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What one more massacre in DR Congo says about MONUSCO

Martina Schwikowski | Wendy Bashi | Marcus Loika
June 15, 2023

The end of the UN peacekeeping mission to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is being heralded. But the massacre at a camp for displaced people on Sunday points to failures, experts say.

UN patrol vehicle making its way on a muddy road as people look on
UN peacekeepers on patrol at a camp for people displaced by conflict in Congo's eastern Ituri provinceImage: Paul Lorgerie/REUTERS

Content warning: Disturbing details follow below.

Armed attackers raided the Lala camp for internally displaced persons in Ituri province in the northeastern Congo on Sunday night. At least 46 of the people being housed at the camp were killed — half of them children. 

A deadly weekend

Government and civil society organizations blame the Cooperative pour le developpement du Congo (Cooperative for the Development of the Congo, or CODECOmilitia group for the killings.

"They entered this place and massacred several people," said Richard Dheda, the chief of Bahema Badjere district in Djugu territory, told DW.

"They were killed with machetes and with firearms or they cut their throats," Dheda said. "They even set fire to the huts of the displaced people."

The massacre came a day after seven people were killed in an attack on an army position in the region.

A group of men with rifles
The CODECO militia has been blamed for numerous massacres in eastern CongoImage: ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP

Fear and despair are part of life for people in Ituri, which borders Uganda. Dieudonne Lossadhekana, who heads the federation of civil society organizations in Ituri, says residents expect more commitment from the authorities to ensure their safety..

Civilians want state protection

"Our concern stems from the fact that the Congolese state, which is supposed to protect the population and their property, is still unable to do so," Lossadhekana said.

"At least 8,500 people live in this place. We would like the state to show its power and ability in the face of this situation."

The military in Ituri sees the situation differently.

"The DRC armed forces have made useful arrangements to deal with anyone who opposes peace," said Jules Ngongo, a spokesman for the army in Ituri.

As recently as June 1, CODECO was among the militia groups that signed an agreement to lay down arms.

Experts cite 'failed' UN mission

In May 2021, President Felix Tshisekedi declared a state of emergency in Ituri and North Kivu provinces.

The stated goal was to put a stop to the armed groups in eastern Congo and guarantee the protection of the civilians.

Rebels from the M23 are also among the armed groups fighting in North Kivu. UN experts believe the M23 is supported by neighboring Rwanda. Kigali however denies this.

Two years after the state of emergency came into effect and despite the deployment of UN peacekeepers to eastern Congo, the region remains volatile.

MONUSCO is one of the largest peacekeeping missions in the world — currently, 12,800 of the original 20,000 troops are still deployed.

The peacekeepers have been in the region since 1999, and the mission costs about $1 billion (€910 million) a year.

Soldiers and a helicopter
Congo's army and UN blue helmets fight together against militas in eastern CongoImage: Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images

"MONUSCO has largely failed because its deployment has not had a significant impact on security over the past decade," Richard Moncrief, the African Great Lakes Region director for the International Crisis Group think tank, told DW. 

Moncrief also said that, in the prevailing "no war-no peace scenario" in eastern Congo, the UN mission was unable to make an impact. 

He faults the reluctance of UN troops on the ground.

"The countries contributing to the mission could interpret the mandate more aggressively if they wanted to — to push back armed groups to protect civilians," Moncrief said. 

African militaries are present

Moncrief described a confused situation with numerous armed groups. Some of them receive support from regional authorities. But a peacekeeping mission cannot succeed if the armed groups are not part of the peace process, he notes.

After the resurgence of the M23 in November 2021, UN peacekeepers had little to counter the massacres, looting and arson that followed.

The Congolese government called in troops from the East African Community (EAC). But in May, President Tshisekedi accused these forces of collaborating with "the M23 terrorists" and said he would reconsider the EAC deployment.

Reinforcements are also coming from the Southern African Development Community and the African Union.

That's a lot of military players, Remadji Hoinathy, a fellow at the Institute for Security Studies think tank, told DW.

"There's almost a logjam there, but these forces need to clarify how they can cooperate with each other," Hoinathy said.

It's not even a question of whether MONUSCO should leave the country or not, he said, referring to numerous protests by the population against the blue helmets over the past year.

A group of men marching with raised fists next to a banner
A placard at a protest in Goma, eastern Congo, in July 2022, features a sign with the words "We don't like MONUSCO" Image: Moses Sawasawa/AP Photo/picture alliance

Is 'war economy' stalling peace?

Moncrief said the unresolved conflict in Congo could hint at something else.

"In this situation in eastern Congo — as in Mali — when thousands of well-equipped troops can't seem to do anything to protect the population, it raises suspicions in people that they're involved in business," Moncrief said.

Gold smuggling and access to minerals are commonplace in the region, he said. Armed groups are funded by this war economy.

Significant political dialogue between the various parties and the government, on the other hand, is not taking place, Moncrief said. 

The Congolese government has repeatedly expressed doubts about MONUSCO, sometimes leading to a reorientation of the mission, and sometimes a downsizing.

Speaking in Kinshasa last week, UN Undersecretary-General Jean-Pierre Lacroix said the peacekeepers must be withdrawn "as quickly as possible" but responsibly.

The diplomat, who is responsible for UN peacekeeping missions, stressed that no security gap should be allowed to develop.

"There is a withdrawal plan being discussed that is coordinated with the government in Kinshasa, but the dialogue on that has been going on for about 10 years," Moncrief said.

DR Congo: Anger in Goma over incessant militant attacks

Elections six months away

Alex Vines, the Africa program director at the Chatham House think tank does not see a withdrawal of MONUSCO as a solution to the crisis in Congo. 

"It's an election year," Vines told DW. "That's why President Tshisekedi's government is scapegoating the MONUSCO operation and the UN for its own shortcomings."

The reality, Vines said, is that Tshisekedi's military is too poorly equipped to deal with the security challenges that all the active armed groups pose. 

In the meantime, the plan for the withdrawal of MONUSCO is somewhat stalled as Congo gears up for elections in December. 

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen