Latest figures released by the Health Ministry in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) indicate that the current Ebola outbreak in the eastern region of the country has surpassed 1,500 deaths. The Ebola outbreak, which was first detected in August 2018, is now the second largest outbreak in history.
On Monday 24 June, the country’s health ministry confirmed that as of 23 June, 1,506 people have died of Ebola out of 2,239 recorded cases. Officials have indicated that nearly 141,000 people have been vaccinated in the affected DRC provinces of Itrui and North Kivu, the epicentre of the outbreak. Ebola spread amongst humans through close contact with the blood, body fluids, secretions or organs of an infected person, or objects contaminated by such fluids. The current outbreak in the DRC is the worst on record after an epidemic that struck mainly Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone between 2014 – 2016, killing more than 11,300 people. Response to the current outbreak in eastern DRC however has been hampered by chronic violence and militia activity as well as hostility to medical teams amongst locals. On Monday 24 June, a crowd of people opposed to the burial of two Ebola victims in the Beni area burnt the vehicle of a health team. One member of the medical team had been injured in the attack.
Regional countries are also increasingly being impacted by the outbreak, particularly Uganda, which earlier this month confirmed several cases of the deadly virus, coupled by increasing violence in the eastern DRC, which has resulted in thousands fleeing and crossing the border. The United Nations refugee agency reported on 25 June that about 7,500 Congolese fleeing violence have arrived in Uganda since the beginning of this month. The UNHCR has reported that people are leaving the DRC at a rate of 311 a day. The situation has been made worse because of the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the DRC and there are growing concerns that the refugees could be carrying the deadly virus. The refugees are running away from clashes between two ethnic groups – the Hema and the Lendu – in the DRC’s north-eastern province of Ituri, an area that has long been plagued by violence and lawlessness. According to the local governor, more than 160 people have been killed in two weeks of the violence in several villages of Ituri. UNHCR workers have reported that recent arrivals from the DRC “speak of extreme brutality. Armed groups are said to be attacking villages, torching and looting houses, and killing men, women and children.” The violence has been taking place in a remote area of the DRC, near South Sudan and Uganda where the UN says there is limited access for humanitarians. Authorities believe that the perpetrators were militia fighters from the Lendu community. The DRC’s military believes that they are linked to Mathieu Ngudjolo, who was acquitted of war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2012. Most Congolese are fleeing via Lake Albert from Ituri province, where an estimated 300,000 people have been displaced since early June. A refugee reception centre in Uganda is currently home to 4,600 new arrivals, 1,600 more than its maximum intended capacity.
At the beginning of June, Ugandan authorities confirmed that the Ebola virus claimed two lives amongst a family who had travelled to the DRC. The outbreak was reported on 11 June in the western Kasese District While currently there are no other known cases of the virus in the country, Ugandan authorities have increased detection procedures at border crossings and at airports.
The challenges and limitations faced by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) have been highlighted during recent efforts to respond to the latest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Aid workers are unable to enter some areas outside of Mangina, a community located approximately 30km of the town of Beni, one of the epicentres of the outbreak. These areas are considered “red-zones”, corresponding to level four on the scale employed by the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). This means that health-care personnel cannot enter in order to monitor the spread, or offer treatment to anyone who has contracted the deadly disease.
Despite the presence of MONUSCO forces, North Kivu remains host to what from the outside may appear to be a bewildering array of rebel groups and militias. These groups, according to their own statements and declarations, have varied ideologies and causes that they allegedly seek to represent. These ideologies fall across a wide range. On one end are the ethno-nationalists claiming to represent ethnic/tribal interests. On the other end are Islamists such as the Allied Democratic Forces trying to create an Islamic state. The latter have been accused of ties to al-Qaeda and its affiliate al-Shabaab, but these allegations remain unverified.
Still other groups appear to serve as little more than vehicles for the ambitions of their leaders, or an excuse to engage in banditry under the cover of representing tribal or local interests. The names used (or given by outside observers) for these groups also vary from the grandiose which results in impressive acronyms such as ADF, APCLS, FDC, FLDR-FOCA, FLDR-CNRD, NDC-R to the more informal for local militias (mai mai) such as ‘Simba, ‘Charles’ and ‘Mazembe’. These groups are frequently accused of murder, rape, abduction and other abuses against civilian populations. They have been known to fund their activities by occupying mining sites and operating roadblocks across the province.
Side note: in October 2017, a two-minute-long video was shared by several pro-Islamic State channels showing a small group of fighters who claimed to be in the DRC. They called themselves “The City of Monotheism and Monotheists.” No further information regarding this group or its activities has emerged since the release of this video despite initial interest from both the media and online community of Islamic State supporters.
These groups are unlike the rebels of the March 23 Movement (aka M23) who were defeated in 2014 by the Congolese Army (FARDC), with the independent support of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). Rather, these rebel forces offer a much smaller and elusive target. This is despite often operating from known bases and fielding forces that number from hundreds up to several thousand fighters.
These smaller groups do not engage in the type of large-scale military offensives or attempts to seize major cities like Goma attempted by M23. Instead, these groups launch hit-and-run attacks and then retreat into the bush or disperse and blend into civilian populations. They do not engage in prolonged head-on battles over towns and territory. The effectiveness of these tactics was demonstrated in the evening of 07 December 2017, when 14 MONUSCO peacekeepers were killed and 53 were wounded in an attack on their base at Semuliki located in Beni Territory, North Kivu. The attackers were fighters belonging to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group. A further five FARDC soldiers were also killed in the attack.
Restructuring the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade
Despite having some 15,533 troops, United Nations peace-keepers have struggled to defeat these rebel forces and militias as its forces are dispersed across North Kivu and across other regions in the eastern DRC. The FIB, was critical to the defeat of the M23 rebellion and the later targeting that same year of bases belonging to rebels of the ADF. However, they have proven less successful than hoped in more recent efforts to target other rebel groups and militias. This recent lack of progress prompted a July 2018 report by the United Nations which recommended a reconfiguration of the force to make it “more flexible, agile and able to conduct both offensive and protection of civilians operations across North Kivu”. This reconfiguration, expected to be completed by 30 September, includes replacing an infantry battalion with a Special Forces company, strengthening the intelligence unit and introducing a new utility/attack helicopter unit.
This plan is currently opposed by the Government of South Africa, which fears a reduction in the size of the FIB may result in its forces (as well as those of other troop contributing countries, like Malawi and Tanzania) suffering greater casualties. Nevertheless, it remains unclear how a more ‘flexible and agile’ FIB will help MONSUCO achieve greater success. Even at its current size, this force has proven inadequate to provide security across this vast territory, while the FARDC and other government forces deployed in the region remain unreliable partners. A worsening of the latest round of Hema-Lendu fighting in Ituri Province, which has already seen mass killings and the displacement of more than 350,000 persons, or eruption of other conflicts, would only place a further strain on UN peacekeeping resources.
Due to the current scale of the challenge faced by MONSUCO, it is unlikely that this reconfiguration of the FIB will be enough to meet the threat posed by the rebel and militia forces currently terrorising the eastern regions of the DRC. Even with greater mobility and a larger contingent of Special Forces, the FIB will still be left in a position akin to ‘swatting at flies’. The sheer number and highly mobile nature of potential targets threatens to overstretch these resources.
There is no question that the FIB under its current force structure, even with the infantry battalion which is to be replaced, has already suffered from this problem. That healthcare workers have not been able to access areas near Beni, where the UN also has a Nepalese infantry battalion and am Formed Police Unit (Indian), has only served to draw attention to this fact. The notion that a force restructure is seen as necessary is understandable.
It will now be the responsibility of all governments that provide troops and support to the MONSUCO mission to ensure that the future performance of the FIB be closely monitored and that any shortfalls or lessons learned receive a quick and full response. A failure to do so may lead to a further deterioration in the security situation in the eastern regions of the DRC and further inhibit the ability of the UN and other actors to respond to the current Ebola outbreak.
According to a lead mediator from the Catholic Church, Congolese President Joseph Kabila will step down after elections, which will be held before the end of 2017, under a deal that was struck by political parties on 30 December 2016. Speaking to reporters, Marcel Utembi, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in the DRC, disclosed that under the deal, President Kabila will be unable to change the constitution to extend his mandate and run for a third term in office. Hopes are now high that the landmark power-sharing deal between DRC’s political opponents will bring an end to a months-long crisis. It also aims to head of further unrest over the fate of President Joseph Kabila, whose second and final mandate ended on 20 December with no sign of him stepping down and no election in sight.
Below is a timeline of the crisis that has affected the country
- 17 January 2015 – Parliament adopts a bill that would enable President Kabila, who has been in power for fourteen years, to extend his term beyond 2016. The president’s opponents believe that he wants to prolong his mandate by making the presidential and parliamentary elections contingent on a new electoral roll, as a census that was set to begin in 2015 has yet to take place.
- Between 19 – 22 January 2015 – Clashes between police and anti-Kabila demonstrators erupt in the capital Kinshasa and several other towns across the country. The clashes degenerate into riots and looting, with police using life fire and tear gas in a bid to disperse the crowds. Dozens are killed. Speaking from Belgium, opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi calls on the Congolese people to force a “dying regime” from power.
- 25 January 2015 – Parliament votes in favor of a new election law, which still leaves doubts over the timetable for new polls.
- December 2015 – The United Nations expresses concern over a government crackdown on opponents, pointing to “arbitrary arrests and detentions, in particular political opponents, civil society activists or demonstrators.”
- 4 May 2016 – Opposition leader Moise Katumbi declares that he will stand in the presidential election. He is seen as the leading challenger to Kabila. The wealthy businessman is a former Kabila ally who joined the opposition in September 2015 after stepping down as governor of mineral-rich Katanga province.
- 11 May 2016 – The Constitutional Court states that Kabia can remain in office when his mandate expires, even without being re-elected.
- May 2016 – Katumbi leave for South Africa, ostensibly for medical treatment, after appearing in court twice over the alleged use of foreign mercenaries.
- 10 June 2016 – During a Brussels meeting, which was organized by Tshisekedi, the mainstream opposition decides to set up a new coalition.
- June 2016 – Katumbi is sentenced to three years in prison over a separate real estate dispute in a move that effectively makes him ineligible to stand in the election.
- July 2016 – Tshisekedi returns to Kinshasa after two years in Belgium. Speaking before tens of thousands of supporters, he demands that the election be held by the year’s end and that Kabila departs.
- September 2016 – The opposition coalition calls for demonstrators to signal notice to Kabila, three months before his term is due to expire.
- 19 – 20 September 2016 – Violence erupts in Kinshasa between security forces and youths, leaving several dozen people dead. The protests were called by Tshisekedi’s opposition coalition to coincide with the last three months of Kabila’s term in office.
- 17 October 2016 – The parliamentary majority and an opposition fringe minority sign an accord, which effectively pushes the presidential election back to April 2018 and keeps Kabila in place until his predecessor takes over. The mainstream opposition however continues to demand that Kabila step down at the end of his mandate, in December 2016.
- 8 December 2016 – The DRC’s episcopal conference CENCO launches talks which are aimed at a deal on setting up a transition authority until a presidential election can be held. It sets a 16 December deadline, which comes and goes.
- 12 December 2016 – The United States and the European Union (EU) impose sanctions on top Congolese officials over bloodshed in the country.
- 17 December 2016 – Catholic Church negotiators announce that talks would resume only a day after Kabila’s term ends.
- 20 December 2016 – According to the UN, deadly clashes erupt in Kinshasa and other cities on the last day of Kabila’s mandate, leaving at least forty people dead.
- Late December 2016 – The CENCO-mediated talks resume
- 31 December 2016 – The two sides agree that Kabila will remain in power until elections are held at the “end of 2017.” During this 12-month period, a so-called National Transition Council, will be set up, headed by opposition leader Tshisekedi, and a prime minister will be named from opposition ranks.
SECURITY MESSAGE FOR U.S. CITIZENS: KINSHASA (DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO), TAKE PRECAUTIONS DECEMBER 17-19December 16, 2016 in Democratic Republic of the Congo
The U.S. Embassy informs U.S. citizens in the DRC that U.S. government employees have been instructed to limit their movements to and within Gombe starting on Saturday, December 17. Employees have also been asked to remain in their residences from Saturday at 23:00 until Sunday, December 18 at 05:00.