Friday, 22 April 2022


USI Journal Jan 2014

MONUC is the acronym of the French reading of the ‘UNO Mission in the Congo’. (To Congolese children it is simply an affectionate ‘Monique!’ tossed lightly at passing MONUC personnel!) It is an ambitious UN undertaking, in light of earlier perceived failures of the UN in Somalia and Rwanda. In fact, with regard to the latter, the MONUC is almost a kind of atonement, given that the failure in Rwanda sparked off the conflict in Congo that has required UN attention in the form of its most expensive mission, budgeted for this year at over $ 600 million. Expanded mandates indicate the interest of the international community in alleviating a human tragedy and international security threat that has consumed about 3.5 million lives. In its recent capture of CNN headlines through disturbances in its North Eastern Ituri region, glimpses of Congo’s broader plight can be obtained from the instances reported of cannibalism, tribal war, warlordism, child soldiers on drugs and murder of UN Military Observers. With India having recently contributed an Air Force contingent comprising attack helicopters and utility helicopters, and an infantry guard company for their protection, it is worth revisiting the conflict to assess if the Indian peacekeeping investment will be both secure and successful.

Despite its chequered history, the MONUC has delivered peace. Having implemented the initial phases of the Lusaka Peace Agreement, it is presently poised in support of the interim government that is to lead the country into democratic elections two years hence. The initial phases were the disengagement of belligerent forces and withdrawal to new defensive positions, overseen by military observers of MONUC. Thereafter, in Phase 2 of its operations MONUC verified the withdrawal of foreign troops from Congolese territory. However there are continuing allegations made by all sides, namely the two major rebel sides known by acronyms RCD (G) and MLC, and the government (GoDRC), of foreign presence abetting the other side. Since this admittedly intractable problem does not threaten strategic peace, the MONUC has rightly moved on to making DDRRR (Disarmament, Demobilisation, Repatriation, Rehabilitation and Resettlement) as its Main Effort. This has necessitated a change in the deployment from overseeing peace along the ceasefire line between the three sides to concentration towards the East of the country where the main groups of fighters slated for voluntary DDRRR are anchored.

This has also required the expansion of the military component of the mission to include two Task Forces for undertaking the envisaged DDRRR. India had initially been a prime candidate for providing the troops for the Task Force owing to its formidable peacekeeping reputation and skills. In the event, the task has been taken on by South Africa in search for regional preeminence. A Indian helicopter contingent is to operate in support of the South African Task Force in furthering DDRRR operations in an area imagined loosely as a triangle with its apex resting at Kindu, a provincial capital, and its base stretching from Lake Edward to the North to Lake Tanganika to the South. The second Task Force, cornered by Bangladesh, has been diverted to the Ituri region owing to compulsions arising from the ethnic crisis between the Hemas and Lendus mentioned earlier. In September 03, it is slated to take over from the International Emergency Multinational Force, an EU contribution as its first ‘Out of Area’ operation, currently engaged in stabilizing the delicate ethnic conflict in Bunia, the capital of Ituri region.

DDRRR is a multi-million dollar enterprise funded by World Bank for foreign fighters in Congo. The program is ‘voluntary’ and envisages the move back to Rwanda of disarmed fighters for reintegration with civil society. The exit of these groups from Congo will not only partially reduce the internal military turmoil in Congo but will end Rwandese security interest in Eastern DRC as these groups are seen by Rwanda as an existential threat. Given this external security dimension of the problem, DDRRR is focused on more intimately by the UN. The groups targeted are the ex-FAR (Forces Armee Rwanda), comprising the Hutu elements of the former Rwandese Army, and the Interhamwe, a militia recruited in the mid-Nineties from the Hutu refugee camps that came up in Congo in the aftermath of the genocide.

The problems with this program are considerable. The areas that these groups operate in are largely anarchic, even though they are nominally in RCD (G) territory, a rebel faction propped up by Rwanda. These areas are controlled by the bush fighters called Mai Mai. Given this complexity, DDRRR becomes a difficult proposition at best and a non-starter at worst. In order to ensure these territories answer to a central authority based at Goma, the RCD (G) has launched multi axial operations. So long as these operations continue, the targeted groups would not yield themselves for DDRRR. Therefore the prerequisite for DDRRR is for an end to RCD (G) expansionist operations. This is an unlikely development given the political requirement of RCD (G) appearing as a rebel faction in control of its territory in order to extract maximum from the political engagement with the GoDRC in the Interim Government in Kinshasa.

DDRRR operations themselves have been low key, proceeding from ‘preliminary’ to ‘progressive’ in the period prior to the arrival of the Task Force and requisite air assets to penetrate into the interior. Thus far the focus has been in employment of civilian ‘facilitators’ with language skills on information operations under a civilian dominated DDRRR set up within the MONUC. These facilitators run a string of ‘contacts’ who are able bodied and conversant with the terrain. The contacts penetrate the jungle with the DDRRR message. Thus far their dragnet has yielded a steady stream of volunteers and their dependents that can at best be classified as ‘refugees’ rather than ‘former combatants’. For the process to be more effective there is a requirement of pro-active Milob-centric (Military Observer) contact operations. With the authority of the uniform, these Milobs would be better able to convince the leadership to volunteer their motley groups for the process. Presently, lack of security in the areas prevents Milob activity of this kind. At the moment the junior lot of soldiery are amenable to repatriation as they are too young to be implicated in the genocide. Given that the leadership comprises those ‘wanted’ for their role in the genocide by the UN Tribunal dispensing justice in the case, it is hardly likely that their accession would be readily forthcoming. The process can therefore be expected to do no better than to attract a steady trickle of weaponless deserters.

It is at this juncture that the Indian helicopter contingent, comprising five Mi 35 attack helicopters and five Mi 17 utility helicopters, acquires relevance. Not only must their role but also the threat thereto must be considered. Its political utility for India is in its visibility as a high profile military asset for a high stakes UN mission. This is in keeping with India’s larger bid for a UN Security Council seat, resting as it does partially on India’s half-century long inimitable peacekeeping record. In terms of military employability, the helicopter assets are to help deploy and protect Task Force troops sent into the proverbial African ‘bush’. The plan is to deploy ‘reception areas’ and ‘assembly areas’ in vicinity of the targeted groups for enticing them into the DDR process. These will of necessity have to be air maintained and secured owing to absence of road access in Congo’s interior. The groups are then to report at these centers, be disarmed, subject to the bureaucracy of registration etc, and then heli-lifted into rehabilitation camps in Rwanda for subsequent re-induction into civil society. The initial tasking of the helicopter assets would be to enable establishment of contact with these groups. This would involve extensive aerial recon, obtaining of security guarantees for the liaison work and landings and finally induction of Task Force troops and logistics for austere UN facilities to come up for DDRRR. Clearly, this is easier said than done.

The foremost problem is naturally of security, that of ‘who?’ will stand security guarantee in the jungle. The masterminds of the Tutsi genocide are unlikely to be keen on the process as it hits at their power base of forcibly recruited Hutu child fighters. While their combat power has been whittled due to absence of access to warlike material, they remain masters of a forbidding terrain in which finding targets for attack helicopters would be a near impossible task. Therefore it is only an acceptance of reality that the DDRRR process remains a ‘voluntary’ endeavor, with the MONUC using its political acumen rather than military muscle for inducing a sense of participation in these groups. The military assets could thus play a supportive role in this propaganda war as visible instruments ready to provide security to those willing to sign up. Indian diplomatic and military minders should carefully scrutinize any evolution of the mandate away from this restricted role, lest its brave airmen are put into harm’s way for no corresponding gain or appropriate purpose. The tendency to ‘creeping mandates’ has been a UN pathology that has marred its record in Africa. It is only prudent that a constant watch be kept in the mission area and in New York on the institutional factors and Security Council political dynamics that largely account for mission expansion despite sobering on-ground reality.

A word on the threat assessment of these assets while based at Goma, their place of deployment, is in order. Goma is a visually exciting place, nestling as it does on the lava slopes of the active volcano Mount Nyiragongo that merge with the inland sea, Lake Kivu. It is the politico-military stronghold of the strongest rebel movement in Congo, RCD (G) - G for Goma. As can be expected, the sway over Goma of the faction is complete, and its hold decreases only with distance from Goma. Therefore the assets are secure while at the helipad abutting the airstrip at Goma and guarded by alert Garhwali infantrymen who have earlier served in ‘hotter spots’ as Srinagar and Kargil. The over the horizon ‘threats’ can only arise from the presently far fetched possibility of an implosion within the RCD (G), in which splinter groups fight it out for control of their capital and its tactically important airport. Lastly is the threat from the materialization of the perpetual rumour of the Kivus region having an agenda of secession from Congo, given that it is mineral rich and physically, economically and emotionally forms part of the Great Lakes Region.

A positive outcome in terms of DDRRR has potential to emerge from the political outlook in Kinshasa. An interim government comprising representatives at Vice Presidential level from all factions has been formed under President Kabila. The integration of respective militaries of the rival factions is underway. Understanding reached at this level and cooperative working relationships established are hoped to over time ease the political factors that impact adversely on DDRRR in the East. A politically secure and placated RCD (G) would be in a better position to permit MONUC access to the targeted groups on its territory. An eventually integrated Army would be best positioned to induce, if not coerce, the groups in question for exiting Congolese territory. MONUC facilities could thus provide a safer and quicker way out for these groups. The success of DDRRR is further dependent on one other factor, it being the handling of indigenous groups of Congolese fighters, the Mai Mai, who as has been mentioned, are in a tactical alliance with the Interhamwe and ex FAR groups. It is envisaged that a program administered by the MONUC and funded by the UNDP will help resettle the Congolese groups. Once this is underway, the targeted groups will be isolated and their continued violation of Congolese sovereignty will attract no outside support, thus making DDRRR as their only option. It is recommended that the Indian contingent await these developments rather than to proactively seek a military ‘solution’ to the problem of kick-starting DDRRR. When this stage arrives or is imminent within a timeframe of about a year and more, India could revisit the question of contributing a Task Force comprising an Infantry Battalion to the MONUC to operate alongside its airmen.

Stating that peacekeeping in Africa is challenging would be an understatement. In other words it is fraught with the risk of situations spiraling out of control in fairly short order. Take for instance the latest crisis to emerge out of the ‘Heart of Africa’ (Joseph Conrad’s imperishable phrase), Congo. The situation in its Ituri province deteriorated to the extent of mass ethnic killings on account of inattention of the Security Council seized as it was with the Iraq War. This indicates that the institutional evolution of the MONUC (and at one remove the UN) is not of the order as to be able to handle multinational military operations, particularly in crisis situations. Therefore entrusting Indian military assets to the UN must be with the caveat that a national veto will attend their employment when dispensing force. This would ensure no abuse or misuse of national military power placed at the disposal of the UN occurring for reasons of organizational perversity or hidden power games that an unromantic look at any UN deployment will reveal. A manner of doing so would be to have Indian military staff officers in key decision making positions of operational control over these air assets, and later over a putative Indian Task Force. Interestingly, the civilian political wing of the MONUC presently does not have a single Indian! The Indian Milobs number 41 at last count. An endeavor at New York must be to get them into positions of authority in the mission which would be beneficial for both the mission and for India. 

Congo requires every support that the international community can extend to enable it to emerge from its testing times. Its leaders have made giant strides in reconfiguring their country from its time of war. India could extend a supportive hand, not only for altruistic reasons, but also for strategic ones. There is a large Indian trading community in Congo and in Central Africa in general. India has a respected image as a political heavyweight in Africa and a considerable cultural influence, emanating incidentally from Bollywood. India would only be bolstering its strengths by being militarily involved through peacekeeping under UN auspices. Given the larger political gains expected thus, the risks attending any military undertaking in Africa must both be courted and negated with elaborate mental and procedural preparation. While lessons from India’s Liberia experience need to be taken into account, any unwarranted caution they impose is unjustified. It is a sprit of engagement that should inform India’s participation in MONUC and future peacekeeping in Africa.

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Biodata: Maj Ali Ahmed is an officer of the MARATHA LI. He has recently completed a tenure with the MONUC.