this writing in early October there was still no clear government policy in sight to resolve either the immediate military issues or the more fundamental political conflicts in North Kivu. The national government made some moves toward seeking greater dialogue with the FDLR, which itself made at least one attempt at healing splits in its own ranks. Meanwhile, the national senate held an extraordinary session to discuss the long-standing crisis in North Kivu as well as the crisis that had flared up more recently in South Kivu (where a group of dissident Banyamulenge with links to Nkunda had been clashing with the national army on the High Plateau near the town of Uvira). The senate created an investigatory mission to examine the situation in both provinces.217

While the political leaders discussed and examined and yet failed to decide, Gen. Gabriel Amisi announced on August 11 that Congolese army units would cease operations against the FDLR, in effect making official a situation already in existence for many weeks. 218 A spokesman for MONUC soon after clarified this declaration, saying that operations could well continue but that they would be carried out by Congolese army units that were fully integrated and trained. In his statement, General Amisi said that the mixed units would indeed be fully integrated into the Congolese army, perhaps with the assistance of MONUC.219

181 Human Rights Watch interview with Laurent Nkunda, Kirolirwe, August 26, 2006.

182 See, for example, Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple, “Cahier de Charges du Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP),” October 2006.

183 Human Rights Watch interviews with officer loyal to Nkunda (name withheld), Goma, February 9, 2007, and local administrator (name withheld), Rutshuru, May 15, 2007.

184 Human Rights Watch has documented serious human rights violations by Bosco Ntaganda. See “D.R. Congo: Army Should Not Appoint War Criminals,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 14, 2005, See also Human Rights Watch, D.R. Congo: The Curse of Gold, June 2, 2005,

185 Human Rights Watch interview with officer loyal to Nkunda (name withheld), Goma, February 9, 2007.

186 Human Rights Watch interview with MONUC official (name withheld), Goma, October 4, 2006.

187 Human Rights Watch interview with MONUC official (name withheld), Goma, January 24, 2007.

188 Human Rights Watch interview with local administrative official (name withheld), Rutshuru, May 15, 2007.

189 Human Rights Watch interview with Laurent Nkunda, Kirolirwe, August 26, 2007.

190 Human Rights Watch interview with staff of Goma based NGO, February 28, 2007. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), “North Kivu Situation Report,” February 12, 2007.

191 Human Rights Watch interview with Gen. Ndaty Kapend, regional head of police, Goma, November 15, 2006.

192 MONUC, “Human Rights Assessment 16 – 22 April 2006,” April 27, 2006.

193 Human Rights Watch interview with ANR official (name withheld), Goma, February 19, 2007.

194 Human Rights Watch interviews with Sake residents, Sake, November 22, 2006.

195 Human Rights Watch interview with Masisi youth leader (name withheld), Goma, February 19, 2007.

196 Human Rights Watch interview with local NGO activist (name withheld), Kitchanga, September 27, 2007.

197 Human Rights Watch interview with Laurent Nkunda, Kirolirwe, August 26, 2006.

198 Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR official (name withheld), Goma, April 18, 2007.

199 Human Rights Watch interview with representative of an international NGO working in the field of refugee assistance (name withheld), Goma, July 2, 2007.

200 Human Rights Watch interviews with UNHCR official (name withheld), Goma, February 8 and May 17, 2007.

201 Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR official, Goma, February 8, 2007.

202 Human Rights Watch interviews with representative of an international NGO working in the field of refugee assistance (name withheld), Goma, July 2, 2007, and with official of UNHCR, Kigali, July 25, 2007.

203 Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple, “Le Pèlerinage de la Réconciliation,” DVD, July 2006; Human Rights Watch interview with local administrator (name withheld), Rutshuru, May 15, 2007.

204 Human Rights Watch interview with UNICEF official (name withheld), Goma, July 5, 2007.

205 Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple, “Le Pèlerinage de la Réconciliation.”

206 Human Rights Watch interview with Laurent Nkunda, Kirolirwe, August 26, 2006.

207 Romkema, “Opportunities and Constraints“, pp. 53-56.

208 Provincial Assembly of North Kivu, “Report of an investigation mission into cases of insecurity in North Kivu province” (“Rapport de mission d’investigation sur les cas d’insécurité dans la province du Nord Kivu”), March 31, 2007, p. 27 (hereafter cited as Provincial Assembly, “Rapport de Mission”).

209 ”Mixage, brassage and generalized insecurity in the east of the country: Parliamentary questions continue behind closed doors” (“Mixage, brassage, insécurité généralisée à l’Est du pays : la question orale se poursuit à huis clos”), Le Potentiel, April 13, 2007, (accessed August 20, 2007).

210 Press conference given by President Joseph Kabila, Kinshasa (in French), reported by Digital Congo Television, March 26, 2007.

211 Provincial Assembly, “Rapport de Mission.”

212 Ibid.

213 ”Mixage of soldiers: hidden agendas” (“Mixage des troupes : les agendas cachés”), Le Phare  Kinshasa, March 21, 2007, (accessed July 4, 2007).

214 Human Rights Watch interview with Governor Paluku Kahongya Julien, Goma, April 10, 2007.

215 Human Rights Watch interview with Hon. Kakizumwami Habimana, provincial deputy, Goma, May 26, 2007.

216 “DRC: Parliamentarians from North and South Kivu suspend their participation in the National Assembly” (“RDC: des députés des Kivu (est) suspendent leur participation à l'Assemblée”), Agence France-Presse, May 29, 2007, (accessed June 7, 2007).

217 “Thursday closure for  the extraordinary session of the Senate” (“Clôture jeudi de la session extraordinaire du Sénat”), Le Potentiel, July 20, 2007, (accessed August 20, 2007).

218 Joe Bavier, “Army suspends operations against the FDLR in DRC” (“L’armée suspend ses opérations contre les FDLR en RDC”), Reuters, August 12, 2007.

219 MONUC press briefing, August 15, 2007, sent to Human Rights Watch by email, August 15, 2007.