UN peacekeepers have been a permanent presence in the life of Congolese activist William Mbokani. The 22-year-old was born shortly after the blue helmets and their white tanks first rolled into his country – 1999.
But Mbokani says the UN troops have consistently failed him: His mother was killed in 2019 by an Islamist militia called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), while insecurity around his village in eastern Beni territory means he can’t access his family’s fields.
“For nearly 25 years, we have kept renewing the mandate of a mission that is struggling to do its job,” Mbokani told The New Humanitarian from the nearby town of Butembo, where he is now living. “Instead of the situation improving, it is only getting worse.”
Mbokani is one of hundreds of protesters who have demonstrated in eastern DRC in recent weeks against the UN mission in the country, known by its French acronym MONUSCO and one of the world's largest and most expensive peace operations.
The New Humanitarian sat down with five protesters over the past two weeks. We tried to understand why they are calling for MONUSCO’s withdrawal, and who they think is best placed to protect them from armed groups. Their full answers follow below.
Similar anti-UN protests have occurred in recent years in DRC, but this wave has been especially violent. Peacekeepers have shot dead civilians in acts the UN itself called “unspeakable and irresponsible”. Thirty-six people have died; four of them blue helmets.
“When you see MONUSCO, which has come to protect civilians, shooting at them, it hurts, it makes me cry.”
Jean-Pierre Kasereka Maghetsi, a 28-year-old protester and activist from the civil society youth group LUCHA, said the UN should ensure its peacekeepers are held to account for killing civilians, and that victims’ families are compensated.
“When you see MONUSCO, which has come to protect civilians, shooting at them, it hurts, it makes me cry,” said Maghetsi, who is also from Butembo. “It is unacceptable.”
Prior to the protests, MONUSCO had drawn up a withdrawal plan that envisaged a 2024 departure date contingent on security improvements in DRC. But the upswell of anger has led the Congolese government to announce it is re-evaluating that plan.
The current protests come amid a rebellion by the M23 armed group that has captured parts of the eastern province of North Kivu. Protesters say MONUSCO has shown inaction and failed to clearly acknowledge alleged Rwandan backing for the group.
MONUSCO’s first few years in DRC saw the signing of a power-sharing accord that brought a formal end to the devastating wars of the 1990s and early 2000s. Displacement dropped and armed group activity dwindled.
But conflict fronts then multiplied as new rebellions flared. The number of armed groups mushroomed to over 100, while displacement soared to more than five million. MONUSCO failed to prevent the spiral, and in some ways made things worse.
Recent polling from the Congo Research Group and Kinshasa-based Ebuteli institute suggest a sizable majority of residents in North Kivu and the neighbouring Ituri province now want the mission’s 12,000 troops to immediately leave the country.
The Congolese government has, meanwhile, authorised other foreign military interventions to combat armed groups. This includes a prospective force from the East African Community (EAC), a regional bloc that DRC joined in March.
But protesters – mindful of ruinous colonial rule and endless regional meddling – are wary of more outside interference. And they say an EAC force would involve the same national troop contingents that already make up a chunk of MONUSCO.
“Who will come to save the Congo? It is only us young people who can do it,” said Mbokani, the protester, who was shot on his arm last month but vowed to keep up the rallying.
The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity. They were all conducted in Butembo, one of several towns in eastern DRC where protests have taken place in recent weeks.
Clémence Zawadi, 22-year-old protester: “MONUSCO came to secure us, but there is only insecurity”
I demonstrated to express my disapproval at the actions of MONUSCO. It does things that would not be expected of it. [MONUSCO] came to secure us, but there is only insecurity. It has failed in its primary mission of protecting civilians.
Although the situation risks worsening when MONUSCO leaves, we will count on our security forces. It's not for nothing that my brothers, sisters, and parents support the army. It's the only [force] we have to defend ourselves.
Our failure stems from dependence on other outside forces… we think they are with us, when they are not. Congo belongs to the Congolese. Upon the departure of the blue helmets… we will mobilise more strongly to overcome the massacres.
“Our failure stems from dependence on other outside forces… we think they are with us, when they are not.”
My message to the president of the republic is this: If he continues to depend on foreign forces, we will never have security in Congo, but if he joins forces with the people, we will manage to restore peace and security!
William Mbokani, 22-year-old activist: “Why not get angry?”
Nobody is pushing me to protest. My mother is already dead! Not from an accident or illness. No. [Her] throat was cut by the ADF, under the helpless eye of MONUSCO in Mbau [in North Kivu’s Beni territory] three years ago. Why not get angry? I am 22 years old… [and I was] born and raised in war, despite the presence of MONUSCO.
Today, I would be at university, because it [was my mother] who financed my schooling, but after her death I had to stop… because there are no more means. I am one of the youngest of 12 siblings. Our eldest had the chance to study well, but the rest of us stopped for lack of means. We lived only thanks to our field, but today we cannot access our crops [due to insecurity].
“[I was] born and raised in war, despite the presence of MONUSCO.”
Unfortunately, MONUSCO, in which all our hope rested, disappointed us. They have everything they need to defend us, but they don't do anything. They have heavy weapons but that is no use. Since they have been here in eastern Congo, which armed group have they eradicated? [Even] the M23 we heard about when we were kids has just resurfaced.
It's when I remember all these difficulties that I say to myself: Why is this only happening here to us? Who will come to save the Congo? It is only us young people who can do it.
On his injuries…
I am injured in the left arm, hit by a bullet fired by blue helmets during an anti-MONUSCO demonstration. I demonstrated to denounce the incapacity of the UN forces to protect civilians... It was during the demonstration that I was hit by a stray bullet.
On the EAC force…
I am not in favour of the arrival of the regional force of the EAC. Who doesn’t know that Kenya, Tanzania are [already] here within the UN forces? What difference will there be with the regional force made up of troops from the same countries? They will have the same outfits! The regional force wants to follow in the footsteps of MONUSCO. It is dangerous.
Jean-Pierre Kasereka Maghetsi, 28-year-old LUCHA activist: “The presence of MONUSCO puts us to sleep”
We demonstrated against MONUSCO to call out its inefficiency. MONUSCO has been in the region for more than 22 years [but it] does not manage to protect civilians in accordance with its mandate.
MONUSCO recently declared that it does not have the necessary [capacity] to defeat the enemy, including the M23. After more than 20 years, it is inconceivable that it remains here in our country especially when it itself admits that it is incapable of facing up to enemies like the M23 and the ADF.
“The presence of MONUSCO puts us to sleep instead of the Congolese themselves reflecting on their problems.”
Also, in the history of the killings that have taken place in our country, it turned out people are killing [us] even within 100 metres of the MONUSCO camps. It proves that [the mission] is truly incapable of protecting civilians.
The presence of MONUSCO [also] puts us to sleep instead of the Congolese themselves reflecting on their problems, notably insecurity. It must leave so that we are responsible for our own problems, and so that we can find solutions to the insecurity.
When MONUSCO arrived, there were only about 10 armed groups, but today there are more than 100. This demonstrates that the country was better secured before the arrival of MONUSCO.
On the killing of protesters…
At the end of July, you saw that [peacekeepers] broke through the barrier at the Kasindi border post [with Uganda]. It is unacceptable for a sovereign country like the DRC to suffer such an act, unacceptable for a foreign force to force its entry into a sovereign country. These are things that shock the Congolese population.
The least the UN can do is ensure that justice is done. That these victims have the right to good justice, but also that their families are compensated – because they didn't do anything [wrong], they didn't commit a crime. They only claimed their rights, their fundamental right, which is the right to life. To be killed is an act that we did not expect.
On who should protect people if MONUSCO leaves…
We have our armed forces… which must protect us. Admittedly, the [army] requires reform… but they are capable of protecting us provided that we give them the means… that we exclude certain officers who would be in complicity with the armed groups.
On the EAC force…
We have to learn to take responsibility for ourselves. For us, this regional force is not welcome on our soil. We are not currently chasing MONUSCO away to welcome in this regional force.
Moreover, if Rwanda, which is attacking us through the M23, and Uganda, an ally of Rwanda, contribute to this force, it will not be trustworthy, it will not be of any use. In the regional force, there will be South Sudan, which also has problems at home. What will it be able to solve here in Congo?
Serges Makeo, Congolese lawyer and coordinator of the Butembo Young Patriots: “Massacres have taken place near the positions of the blue helmets”
Today, we are targeting MONUSCO for a noble reason. When the population had noticed the lethargy of the national forces… it turned to the blue helmets who have considerable means, and whom they believed to be flexible and quick to respond.
But the population has noticed that MONUSCO takes time to react. Unfortunately, in Beni, it has even been observed that certain massacres have taken place near the positions of the blue helmets of MONUSCO and the blue helmets have not reacted – have not retaliated, despite the alerts of the population.
“When the population had noticed the lethargy of the national forces… it turned to the blue helmets.”
The other problem is poor communication from MONUSCO. We don’t understand that its spokesperson would say in the media that the M23 supposedly has more sophisticated weapons than those used by the blue helmets, given that we know that the…. troop-contributing countries are supposed to have sophisticated weapons to secure us.
On MONUSCO leaving…
There will be no chaos. MONUSCO arrived when we only had a dozen armed groups, but today we have 100.
On whether the Congolese army can protect civilians...
The problem of the army is at the level of defence policy. They are not motivated and equipped. If we solve this problem, our soldiers will be able to secure us.
On protesters being killed…
Justice must one day take up the case, investigate to establish responsibilities, and condemn the culprits, because it is unacceptable that blue helmets can fire live ammunition on unarmed demonstrators. They have done this in Butembo, Beni, Kasindi, and Goma. And it is important that they be judged in Congo, where they committed these crimes.
Volonté Kambale, 20-year-old student: “I no longer want to tolerate seeing someone destroy my country”
If I demonstrated against MONUSCO, it is because I no longer want to tolerate seeing somebody destroy my country. And it is MONUSCO that tolerates these people who are destroying our country.
“Ever since we were children, we've known that all [MONUSCO] does is drive their vehicles through urban centres.”
That's why they say they don't have ammunition capable of defeating the M23. And so, for the ADF, which also have the same types of weapons as the M23, MONUSCO can't do anything. MONUSCO is therefore useless.
Ever since we were children, we've known that all [MONUSCO] does is drive their vehicles through urban centres. They come and go in the city. They display sophisticated weapons that do not help to protect civilians. It is useless.
In Mavivi [in Beni territory], there was a massacre next to the MONUSCO camp. They did not intervene to counter these killings. They didn't crackle a bullet to dissuade the enemy. A lot of blood has flowed.
On an injury sustained during the protests…
I was injured, shot here in my left leg near the knee. Many of us were injured. In my hospital room alone, there were six people, and others elsewhere. Over 30 were wounded.
It is difficult to recount what we went through. It was planned that we participate in a ceremony in memory of the victims. After the service, we went in the direction of the MONUSCO base. When they noticed the mobilisation of all the people, they started throwing tear gas canisters at us, then live ammunition.
Those who died in the anti-MONUSCO protests are martyrs who we must not forget. This date must be commemorated. And we must continue the fight to honour these dead. We must continue our fight for MONUSCO to leave our country.
On MONUSCO leaving…
If MONUSCO left, there would be nothing to fear. We have our soldiers, who are enough for us, whom we love, and who have the duty to ensure our security. And the young people are ready to join our army to help the [army] assume their responsibility, in order to protect populations.
On the EAC force…
The [mention of] the regional force is deceitful. The Tanzanians, the Kenyans are [already] here through the United Nations Intervention Brigade. What will be the difference between the brigade and the EAC force, if not a difference in name? Because it's the same composition, they underwent the same training. There is only a name difference.
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld