DRC: anti-UN protests decry worsening insecurity
Frustrated by continuing insurgency and insecurity despite a two-decade-long peacekeeping presence in their country, hundreds of people have protested across towns in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo since July. They are calling for the immediate withdrawal of UN troops. As protests turned violent, more violence came in response. Over 30 people have died and many more have been injured. The urgent need is to find alternatives that respect the rights of people living with insecurity and bring them the peace and safety they so desperately need.
United Nations (UN) forces have been a presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for over two decades now. What started in 1999 as an observer mission of under 100 troops had ballooned into a force of over 5,000 military personnel by early 2000. It now has over 16,000 uniformed personnel, making it one of world’s largest peacekeeping missions.
The UN force was deployed to maintain stability in a mineral-rich country struggling with multiple conflicts led by armed militias, some linked to neighbouring states. But insecurity has persisted, and many people in the DRC are now denouncing it as a failure and protesting to demand its withdrawal.
A closer look at the protests
In November 1999, the UN Security Council established the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC) to ensure all parties involved in conflict adhered to the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement – a peace deal between the DRC and the governments of Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Despite the UN’s heavy presence in the country, armed conflict and insecurity have continued to be major problems. Instead of representing peace, the UN’s blue helmets have come to be viewed by many as part of the problem.
Protests erupted on 25 July and have so far left as many as 36 people dead, including four peacekeepers, and around 170 wounded. Accusations of violence have come from both sides.
Protesters have reported being shot at with live ammunition by peacekeepers and accused UN forces of being responsible for some of the deaths. MONUSCO has denied these claims, instead suggesting that protesters have fired shots and highlighting attacks against its bases. In July, the organisation called for a joint investigation with the government over the deaths of both civilians and peacekeepers, warning that attacks on its mission could constitute war crimes.
But less than a month later, two UN soldiers opened fire at a border post, killing two people and injuring over a dozen more. Reports suggest the people were denied entrance by immigration services after returning from a foreign trip and tried to force their way through. The UN condemned the incident and opened a joint investigation with the government. But the incident hardly helped make the case for its continuing presence.
According to a recent poll, 44 per cent of people think UN forces should immediately leave the DRC. As they see it, the blue helmets have failed to make them more secure in the face of violent rebel groups, and particularly the March 23 Movement (M23), created by Rwanda and active in the east of the country. M23 has seen a resurgence in 2022, as a result of which 29 civilians were killed between June and July this year alone, and many more have been displaced.
By its own admission, the UN does not have the capacity to fight off M23 and other insurgent groups. But those opposed to its presence believe it is doing more harm than good by creating targets for attacks, escalating violence further.
While protests have died down in recent weeks, resistance to the UN’s presence remains strong. These were not the first protests against peacekeepers in the DRC and they won’t be the last: several have taken place over the past few years – even after two eastern provinces were placed under martial law in 2021 – and more are planned.
Grassroots activism targeted
Grassroots activists, and particularly networks of young activists such as LUCHA (Lutte Pour Le Changement, Struggle for Change), have been heavily involved in recent demonstrations, playing key roles in organising protests and articulating protesters’ demands.
Crucially, civil society activists and organisations are not only protesting against the UN’s presence; they are also calling out the general insecurity in the country and their ire is also directed towards the government for not doing enough. But this makes them a target of government repression.
Voices from the frontline
Espoir Ngalukiye and Sankara Bin Kartumwa are members of LUCHA, an organisation that advocates for human dignity and social justice in the DRC.
MONUSCO was deployed to restore peace in the DRC by protecting civilians, facilitating safe electoral processes and fighting rebel groups. But it has been in the country for close to 20 years and the opposite has happened: the number of armed groups has risen, people continue to live in unsafe conditions and innocent lives are being lost despite the presence of MONUSCO.
It was the peacekeeping mission’s job to prevent that happening, but it has not served us diligently and has proven to be useless. Right now, extremely high levels of violence are causing many people to migrate in search of safety. This alone is evidence enough that the peacekeeping mission has failed.
Many people in local communities do not have a good relationship with MONUSCO because they believe the mission has not taken up its role to protect them. Civilians’ lack of trust, in turn, makes it challenging for MONUSCO to carry out its mandate. But if it was effective, people would not be protesting against it.
We have seen people injured and killed just because they were part of the protests. People are angry because security issues have been ongoing for years, and MONUSCO should have seen this coming: it was only a matter of time before people started acting on their anger towards the mission. MONUSCO should have come up with ways to deal with the situation without people having to lose their lives.
As for the Congolese authorities, they have arrested people unlawfully. Most people who have been detained are facing terrible conditions in prison and our concern is that they all get justice. We do not want them to be tortured for fighting for their rights.
The international community has been hypocritical and has always prioritised their own needs. It is unfortunate that the recent events are happening in a mineral-rich area of our country. Many powerful people have interests there and are willing to do anything to ensure they are protected. That is why so few countries are speaking up against what is happening.
Geography also puts us at a disadvantage. Maybe if we were Ukraine our voices would have mattered but we are the DRC, and international players only care about our resources and not our people. But the people who are getting killed in the DRC are human beings who have families and lives and dreams just like the ones being killed in Ukraine.
The international community must understand that we need peace and security, and that MONUSCO has failed to deliver and needs to leave our country. It must listen to the voice of the people who are sovereign. Listening to the people will be the only way to stop the protests. Trying to stop them any other way will lead to more violence and more deaths.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Espoir and Sankara. Read the full interview here.
In response to the protests and ensuring violence, the government deployed hundreds of police officers and soldiers across the eastern region. Troops were despatched to help protect UN facilities from attacks and, the government said, to restore calm.
But protesters reported heavy-handed treatment by security forces, including extensive use of teargas. In some regions, protests were banned and protesters arrested.
At the same time, the government seemed to back protesters’ grievances when it expelled MONUSCO’s spokesperson, Mathias Gillmann, following his admission that the UN lacked the equipment to match the military sophistication of M23 and other insurgent groups. The government justified its decision on grounds that Gillmann was exacerbating tensions and feeding dissent.
In what seemed a clear attempt to control the narrative, journalists were arrested and detained after reporting on the subject.
Withdrawal on the cards?
Ultimately, protesters may be pushing at an open door: the UN has been pulling its soldiers out for several years and prior to the protests had a withdrawal plan in place that set a 2024 departure date if several conditions were met. In the light of recent events, the government has begun re-evaluating its timeline but has already indicated full withdrawal would likely take a year.
This is a longer timeframe than demanded by activists. But immediate evacuation seems unfeasible, and there must be concerns that MONUSCO’s withdrawal could make things even worse. There is a clear need to put alternatives in place.
To reinforce security in the face of heightened militancy, the government has authorised foreign interventions, including a regional force from the East African Community (EAC) bloc. While this is a solution closer to home, it too has faced criticism from those wary of outside intervention.
Rwanda’s involvement in the EAC in particular has evident potential to undermine the initiative. Rwanda’s authoritarian government claims to have stopped funding M23, but the DRC government has accused it of supporting it during the 2022 attacks. Evidence shows Rwandan troops have been conducting military operations in eastern DRC since last year. Rwanda stands accused of extracting eastern DRC’s mineral wealth and waging a proxy war with Uganda.
Those unhappy with the UN’s presence therefore want to see national security forces taking the lead instead. This is a common sentiment across Central and West Africa, as seen in recent protests in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger, mostly against the presence of French troops. In those countries, anti-France sentiment is strongest among young people and has resulted in a degree of public support for military governments that take a strongly anti-French stance, notably in Mali.
The challenge is determining what needs to happen next. Years of the presence of foreign forces seem to have done little to develop the capacities of domestic forces to respond to insecurity. This is a common problem. Mali is among countries that have recruited Russian mercenaries to fill the gap, only intensifying concerns about human rights and transparency.
DRC forces are also associated with violent repression of protests and other human rights abuses, not least in the two eastern provinces where martial law remains in effect. In just one example of such violence, LUCHA activist Mumbere Ushindi Dorake was killed when security forces used live ammunition against a peaceful protest held in January.
What people want, in the DRC as around the world, is to live in peace. If UN withdrawal is to lead to tangible improvements in people’s lives, the security forces that come in to take the UN’s place must ensure they protect the rights of those living with insecurity and be fully accountable to those they are meant to protect.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The DRC government must reverse policies banning protests and stop suppressing demonstrations.
The government should work with the UN to develop a transition plan that ensures the security of Congolese people and the accountability of any remaining troops.
The UN must investigate all criminal accusations against peacekeepers and hold those found guilty accountable.
Cover photo by Reuters/Djaffar Sabiti via Gallo Images