A recent incident in the town of Kalembe, in the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) North Kivu Province, highlighted the fluid ambiguity of the national army's troubled relationship with local militia groups in eastern Congo as it attempts to integrate them into its ranks.
Three hours before it was attacked by the army on 6 October, the militia appealed to the government, via the media, for access to more ammunition.
FARDC, the national army, had warned the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS) militia that it would attack if they did not open the road leading west. APCLS spokesman John Weza told IRIN that morning they would resist and were fighting to overthrow the government.
But in case the high command was ready to do a deal, as it often had in the past, he added: "From day to day, there are clashes and our depots are run down. If the army really wants to ally with the APCLS, it must guarantee us logistics. If the government is serious about an alliance, how come the army is blocking the munitions we were sent from Goma [the capital of North Kivu province]?"
The militia soon had its answer as heavy weapons fire started to rain on its positions. After a two-and-a-half hour battle, a commando battalion had captured Kalembe, and the APCLS had retreated into the forest, leaving behind several dead and wounded. The commandos had one dead and two injured; at least one civilian was also killed.
On the face of it, this was a success for the army, but the authorities have tried to play down the incident and initially even denied that it had happened. The government has been trying to integrate several armed groups into the army; last month it announced that the APCLS and two other groups, the Nyatura and the Congo Defence Forces (FDC), had agreed to integrate their fighters.
That announcement now looks premature. Army spokesman Lt Col Olivier Hamuli says the process is underway, but so far the number of militia fighters assembled at army camps has been disappointing, and further bartering of 'logistics' for combatants may be required to fill quotas.
There has been some progress with the integration of the Nyatura, an ethnic Hutu militia. The commander of the DRC's land forces, Gen Amisi ‘Tango Fort’ inspected a group of the Nyatura at an army camp in Mushaki, in North Kivu's Masisi territory, on 15 October.
A military press attaché said 800 of this group were at Mushaki, but only about 200 could be seen on parade, and most of them appeared unarmed. At a briefing with officers, the general said he would return and check the numbers next week; if there were 300 combatants, they could be sent for deployment. "You must all be here," he said, "and if you have left your arms in the forest you must bring them here."
Nyatura leaders thanked the general for his support but complained that so far the combatants had not been issued tents and their rations were meagre. A self-styled Nyatura lieutenant told IRIN that most of the militia were ex-soldiers who deserted because of lack of pay and miserable living conditions.
Local sources say 60 of the APCLS fighters who assembled at an army camp in the town of Nyabiondo in September are still there despite the fighting at Kalembe, so there might yet be an integration of this group. There are no confirmed reports that the FDC has started to integrate, but a North Kivu civil society group says 200 members of another militia have assembled at the city of Beni.
Strong armed groups
Since May, the M23 rebellion by a group of army mutineers has allowed a number of armed groups to expand and take back territory from the government.
According to the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), there are now more than 30 armed groups in the eastern provinces. Most of these probably number a few hundred or less, but some might play an important role in the confrontation between the army and the M23.
The conflict currently looks like a stand-off, despite a seemingly huge imbalance of forces. The think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) estimates that the army recently had 7,000 troops deployed against the M23, which numbered only around 1,000. Both sides have been reinforced, with Human Rights Watch and other observers alleging that units of the Rwandan army have supported the M23 during major engagements.
The largest armed group in the region is probably the Rwandan rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which the ICG estimates could have up to 3,000 fighters.
Congo analyst Jason Stearns estimates that the APCLS has less than 2,000 fighters, while local sources suggest that the FDC, the Nyatura, and Mai Mai Cheka - which was founded by one of M23’s former colleagues in an allegedly Rwandan-backed rebel movement - could each number up to 1,000. The Raia Mutomboki, an apparently leaderless anti-Rwandophone alliance, might be able to mobilize a few thousand for attacks on Rwandophone communities.
According to ICG's Thierry Vircoulon, there is competition between the army and the M23 for alliances with armed groups. The government has alleged that the M23 is in alliance with Mai Mai Cheka, as well as Raia Mutomboki and other Mai Mai – or rebel - groups in North Kivu.
The dilemma for the DRC's high command is whether to bid for armed groups' support by offering their commanders access to munitions and senior ranks in the army, thereby risking future trouble, or to refuse these demands and risk losing their support against the M23.
Several waves of armed groups have been integrated since 2004, but a self-styled intelligence officer in the Nyatura, Sadiki Murenge, told IRIN that Mai Mai leaders have always kept back some of their combatants, who continue harassing civilians and fighting each other or the army, often for control of mines.
The UN Refugee Agency's Christophe Beau, coordinator of the North Kivu Protection Cluster, a humanitarian network focusing on threats to civilians, said he had reservations about the army trying to integrate yet more armed groups, many of which have a reputation for human rights abuses.
The clash at Kalembe suggests that, so far, the high command is cautiously seeking armed group support, with an eye to the long-term.
It has also given instructions not to recruit foreign armed groups or underage combatants. At his briefing at Mushaki on Monday, Gen Amisi said he had been asked by provincial deputies to stress that no children or FDLR members should be integrated with the army.
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Analyst Stearns suggests that the way to pacify the area is to organize a political dialogue among all the armed actors, with MONUSCO taking on the role of mediator, an approach that has never been tried. The ICG's Vircoulon, however, argues that the Kivu crisis does not need a new strategy, but requires donors to exert concerted pressure on Kinshasa and Kigali to respect their existing commitments - notably, in Kinshasa's case, a commitment to unify the army command and pay its soldiers their full salaries.
A MONUSCO source said a round table with the armed actors might not lead to a wholesale integration or demobilization, as some of the armed group leaders would be reluctant to trade their control of gold mines for generals' ranks in the Congolese army.
The army's success, with help from MONUSCO, at taking control of the larger mines in the Kivus in recent years suggests that if the M23 can be dismantled and a unified army command achieved, those mines might again be brought under government control.
It may also be possible to arrest and indict some armed group leaders, as happened in Ituri District, but armed groups can find other leaders and are likely to retain an influence at many mines. A 2012 study of demobilization programmes in the country found that ex-militia members, many working as miners, still control activity in Ituri's gold mines, but without open conflict. Since generals and army officers have stakes in artisanal mines across the DRC, in peaceful areas as well as conflict zones, continued interests in mining by militia leaders may not be incompatible with their integration into the army.
The key to reconciling those interests with peace and security may be to reach an agreement with armed actors and other community leaders on the exploitation of mineral and other land resources. A study by Nest, Grignon and Kisangani - The Democratic Republic of Congo: Economic Dimensions of War and Peace, 2006 - found that successive political dialogues in the DRC failed to resolve underlying conflicts because they never really addressed rival parties' economic interests, notably in natural resources.