Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Withdrawal of MONUSCO From the DRC

It is a sobering reality that the past three decades of the Democratic Republic of Congo has been haunted by the unrelenting specters of communal unrest, armed confrontations and pervasive insecurity. The state’s kleptocratic style of governance and incapacity to maintain security has led to the proliferation of armed groups, compelling the government to rely on a host of regional and global sources of assistance.

The recent resurgence of the Rwandan backed M23 rebel group in October 2021 has broken a period of tentative stability following their defeat in 2013. The M23’s territorial gains in the eastern province of North Kivu and the displacement of over 900,000 civilians since the beginning of the year serves as the final chisel that has completely eroded the image of the United Nations’ most expensive and ambitious peacekeeping mission – MONUSCO. Amidst the backdrop of the DRC’s increasing security quandary, its role has been largely contested. Owing to limited success and an outcry of dissatisfaction and anti-UN sentiment from various quarters in the DRC, the international community now awaits the completion of MONUSCO’s first phase of withdrawal by the end of April 2024.

This article delves into the complex interplay of factors contributing to MONUSCO’s departure. It argues that the withdrawal should be seen as the culmination of intrinsic hurdles that have choked its effectiveness, rather than a misstep that could exacerbate an already precarious situation.

Dragging a history ripe with systemic errors, the limitations of MONUSCO’s interventions and pronounced inaction in the face of rebel militias have gradually gurgled and frothed the frustration of the people. The deployment of the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) – an offensive unit under the mission’s mandate that is empowered to engage with hostiles – marked a critical juncture in this unraveling dynamic. While the notion of bolstering the state’s armed forces and confronting rebel groups seemed reasonable in theory, such an approach shut down possibilities for political resolutions and chipped away at the perception of the UN’s neutrality in the conflict, placing civilians at greater risk. This, in turn, compounded the difficulty MONUSCO faced in fulfilling their assignment.

To make matters worse, the almost tangible disconnect between the political processes and military activity within MONUSCO’s operation have severely hampered their efficacy. The glaring gap between intentions and actions becomes manifest in instances of massacres near MONUSCO bases in Beni or in the takeover of Pinga by the Mai Mai Cheka militia. In the latter, even severed heads paraded around on sticks and rolled towards the doors of the base failed to provoke any decisive response.

Unfortunately, this systemic frailty within the mission’s response mechanism pales in comparison to its most egregious flaw: the FIB’s inability to grasp the complexity of internal relations shaping the conflict landscape. Their approach has always rested on a clear fallacy. The FIB simplistically pit rebels against a monolithic wall of government forces, as if they were each rigidly delineated entities. But in reality, the shapes and lines meld; agendas and networks meet in places where the mission hasn’t been able to anticipate.

This should come as little surprise considering the DRC’s identity as a weak state with over 266 armed groups. Circumstances of this nature tend to make traditional neutralization tactics redundant, instead compelling Kinshasa to co-opt factions in the Kasais and Kivus regions in a bid to partition rival groups. Ultimately, parallel networks begin to creep up, with the national military siphoning weapons and resources to rebels since the end of the Second Congo War. In environments with such multifaceted dimensions, the UN military struggles to function soundly and encounters pushback from the very forces that should be aligned with them, underpinning the inevitability of their withdrawal.

Of particular importance is how this convoluted backdrop extends even further, as rebels infiltrate state structures and compromise the FIB’s intelligence networks. Incidents of Congolese officers blocking off killing sites to stop victims escaping, or leading UN troops to false locations are further evidence of MONUSCO’s continual failure to identify and address nuances in the hostile terrain. These shortcomings leave the mission’s credibility in shambles and plainly underlines the retraction as inexorable from the outset.

When we shift our focus to the ground level, we find that MONUSCO’s complete lack of local ownership has only rendered this inevitability more apparent. Bearing heavy scars of colonial exploitation and meddling, locals have always viewed foreign interference with skepticism. What is particularly disappointing and has predisposed MONUSCO to its current predicament is that its actions have only served to further alienate the population. They have been riddled by allegations of human rights violations. In 2005 alone, 63 of their soldiers were expelled for paying minors for sexual services and Pakistani peacekeepers were implicated in selling weapons to militants in exchange for gold.

“Go fix your country before you meddle in our issues” is thus a rightfully echoing mantra thrown at MONUSCO. It underscores the systemic flaws in the very selection process, particularly regarding troop contributions from failed democracies and the need to prioritize integrity. This draws allusions to the ‘crisis of consent’, as the mission has been unable to genuinely cultivate legitimacy and align with the perspectives and concerns of ordinary people. Some citizens have even begun to contend that MONUSCO’s long-standing presence in the country is a reflection of their commitment to safeguard international interests, as they have allegedly formed connections with multinational mining corporations in the DRC.

With the remarks of Bintou Keita, the head of the force, acknowledging that M23 wields advanced firepower and conducts attacks mimicking a conventional army beyond MONUSCO capabilities, outbursts of anger have been stirred. At its peak, the president of the DRC senate, Modeste Bahati, boldly motioned to his supporters that MONUSCO should just “pack its bags” and leave. Quite uniformly, these sentiments are reflected at grassroot levels, as well.

Rampant insecurity has catalyzed protests, and mounting bitterness has turned them violent. In August 2022, a heated clash wrestled petrol bombs against live ammunition, taking the lives of thirty-six demonstrators and four peacekeepers. When security forces, meant to protect civilians, start taking their lives, it becomes a clear indicator that relations have soured to the point that a withdrawal is not a matter of if, but when.

Through this, one recurring theme is visible: the continual shape-up of misdirected anger. While corruption, rebel activity and inroads into government forces occur at the behest of the Congolese militias and elements within the state, the blame is largely cast upon the United Nations. The visible presence of their troops act as a constant reminder of the country’s own failings. One can even say that this blame-shifting phenomenon has, over time, mass-produced a generational belief in MONUSCO’s ineptness that is so entrenched, it has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Within this framework of growing resentment and the corrosion of trust, the withdrawal of the mission appears, above all, a natural progression.

Congolese citizens have also begun experiencing a broader awakening of ethnic consciousness, as protestors speak to a sense of ownership in addressing their country’s problems. The sentiment that MONUSCO’s presence has lulled them into complacency, as opposed to actively confronting their issues, is increasingly gaining traction. They are coming to realize that both, international and regional actors, have overlooked and underestimated the agency of the Congolese. In essence, this dual dynamic – the disillusionment with MONUSCO’s effectiveness at conflict mitigation and the resurgence of national identity –  strengthens the ‘inevitability’ argument.

Nonetheless, it must be understood that the swift withdrawal of the force could prove disastrous. While the initial plan hinged on the DRC meeting certain security improvements, there is a general consensus that it will not be met and that the withdrawal would precipitate the security vacuum predicted by American diplomat Robert Wood. Thus, the occasion of a “structured and civilized” exit, as advocated by the DRC’s government, is rather optimistic and must be tempered with a recognition of the immeasurable hurdles involved in preparing the country’s security apparatus for the post-MONSUSCO period.

[Photo by MONUSCO, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Empowering Women: Fostering Collective Action in Nepalese Cooperatives

Collective action has been a fundamental aspect of human society for centuries. However, it has emerged as a prevalent mode of achieving common goals,...

A Real and Charming China in the Eyes of Taiwan Youths

As the yearning for more cross-Straits communications between the Chinese mainland and China's Taiwan region has been increasing in recent years, CGTN proudly presents...

Why Macron Is Thinking About Western Intervention in Ukraine

Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, initially took a more pragmatic approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Attempting to mitigate tensions, Macron’s numerous...