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In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ituri lives at the rate of massacres, rapes, kidnappings and looting. In this province whose basements are full of gold, militias, armed groups and Congolese security forces are rife.
Last illustration of this almost daily violence: twenty-two civilians were killed Sunday, November 28 in an attack on a camp for displaced persons, less than a week after a similar attack that left twenty-nine dead on a neighboring site. The attackers, according to the Red Cross, are militiamen from the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (Codeco) group.
Trapped in these endless conflicts, civilians are now struggling to access healthcare, with humanitarian workers also being targeted, such as the NGO Médecins sans frontières (MSF), a convoy of which was attacked on October 28. However, both the Ituri province and neighboring North Kivu, which is also in conflict, have for six months been placed under the exceptional regime of a state of siege and under the authority of a military governor.
Why does this conflict, which has left more than 1,000 dead and half a million displaced in four years, continue? How to explain the weakness of the Congolese army? Pierre Boisselet, coordinator of the Kivu Security Barometer (KST), an organization that maps the violence perpetrated in North and South Kivu and Ituri, looks at the roots of the conflict and the reasons for its persistence.
In the mosaic of armed groups that abound in eastern DRC, Codeco has become one of the deadliest militias in the region. How was it formed?
Pierre Boisselet The Codeco remains mysterious and opaque. Its name refers to the Coopérative pour le développement du Congo, which once brought together a group of agricultural cooperatives in Ituri. Its creation dates back to 2017, following the assassination of a priest, Florent Dunji, belonging to the Lendu community. In response, young Lendu organized demonstrations. Little by little, the protest movement turned into an armed group. Today, Codeco has split into several factions. In their sights, there is the Hema community, accused of being responsible for the death of the priest. However, this assassination has never been elucidated.
The information is also fragmented with regard to the functioning of the group. We do know, however, from testimonies, that the militiamen share mystical rites during initiation ceremonies and consume the dawa, a « magic potion » supposed to make them invincible.
Codeco claims to defend the interests of the Lendu, in particular against the Hema. What is the origin of the antagonism between these two communities?
This conflict dates back at least to the colonial period. The Belgian authorities, then steeped in racialist theories, had developed a hierarchy between the different communities of Ituri on the basis of their main economic activities.
There were among others the Hema, breeders, considered as superior, and the Lendu, farmers perceived by the Belgians as subordinate. As in Rwanda, this distinction pre-existed upon the arrival of the Belgians, but they instrumentalised it.
This stereotypical view did not disappear with decolonization. Discrimination against the Lendu, in access to economic opportunities, capital, local power and land, has continued. Moreover, these racialist theories have a dangerous influence on the management of the conflict. I have heard certain Congolese officers take up these stereotypes about the Lendu considered violent and barbaric.
How did the Codeco militiamen, whom you estimate to be more than a thousand combatants, built their armed power?
Like other armed groups in eastern DRC, the Codeco have relatively easy access to arms. They often come from regular army stocks, which are poorly managed and trafficked. In addition, the war in neighboring South Sudan, which continued until 2018, is another possible source of supply. Today, the Codeco militiamen have heavy weapons, machine guns and AK-47s.
As far as funding is concerned, Codeco loots villages and taxes populations by erecting roadblocks in particular. Gold mines, numerous in Ituri, are also a source of income.
Kinshasa established a state of siege on May 6 in Ituri and North Kivu to restore security in these unstable areas for twenty-five years. However, your barometer reveals an intensification of attacks carried out by armed groups, with more than 1,300 dead for six months in Ituri and North Kivu, according to a report of elected officials published on November 10. How to explain this failure?
The state of siege, which consisted in transferring power to the military, was not considered in a comprehensive manner. Each governor, in North Kivu and Ituri, has his own strategy. In Ituri, it is strictly military. The results were initially encouraging, with a significant drop in attacks and the reconquest in May, under the watchful eye of the cameras, of the national road 27, a central road which was held by the Codeco militiamen.
However, on the ground, the soldiers led an indiscriminate offensive, without always distinguishing militiamen from civilians in the villages. Which gave rise to burrs. In reaction, young people from different communities enlisted in self-defense militias. I fear that there is a stalemate, because this military approach risks strengthening armed groups rather than destroying them.
How is the army therefore perceived by the populations?
In this war, the army does not enjoy popular support. On the Lendu side, there is no support for military strategy. The officers also complain about the lack of collaboration of the members of this community who very often coexist with the militiamen.
However, even militia targets, such as the Hema, have less and less confidence in the army’s ability to protect them. It is feared that this conflict will turn into a communal confrontation, each group seeking to ensure its own security.
Was the Congolese army sufficiently prepared to face these armed militias?
I do not think so. The absence of a global strategy coupled with the lack of resources had counterproductive effects. A parliamentary report published in October indicates that at the start of the state of siege, the military demanded $ 589 million to meet urgent needs in terms of equipment, personnel, etc. The state has released only 33 million.
Since then, this has been able to evolve but at the margin. We note that the proclamation of the state of siege was not followed by a significant financial effort. Likewise, there have been few new recruits. Fewer than 7,000 active soldiers were deployed in Ituri before the reinforcement of 1,200 soldiers from the Republican Guard in September. This decision has also created confusion in the chain of command because the Republican Guards obey their own command.
On the side of the Codeco militiamen, what are the tactics of war used?
The Congolese army officers that I have met speak of an asymmetric war. They are faced with an elusive enemy who attacks them by surprise. The militiamen move on a territory which they know well and very certainly benefit from complicity within the local populations. What the Congolese soldiers do not have.