Ebola outbreak highlights security challenges for MONUSCO in DRCAugust 29, 2018 in Democratic Republic of the Congo, United Nations
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.