After a decade of relative calm, widespread inter-ethnic violence erupted in Djugu Territory of Ituri Province in December 2017. This latest round of ethnic clashes comes after an eight-year conflict between the two groups came to a halt, and has the potential to further spill into the rest of the province as the conflict becomes more protracted.
While there is an exclusively ethnic dimension to the conflict, this latest round of clashes escalated mostly due to government reluctance to stem violence at the local level.
Precedent suggests that the Kabila administration’s passivity in regards to the crisis may be a ploy to buy time ahead of the upcoming December elections.
As the upcoming presidential election gets closer and uncertainty surrounding Kabila’s succession increases, there is a distinct potential for ethnic violence to erupt in outlying areas of the country where anti-Kabila sentiments prevail.
We advise against nonessential travel to outlying areas of DRC, particularly the eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri, as well as the Kasai region, given the high levels of criminality and insecurity caused by armed groups.
According to reports, communal violence broke out in mid-December 2017 in Ituri Province’s Djugu Territory, which is located north of the provincial capital Bunia, following a confrontation between Lendu youths and Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) soldiers assisted by Hema youths.
This particular incident allegedly devolved into a string of tit-for-tat attacks that rapidly spread throughout Djuru Territory. Since the wave of violence began, at least 120 people have been killed, dozens of villages burned down, and more than 200,000 civilians displaced, mostly to Uganda’s Hoima district.
On April 25, a UN human rights team issued a report stating that they had identified five probable mass-graves containing bodies of people, mostly from the Hema community, in Blukwa Center and Maze, both in Djungu Territory.
On May 4, FARDC’s Chief of Staff expressed his satisfaction from the “peace awareness campaign” in Ituri Province, praising the “peaceful renewed cohabitation between ethnic Hema and Lendu in Djungu Territory”.
Assessments & Forecast
The Hema and Lendu previously fought a violent eight-year conflict over ethnic tensions and resources, which mostly subsided in 2007 and the two populations have largely coexisted peacefully. While there have been intermittent attacks by elements of the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FPRI), a Lendu militia, this did not escalate previously, thus this latest wave of violence is highly notable as it stands in stark contrast to the general trend seen in the province over the last decade. In this regard, although violence has persisted and even escalated in other provinces of eastern DRC in recent times, such as North and South Kivu, Ituri remained largely unaffected by these trends. Indeed, reports citing local residents indicate that several local conflicts over land, cattle or authority, similar to those that flared up the latest clashes, were largely kept under control.
On March 20, the government decided to intervene and launched a military operation to quell the ongoing intercommunal clashes. The government intervention was successful to a degree, as a number of safe corridors opened up and IDPs have slowly returned to their villages. The fact that the government waited almost 100 days to alleviate the situation suggests that President Joseph Kabila’s administration may have attempted to exploit these events in order to stall the elections at a time when uncertainty surrounding his succession is severely eroding his reign over the country. This is particularly likely as voter registration represents a central precondition for the electoral process, and on February 5, the head of the Independent Electoral Commission stated that the Ituri violence could have a negative impact on the voter registration process for the twice-delayed elections, now scheduled for December. Even though the polls have not been officially postponed again, the government has continuously cast doubt on its ability to conduct the process.
These factors combined indicate that the government likely assisted in facilitating the conflict in order to capitalize on the events for political purposes. This is supported by accounts of locals being told by soldiers that they were not allowed to shoot if their village came under attack, as well as several witness accounts of FARDC collaboration with militias. This was with the calculation that a high level of violence would provide enough pretext to showcase the volatility in parts of the country, and the subsequent constraints on organizing and conducting an election.
A similar scenario already took place in DRC during the 2016 Kamwina Nsapu rebellion in the Kasai Region. The conflict, which first started as a dispute between Jean-Pierre Mpandi, a local ethnic Luba customary leader, and central authorities in Kinshasa, rapidly escalated when Mpandi was killed by the Congolese military on August 12, 2016. This quickly devolved into the creation of the Kamwina Nsapu militia by Mpandi’s followers, which began a campaign against security forces in late 2016. This insurgency was met not only by a large-scale security offensive against the rebels, but numerous accounts state that the government funded and directed local militias that attacked ethnic Luba villages, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the region. This provided a pretext for Kabila to obstruct the organization of the presidential elections. The head of the country’s electoral commission regularly cited problems with voter registration amid inter-ethnic violence as one of the main reasons for the postponement of the 2016 polls.
FORECAST: In regards to the conflict in Ituri specifically, we assess that, while the “peace awareness campaign” launched by the government assisted in reducing the violence, this is only likely to quell intercommunal conflict in the short term. As we have previously assessed, President Kabila’s actions suggest that the launch of the military operation may be little more than a facade to prevent international scrutiny, rather than an actual desire to resolve a crisis that his administration may eventually capitalize on for political purposes. Also, considering that the FARDC has been increasingly overstretched in recent months due to the increased political unrest in the country, as well as MONUSCO’s reduced presence nationwide, there is a possibility for violence to resurge in the coming months. Should this occur, it will likely manifest as raids and counter-raids, engendering further retaliatory violence which may, in turn, continue fostering the civilian exodus to Uganda’s Hoima District. Given precedent, the clashes are likely to remain limited to locales scattered across Djugu Territory as well as areas of the rest of Ituri Province where the two groups live in close proximity.
FORECAST: Taken as a whole, and given the fact that DRC is marred with lingering ethnic tensions, the government may attempt to subtly foster ethnic conflict in additional areas of DRC in order to create a state of nationwide crisis that could be used as a justification for the suspension of the December elections. This would buy time for Kabila to seek a safe exit from office that will safeguard his interests or to further entrench himself in power. This could be done by either actively triggering violence in tense areas or passively allowing ethnic flare-ups to escalate. This is further supported by the fact that Kabila’s government is currently facing a substantially more complex political landscape, which means that the president will have a much tougher time attempting to incorporate the opposition in order to buy time as he did in 2016, when his administration co-opted several high-profile opposition members as part of the Saint-Sylvester Agreement. This agreement, signed by the ruling and opposition parties, stipulated that elections culminating in a transfer of political power would be held by the end of 2017, and was ultimately ignored by authorities. As such, and considering that the government does not seemingly have a similar alternative for relieving political pressure that was available in 2016, when the Kabila administration still had some room for political maneuvering, it is highly likely that the government will continue to fuel inter-communal strife as the political impasse continues and elections draw near.
Travel to Kinshasa and Lubumbashi can continue while adhering to stringent security precautions regarding armed criminal activity.
We advise against nonessential travel to outlying areas, particularly the eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri as well as the Kasai region given the high levels of criminality and insecurity caused by armed groups.