An open, informal meeting scheduled for Feb. 12 at the United Nations is meant to unite Security Council members in their efforts to rein in the recalcitrant Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, to allow the long-overdue presidential elections to go ahead this year. It is feared that Kabila’s refusal to carry out the vote, slated for December, will lead to deadly revolts or may trigger civil war.
The Security Council, however, is facing an even bigger problem in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one largely of its own making. A decade-long inattention to the application of the UN arms embargo has allowed Kabila to build a personal force, the Garde Républicaine, or Republican Guard, into the most powerful, vicious and irregular fighting force in the Congo.
Even if by some miracle Kabila is forced out of the presidency in the elections, the 10,000 battle-hardened combatants and their officers will not easily stand down or relinquish their elite privileges.
The original UN arms embargo was meant to be an inducement for the warlords of the Congo Wars to join the transitional government headed by Kabila. The wars, which lasted from 1996 to 2003, pitted Congolese government troops, militias and warlords and their foreign supporters from nine countries against one another.
Following the logic of inducements, Security Council Resolution 1493, adopted in 2003, prohibited the delivery of military goods to the eastern provinces of the Congo, where most of the fighting was taking place. The embargo also applied to the rest of the country, except for the combatants of warlords who joined Kabila’s transition government. It was a practical compromise to foster a tenuous peace until elections could legitimize and strengthen the new national military — the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo — known as the FARDC.
Two years later, the Council refined the arms embargo by applying it to all parties to the conflict in the Congo, except for police and government armed forces who met at least one of three conditions laid out under paragraph 2 (a) of Resolution 1596: combatants having completed their integration into new FARDC units if they operated within the eastern provinces; those integrating outside the east; or units operating under command of the integrated general staff of the newly formed armed forces or national police.
Generally, arms could be delivered only to integrated FARDC units at designated receiving sites, with notice given to the Council’s sanctions committee. The job of monitoring compliance with the exemption rules was an important part of the mandate of the UN’s expert group on the Congo.
The group reported early on that Kabila’s Republican Guard never qualified for arms embargo exemptions. The experts also questioned whether the Guard should have been exempted when the embargo was lifted on government units in 2008, through Resolution 1807. The pertinent language certainly invites speculation as to whether the Guard is part of “military activities to the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
In fact, the Guard does not meet this definition either in law or in practice.
With the possible exception of a battalion based in Kisangani, Congo’s third-largest city, the 10 regiments of the Guard never integrated into the FARDC; nor have they ever operated under the command of the integrated general staff of the FARDC. As Kabila’s personal military force, they fall under the command of Maison Militaire — Military House — of the presidency.
Despite this clear-cut discrepancy, the Guard has always benefited from the same UN arms embargo exemptions that have been granted to integrated FARDC forces. By expropriating exemption rights, the Guard could not only recruit the toughest and most loyal fighters and officers, but they could also acquire and import the most sophisticated military equipment.
In 2006, the UN group of experts flagged to the Council’s sanctions committee that the Guard units were not integrated. Sanctions policymakers, however, were focused on Kabila’s likely victory in the elections that were held days after the experts’ report was published. The Council was not focused on restraining Kabila’s fighters.
The experts again raised the issue of the elite guard’s exemptions in their 2007 report, asking “whether they [the Republican Guard] can be considered to be in compliance with paragraph 2 (a) of Security Council resolution 1596 (2005).”
The committee’s answer? Silence.
Unencumbered by UN sanctions, Kabila expanded the Guard in size and geographic reach. Today, the Guard is deployed nationwide, in most towns and cities and at all strategic locations, including border crossings and air-, sea- and lake-ports. The most often-cited rationale for Kabila’s personal protection to be deployed so extensively is their need to be ready for impromptu visits by the Kabila.
In reality, Guard units serve as an elite vanguard deployed to murderous effect against demonstrators, opposition members and human-rights activists.
The role of the Guard in preserving Kabila’s illegal rule became apparent three years ago, at the start of the crisis over his unconstitutional third presidential term. He had pushed for constitutional changes to allow a run for a third term. The Congolese Parliament eventually rebuffed his demands, but not before demonstrators protesting the proposed changes faced violent attacks by the police and Guard units.
Ida Sawyer, the senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch and a speaker at the Feb. 12 Security Council meeting, reported at the time that the Republican Guard opened fire “into crowds of demonstrators with deadly results.”
The consensus-building aspiration of the Council’s Arria-formula meeting — more informal than general sessions — is commendable. But meaningful results are unlikely to happen unless Council members address the crux of Congo’s future: Kabila’s ability to wage war.
That threat unites Western powers who stand to lose benefits they have gained from tens of billions of contributions over the last 20 years toward rebuilding the Congo. The threat also affects investors around the world whose direct ventures in Congo’s construction, agriculture and extractive industries have helped to stabilize the country.
The nine neighbors of the Congo also fear they will once again have to host millions of refugees if another civil war emerges.
The elephant in the room at the Council’s meeting — led by the United States, France and other European and African Council members — will be Kabila’s unrestrained fighting force and, as Sawyer hinted, the economic interests of the Kabila family.
“DRC: Kabila family has relied on Republican Guard to secure business interests, often through intimidation+fear,” she tweeted in December 2016.
The Council can ensure an important outcome of their efforts by denying Kabila the use of the Guard to buttress his illegitimate rule, by enforcing the UN arms embargo. Offering the Guard the choice between integrating into the FARDC or facing sanctions would accomplish that goal and help to protect the electoral process.
Although the Guard is far better equipped than any other force in the Congo, it depends on regular shipments of such items as spare parts for tanks and trucks and, most crucially, ammunition and ordnance. Exploiting these vulnerabilities will send a powerful delegitimizing signal.
The Council could also place on notice all individuals who support, command or benefit from the Guard’s fighting power that they risk being designated for targeted sanctions.