/ 5 August 2022

Why anger erupted against the UN peacekeeping force in the DRC

Protesters chant anti-UN slogans during a protest demanding withdrawal of UN peacekeeping troops in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo on July 29, 2022. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The violent demonstrations that rocked the city of Goma, in Democratic Republic of the Congo, at the end of last month are an expression of years of disappointment, anger and frustration from the local population which has been living in fear, instability and uncertainty caused by non-stop violence from armed groups operating in the east of the country. 

During the demonstrations, anger was directed at the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission (Monusco) for its inefficiency in protecting the civilian population – which is part of its core mandate since 2010, according to UN Security Council Resolution 1925. The protesters were not angry at the DRC government for the simple reason that it is almost absent. Thus, Monusco represents the only real guarantor of safety and stability – at least in theory. 

Although the demonstrations seemed to have caught everyone off guard, the disappointment and anger leading to the ensuing chaos had been brewing for years as people continued to be exposed to all sorts of human rights violations with no solution in sight. 

Several factors explain the decision by the civil population to organise violent demonstrations against the UN peacekeeping force and the magnitude of their anger. 

The resurgence of the M23 movement, which has been launching violent attacks since May, and the painful memory of the abuses it perpetrated in 2012 and 2013, is an important factor which pushed the angry population into the streets of Goma. 

The demonstrators attacked and caused disruption inside one of the Monusco compounds. According to news outlets, 15 people, including three UN “blue helmet” peacekeepers, lost their lives in the clashes. Monusco and the government were blamed for not only being unable to anticipate or prevent attacks from M23 but also for being negligent in their strategies to prevent violence. 

The fact that M23 was able to overrun the main military base and to capture Bunagana, a key border post, without serious resistance, points to poor strategy and unpreparedness. It is not the first time such attacks have happened and the population is asking why nothing is being done to break the cycle of violence once for all.  

Monusco represents one of the biggest UN peacekeeping missions in the world. When it was deployed in 2010 the military personnel alone were made of more than 19 000 armed troops in addition to police units and other UN staff.  The comparison between the size of the deployed force and its meagre achievements raises many questions. The absence of tangible results from Monusco’s extended presence, in terms of sustainable peace, seems to be linked to a lack of political willingness from the decision-makers. However, it looks as if there is also a lack of clarity in terms of how operations to confront the many armed groups operating in the region should be carried out. 

One thing is clear: the civilian population does not feel protected. This tragic situation has existed for several decades and we are now witnessing an escalation of tension with renewed attacks. According to Bintou Keita, the special representative of the UN secretary general and head of Monusco, “If the M23 continues its well-coordinated attacks against the Congolese armed forces and Monusco with increasing conventional capabilities, the mission could find itself facing a threat that exceeds its current capabilities.” 

This statement was interpreted by many Congolese as an admission of weakness on the part of Monusco. Therefore, the failure of Monusco to counter-attack, and to protect the civilian population, is another key factor explaining the anger of the local population at the UN peacekeeping force. The question now is whether a new type of UN force should be deployed since the current one seems inadequate.

The DRC government has accused Rwanda of supporting and equipping the M23 movement and using it as a proxy army to destabilise the east of the country, which is rich in mineral resources. The Rwandan government denied the allegations while accusing the DRC of supporting an armed group called FDLR, which is linked to those who committed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. 

These mutual accusations point not only to escalating diplomatic tensions but also to the regional dimension of the ongoing conflict. A central, but overlooked problem, in this dispute is the presence of porous borders which allow for free movement of armed groups from one country to another and for the illicit trade of mineral resources, weapons and drugs. The inability of the Congolese government to efficiently control the country’s huge borders is another reason for concern and anger among the local population.

In an effort to find a sustainable solution, Angola’s president Joao Lourenco, who is chairperson of the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region, organised a meeting at which the leaders of the DRC and Rwanda agreed on a roadmap to peace. Once again, the meeting highlighted the need for the involvement of regional actors in brokering peace at the regional level as suggested by the African Union Transitional Justice Policy

At the community level, there are also cross-border dynamics that influence the security situation and sense of safety of the people living in the area. A dialogue mechanism, in which people from all sides could participate and propose practical solutions, is needed to support initiatives that eventually will come from the UN, not only for the DRC, but also for the whole Great Lakes region. Indeed, the region will never achieve stability until the DRC is stable.

The deployment of the UN mission to the DRC was envisioned as a solution which could eventually curb violence and end years of instability, thus alleviating the suffering of the vulnerable. Twenty-three years after the launch of the mission, the violence continues, and the suffering of the Congolese people in the east goes on unabated. 

The attack on the Monusco compound in Goma is a clear sign the local population is getting more and more tired and frustrated with the lack of credible results from the UN force. The DRC’s problem is not a top priority on the international agenda for several reasons, which probably include current global challenges, Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine. Consequently, there is a real feeling of abandonment, which explains why the local population decided to express their frustration against a force which does not seem to do enough to protect them.

Today the burning question is, how long will this situation continue with no action from the government of the DRC, under the complaisant eye of the international community? How long will the innocent Congolese people continue to suffer and die while the perpetrators benefit from years of impunity? Why don’t we see a mobilisation for protection like we saw with Ukrainian refugees? The Congolese people have been suffering from imposed violence for an extremely long time and it is imperative to find a way to alleviate their pain, if indeed we think that their lives also matter.

Patrick Hajayandi is senior project leader in the Peacebuilding Interventions Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and editor of Wounded Memories: Perceptions of past violence in Burundi and perspectives for reconciliation.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.