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5 things to know about the instability in eastern Congo

Young Congolese want the government to step up against the increasing militant violence.

Congolese troops are seen in Sake, 15 miles northwest of Goma, as residents displaced by the eruption of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano wait for government aid on May 29. (Guerchom Ndebo/AFP/Getty Images)
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New violence that left 50 dead — and tens of thousands of people fleeing the vicinity of Mount Nyiragongo after a volcano erupted in late May — prompted the Congolese government to extend a temporary “state of siege” in the eastern provinces of Ituri and North Kivu.

Before the volcanic eruption, youth activists in eastern Congo protested to demand the departure of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO), claiming that the U.N. peacekeeping mission was not protecting civilians from armed groups. The protests came on the heels of reports of a deteriorating security situation in the country’s east and the ambush killing of the Italian ambassador to Congo in February.

Here are five things to know about the instability in the region.

Violence in the eastern region has grown more deadly

Despite the declared “state of siege,” clashes between Congolese government forces and an armed group killed 12 and left a hospital burned in Boga, Ituri, on Monday. In May, an alleged attack by the armed group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) killed a Malawian peacekeeper.

According to U.N. sources, eastern Congo experienced a 19 percent increase in violent incidents between 2019 and 2020. Research suggests the relationship between MONUSCO and government forces is marred by mutual distrust, unequal divisions of labor and inadequate cooperation — these factors may be contributing to ineffective operations and continued insecurity.

Protests — what, when, where?

Protests began after a March 31 attack by the ADF killed 23 people. Civilians in North Kivu accuse both MONUSCO and the Congolese military of failing to protect them. Protesters’ core demand is that the government take responsibility for preventing violence.

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In early April, Al Jazeera reported on anti-U.N. demonstrations in Beni. Over the next week, protests reportedly took place outside MONUSCO bases in Butembo, Beni and Goma, all in North Kivu province.

The protests resulted in multiple casualties: Congolese police fired live rounds to disperse protesters, killing one protester on April 9. An ambulance hit and killed a woman erecting a barricade on April 10. The same day, U.N. forces in Oicha killed one person when they fired at protesters trying to burn bridges leading to the MONUSCO base.

Young Congolese are leading the protests

Young people and youth organizations such as Lutte pour le Changement — known as LUCHA — are leading the protests. Youths have been at the forefront of a number of movements for peace and democracy in Congo, leading the charge in 2018 for longtime president Joseph Kabila to step down, and for the country’s first peaceful transition of power.

But Congo’s government authorities have a history of alienating local communities in eastern Congo and mistreating young men. Young men report being beaten and harassed by security forces for their alleged participation in armed groups. But even when young men are members of armed groups, their participation is often involuntary. A MONUSCO report, for example, noted that armed groups forcibly recruited more than 4,500 boys and girls from 2014 to 2017.

Young people have suffered acutely from violence in the region, particularly in North and South Kivu provinces. Researchers describe years of conflict leaving a generation of young Congolese unhappy about neglect or abuse by government authorities and international peacekeepers.

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Are anti-MONUSCO protests new?

First authorized in 1999 as the U.N. Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the mission was reauthorized in 2010 as MONUSCO. Not everyone has welcomed the effort — demonstrations broke out in 2004 after MONUC was unable to prevent rebel groups from capturing Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu.

Since then, protest movements have intermittently arisen in and around Beni, often in response to rebel attacks on civilians or other signs of security deterioration. In many cases, peacekeepers or civilians were killed, and protesters attacked U.N. property. Major protests took place in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

In 2019, ADF reprisal attacks left 206 Congolese dead in the space of two months, and angry protesters claimed the government and MONUSCO again failed to protect them. The latest round of ADF violence and civilian protests demonstrates that the security concerns continue.

President Tshisekedi established positive relations with MONUSCO

On April 7, addressing protesters’ withdrawal demands, a mission spokesperson said: “We are here at the invitation of the government. It is not us who decides that we stay.”

MONUSCO head Bintou Keita on April 16 announced the deployment to Beni of four mobile units that would be “more responsive, faster and more flexible.” She also said police and civilian personnel would intensify their engagement with the community to identify gaps.

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Despite the continued insecurity, MONUSCO has closed nine of its field offices as part of a strategic drawdown since the 2018 election of President Félix Tshisekedi. In December 2020, MONUSCO leadership emphasized that “the drawdown and ultimate withdrawal of MONUSCO has figured prominently in our discussions with the Government.” On April 12, Prime Minister Sama Lukonde committed the government to meeting the “prerequisites” to speed up MONUSCO’s departure.

Tshisekedi has made it a point to cooperate with MONUSCO on defeating the armed groups in the east. During protests in 2019, Tshisekedi denounced demonstrators’ recourse to violence and praised MONUSCO. This stands in contrast to the posture of the previous administration under Joseph Kabila, which in 2015 demanded the withdrawal of MONUSCO peacekeepers, claiming that the country was ready to assume “full responsibility for its security.”

Local officials in North Kivu have urged Tshisekedi to ask MONUSCO to leave. Given the challenges the Congolese military faces in managing the ADF threat — and Tshisekedi’s good relations with MONUSCO to date — it seems unlikely that Tshisekedi will give in to protesters’ demands. He has, however, asked for France’s help in “eradicating” the ADF.

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Robert U. Nagel is postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, where he led a research project on peacekeeping effectiveness.

Kate Fin, a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, worked as a research assistant for Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

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