By Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database
On 18 January the government spokesman for the Democratic Republic of the Congo stated that at least 200 ex-members of the M23 armed group had arrived back in the country from neighbouring Uganda, reportedly taking over a village in North Kivu province and clashing with the Congolese army. Composed mostly of aggrieved ethnic Tutsis and formed in 2012, the group experienced its demise in 2013 after it was effectively defeated by army forces aided by a UN mission (MONUSCO) brigade. Although the Ugandan authorities later denied claims regarding the most recent clashes, and MONUSCO representatives could not confirm the presence of any M23 rebels on DRC territory, the very re-emergence of this issue – as well as similar reports of unverified sightings of the ex-rebels crossing the border in November 2016 – highlights the continued challenges the Congolese disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme is facing.
Reintegration in particular, defined by the UN as ‘the process by which ex-combatants acquire civilian status and gain sustainable employment and income’, has faced major obstacles in the DRC that are common under conditions of high insecurity in conflict zones. The practical results of the attempted reintegration of ex-combatants into either the regular security forces or civilian life have remained limited, and are constantly reversed by ongoing conflicts among highly fragmented groups with few incentives to transition to a more stable, ‘post-conflict’ environment. In such contexts, DDR can hardly be seen as a way to address post-conflict economic recovery, institution-building or stabilisation.
The scale and nature of past violence is likely to impact DDR initiatives. The existence of disorganised factions with no firm loyalties amidst a weak state security presence in most parts of the country complicates the process of identifying, communicating with and assembling combatants in several ways. Firstly, without central command-and-control structures, the notion that armed factions can be effectively disbanded whenever such control is removed is increasingly challenged. Secondly, the lack of effective communication and direct consultation on a locally implemented process is in turn likely to increase alienation of both the combatants themselves and the receiving communities into which they are to be reintegrated. Settling into a new community in contexts like the DRC, where local competition over land, livelihoods and resources remains particularly intense, may cause further tensions, rather than alleviate existing ones.
Despite the formal commitment to the latest internationally driven effort in the DRC – the Global National Plan for DDR3 adopted in 2014 – local political elites have tended to show little interest in the DDR programme, reinforcing combatant and wider community mistrust in the project. In the absence of sustained coordination between international actors and national and local authorities, the risk of misappropriation of the resources allocated for ex-combatant reintegration increases. In addition, in areas with weak or non-existent governance, ex-combatants have been known to cite the need to ensure physical protection for local communities in order to justify their refusal to join regular security forces or their willingness to remobilise into newly formed armed groups. Both the army and the police in the DRC are frequently perceived as unable to secure vast swathes of territory, making this a significant hindrance to DDR attempts. It also remains unclear what kind of incentives, social or financial, the DDR3 plan offers to former members of armed groups, especially at senior levels.
Finally, disengaging ex-combatants, especially youth, from radical groups has been a major challenge in the DRC, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Liberia and elsewhere. This is primarily because informal ties formed through conflict networks do not fade away once the reintegration phase begins. On the contrary, the shared experience of participation in violent activities, be it primarily for ideological, criminal or other reasons, tends to continue to create a sense of support, relative security and community that may make it easier to create and seize opportunities for remobilisation and recruitment.
Despite the limited potential of DDR initiatives in the DRC and beyond to address situations of fractured or non-existent peace and ongoing violence, the very process of planning and implementing them, once underway, may contribute to buying the necessary time to allow for a transition to a less visibly conflictual environment, at least in the medium term.