With One Arrest, Congo May Have Broken a Notorious Rebel Group
Is the FDLR’s end in sight?
by PETER DOERRIE
In a heavy blow against one of Africa’s most notorious militias, Col. Leopold Mujyambere — chief of staff of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR — was arrested last week by Congolese intelligence officers in the town of Goma and later transferred to the capital Kinshasa, where he awaits either a trial or extradition.
The roots of the FDLR go back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Founded in 2000 as the successor to ALiR — the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda — its members were largely recruited among the perpetrators of the genocide, who fled Rwanda into neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo to escape the onslaught of rebels intend on stopping the massacre.
After reforming in the vast refugee camps on the Rwandan-Congolese borders, ALiR elements staged frequent attacks against Rwanda’s new rulers, eventually provoking Rwanda’s invasion of the Congo in 1996, which kicked off the bloody First Congo War.
One of the major conflict parties in both the first and the Second Congo War, AliR and later FDLR nonetheless experienced a steady decline. From a recent peak of 6,000 men in 2008, today only 1,500 to 2,500 remain under arms, largely thanks to a U.N. demobilization program and military pressure by the Rwandan and Congolese government. Its activities have been restricted to a remote and inaccessible area in the thick forests of eastern Congo, west of Goma.
Especially in recent years, the FDLR also has suffered a steady loss of its top leadership, with Mujyambere being only the latest victim. Rwandan special forces are thought to be responsible, together with local allies, for a string of assassinations of top military commanders. And late last year, a German court sentenced the president and vice president of the political arm of the organization to 13 and eight years in prison, respectively, for leading the FDLR from exile.
But Mujyambere is the highest-ranking military figure of the FDLR to be taken off the board. In terms of protocol, he ranks directly under overall commander Lt. Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura, who is reported to be ailing from old age and unable to walk on his own.
Even more damaging than the loss of Mujyambere as an officer might be the internal politics surrounding his arrest. While Congo’s information minister Lambert Mende told reporters that Mujyambere was recognized during a routine traffic stop, this seems unlikely — especially because Congo’s intelligence services are reported to have been involved in the arrest.
Mujyambere was at the time traveling from neighboring Zambia back to the FDLR’s hideout, after visiting FDLR supporters and members in South Africa. The South African government, a major troop contributor to the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has cultivated a close relationship with the FDLR and allows it a measure of freedom to organize.
Speculations are rife that Mujyambere’s travel plans was ratted out to Congolese authorities by rivals within the FDLR. According to insiders, a rift is growing between Mudacumura and acting president Gen. Victor Byiringiro, with Mujyambere generally assumed to have taken Byiringiro’s side.
If Muhyambere’s arrest is indeed the result of internal rivalries, it presents a significant success of the U.N.’s and Congolese attempts to undermine the FDLR both militarily and politically. Given especially the government’s current military pressure on the organization’s last fighters — an interesting historical irony in itself, as the FDLR was for the longest time of its existence an important military ally of the Congolese armed forces against Rwanda — the rebel group might come close to its ultimate breaking point.
After more than two decades of conflict, today most FDLR fighters were actually born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, not in Rwanda. And while a healthy share of the leadership is still made up of ageing génocidaires, many might be fed up with fighting a war that they are unlikely to win any time soon, under ever-worsening conditions.
But while nobody, especially not the FDLR’s many civilian victims, will shed any tears over the group’s demise, it will be only a small step in stabilizing Congo. The FDLR is only one of many armed groups active in the country’s restive east. Indeed, the Congolese army relies heavily on other militias in its current offensive against the FDLR. And while the FDLR has gained special notoriety for its links to the Rwandan genocide, in practice all armed groups — including Congo’s army — are guilty of frequent human rights abuses.
More meaningful than the arrest of Mujyambere itself will therefore be fallout from these events. Up until now it is unclear if he will be tried in Congo, for example, or extradited to either Rwanda or another country that wants to bring a case against him. An important factor is that as far as we know, Mujyambere wasn’t in Rwanda at the time of the genocide and can therefore only be tried for crimes committed under his command by the FDLR.
As these were committed overwhelmingly on Congolese soil, Congolese courts should be the obvious place to bring him to justice. But the Congolese government also has a long history of cooperating with the FDLR as a proxy against Rwanda, so having Mujyambere spill the beans might embarrassing. There is a reason that no high-ranking officer of the FDLR has so far been taken to court in Congo.
Mujyambere’s case, as positive as his arrest is, will therefore become an interesting test for Congo’s thinking on the FDLR problem — as will be the country’s continued commitment to combat the group and others like it.
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