As the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) says it will push back next month’s presidential election to April 2018, over 50 armed rebel groups still roam across Eastern Congo’s porous borders. Uganda’s Allied Democratic Forces represent perhaps the biggest threat to distant Kinshasa’s rule – and to hopes of an economic recovery in the mineral-rich region, says Neil Thompson.
A courtroom in the northeastern town of Beni is hosting the latest attempt to bring perpetrators of mass atrocities in the DR Congo to justice. This time the alleged perpetrators belong to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a secretive Ugandan Islamist rebel militia opposed to President Yoweri Museveni’s rule.
The ADF is a serious threat to civilians in eastern DR Congo. Three days of national mourning were declared in August after the group killed 36 people in revenge for military operations in their area. Hundreds of its members are on trial in a military court for abuses that include the killings of at least 1,000 people in the past two years.
The ADF’s aim at its initial founding was to replace Museveni and to institute an overtly “Islamic” system of government in Uganda. But the DRC’s neighbour is unlikely to see an attempted Islamist revolution any time soon. Instead the group has been active in North Kivu’s Beni territory since 1996.
With the passage of time it has hoovered up recruits wherever it can. Citizens of Uganda, DR Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Sudan are among those arrested for their suspected ADF affiliations, and who now face charges of murder, terrorism and belonging to an insurrectionist movement.
The factors which allowed such an alien force to establish itself are an indication of how distant, weak and mistrusted the government in Kinshasa, DRC is perceived to be by the local population in the east, and how much work still needs to be done to restore security to the area before economic reconstruction can take serious root and offer its people an alternative to the gun.
Until then, the east’s myriad rebel forces have found a haven for themselves in the DRC’s vast Virunga National Park. At present more than 50 different armed groups still operate in the country’s borderlands, forcing the local population to join their ranks, participate in their military and logistical activities or to turn a blind eye to their criminal activities.
The ADF funds its own insurgency through criminal activities such as kidnappings, smuggling and logging, all of which require considerable manpower. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) does not give figures by country, but estimates globally that 2.2 million individuals are still trapped in state-sponsored forms of forced labour or forced to work for rebel armed forces.
Henri Ladyi, who leads the Centre Résolution Conflits (CRC) peace group, based in North Kivu, can testify that the ADF has forcibly recruited workers and fighters during a string of bloody raids in 2015-16, targeting and kidnapping “strong young people” to help the Islamist militia fight. Henri says other armed groups trick younger recruits into joining them – promising work with a salary, such as cooking in a hotel or restaurant, or agricultural labour. But once the young people arrive at the camps they are used as fighters, porters or cooks.
He adds: “Some local people are getting information that there are number of [plots] available for them for agriculture, so they are moving from their village into the zone that is controlled by rebels.” Criminalised rebel groups can pose as credible employers or protectors because many young Congolese only know instability caused by the armed groups and see this as normal. There are also few legitimate alternatives in North Kivu; Alphamin Resources, a Canadian-funded international mining company, is attempting to build a modern tin mine there, at a site called Bisie. So far it has had to construct its own road through the area, which is in the territory of three armed groups, and has fought off four attacks on its base camp.
The rebels may see outsiders coming in as competition as well as an opportunity for extortion and banditry. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS), a think-tank whose head office is based in South Africa, and which is currently conducting a research project that tracks illicit financial flows related to resource extraction in the DRC, reports that the ADF, along with other armed groups, finds tapping into the illicit gold mining in the eastern DRC remains particularly lucrative for financing. A 2013 UN report estimates that 98% of the gold sold from Congo was illicitly smuggled out, mostly via Uganda.
The ISS investigation is also supported by a 2015 Jamestown Foundation report covering the origins of the ADF, which baldly states that “from its bases in the DRC, the group is believed to fund itself through illegal gold mining and timber smuggling.”
The report, by independent Nairobi-based journalist Sunguta West, goes on to add: “The DRC’s long-standing status as a borderline ‘failed state,’ with limited government control, porous borders, abundant – and unregulated – natural resources and a range of disenfranchised Muslim minority groups, arguably makes it an obvious target for any ambitious Islamist organisation in the region.”
The ILO is working to help international companies ensure that their supply chains are not tainted with products or raw materials generated by forced labour. The organisation has also worked with the government of the DRC to get it to ratify the vast majority of conventions on forced labour.
Houtan Homayounpour, ILO Technical Specialist on Forced Labour, explains: “What we are doing generally with forced labour is we work with the member states, employers’ and workers’ organisations as well as NGOs, and tackle the forced labour issue from different angles. For example, we work with member states on issues of labour law to make sure they have good laws promoting the rights of workers around the issues of forced labour and getting [governments] to adhere to international and legally binding instruments.”
The trouble for the ILO is that in places like North Kivu the instruments of governance are still either weak or non-existent, 15-odd years since the end of major military operations. So far during the trial of alleged ADF members, four people have been killed in protests outside the courtroom, including two who were publicly executed after being accused of belonging to the rebel group.
Locals have accused the government and UN peacekeepers of failing to protect them from the ADF’s depredations but the protesters’ lynchings also highlight the lawlessness that allowed the group to put down roots in the first place.
If the east of the DRC is ever to regenerate itself economically then security will have to become the top priority of the next government there. Breaking the longstanding links between the area’s abundant natural resources, illicit smuggling networks and armed groups will only occur if the government can provide the security that employers need to return to the area. If it cannot do this then all the trials in the world will not prevent armed groups from continuing to operate there, enticing or abducting young people into their ranks with threats or the promise of work and security, to replenish their ranks when arrests or deaths reduce the rebels’ numbers.