The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DR Congo) move to impose a “state of siege” on two of its eastern provinces on Saturday brought praise from local leaders, but also sparked concern in a country where the Congolese military faces allegations of rights abuses.
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi on Thursday said that he was preparing “radical measures” for the mineral-rich east, where an estimated 122 armed groups operate as a legacy of a spate of conflicts in the 1990s.
On Friday, he followed up with the siege announcement for North-Kivu and Ituri provinces, haunted by violence by armed groups and civilian massacres.
North-Kivu Governor Carly Kasivita thanked Tshisekedi for a decision that “responds to our expectations,” saying that he had repeatedly urged a “national mobilisation” to deal with attacks in the Beni region of the province near the Ugandan border, which has borne the brunt of local unrest.
The Congolese Association for Access to Justice also said that it welcomed the move, but called on the Congolese parliament to pass legislation to “prevent abuses” that might stem from the imposition of a siege.
The country’s prime minister on Monday last week suggested declaring a state of emergency involving “replacing the civil administration with a military administration.”
Some observers have expressed concern over recourse to such a move, which would involve invoking article 85 of the country’s constitution.
“If the army must have more power, then it must be without reproach,” citizen movement Lucha said.
Visiting Paris on Tuesday last week, Tshisekedi asked France for help “eradicating” the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan militant group based in the east of the DR Congo since 1995.
Branded a jihadist organization by Tshisekedi and the US, the ADF has since 2017 killed more than 1,200 civilians in the Beni area alone, said the Kivu Security Tracker, a monitoring group.
The military has since October 2019 conducted operations against the group — which Washington brands a “terrorist organisation” affiliated to the Islamic State — but has not been able to put a stop to the massacres.
That failure prompted protests by high school students, which police and soldiers on Friday used teargas and whips to put down.
A UN human rights report in March estimated that the country had seen a 32 percent rise in human rights abuses since February, citing a sharp increase in abuses by the military in the provinces of North and South Kivu as well as Tanganyika.
“One must set aside military who commit rights violations and who participate in economic wheeling and dealing,” said Bienvenu Matumo, a Lucha member and academic.
Alongside such fears that a state of siege could have a negative effect on human rights, local Twitter observer Simon Lukombo asked rhetorically “what additional means will be forthcoming to protect the population” for its duration?
After taking office in January 2019, Tshisekedi said that he planned large-scale interventions by the 150,000-strong military, which has former rebels in its ranks from two civil wars in the past decades to tackle the unrest in North Kivu and Ituri.
In Beni, an army offensive duly followed, but heralded bloody reprisals by the ADF.
Lucha has notably demanded that military interventions do not include troops formerly integrated into Rwandan-backed rebel groups, amid thinly veiled suggestions that some troops retain links to various armed groups.
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