The Democratic Republic of Congo is no stranger to violence but this week’s attack in Ituri province where more than 50 people including children were hacked and beheaded by the Codeco armed group as it clashed for control of an artisanal gold mine with ‘’Zaire’’ group, has jolted authorities in Kinshasa. The Codeco, reportedly not wearing military fatigues like other militia, also attacked a camp for the internally displaced signalling a change in their modus operandi.
The violence, just two weeks after the end of the first phase of negotiations between President Felix Tshisekedi’s government and more than 20 rebel groups, in Nairobi, is a blow to Kinshasa’s efforts and new approach to end the long-term conflict in the east of the country.
Codeco and the Zaire group, were not party to the Nairobi talks. In fact, not all armed groups in Ituri and the two Kivu provinces, were invited, yet they operate in some of the most violence-prone regions.
Some observers opine that Codeco’s attack was not random and could have been timed to force the government’s hand into letting the group into the Nairobi talks. But Codeco has been involved in similar massacres in the past.
When Tshisekedi came to power, he promised to "sacrifice himself in order to bring peace" to the eastern part of the country.
The president who was on official visits to Juba, South Sudan, and Abidjan in Ivory Coast as the tragedy ensued, admitted that long term peace in his country will require reforms in the government security agencies including the military.
“Our army has something to do with what is happening in the east and our police also favour certain things. There is complicity that encourages this. We need to put things in order,” he said in a statement from Abidjan.
But apparently the initiative to hold peace talks with the armed is said to have come from the military too, with political support from the government.
Earlier on Tuesday, four armed groups party to the Phase 1 Nairobi talks pledged to cease all confrontation between them, by signing a non-aggression pact, at the end of a two-day meeting in Pinga village, North Kivu about 2,000km east of Kinshasa.
This pact is a response to the expectations of the Nairobi talks. A report of the results of the first round of consultations in Nairobi was presented to the leaders of these rebel groups attending the meeting, according to the president of Pinga civil society.
The groups that attended the meeting were the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS); Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC-Rénové); the Collective of Movements for Change (CMC-Nyatura).
In February, President Tshisekedi sent emissaries to Ituri to negotiate a ceasefire with Codeco, but the militia held the president's envoys captive, demanding the lifting of the state of siege in force in Ituri and North Kivu since last May. The president deployed military governors to contain the violence, with slow success on the ground. One year later, the violence has increased double-fold. The exceptional measure of a state of siege is renewed every fortnight in the Congolese parliament. But there are calls to lift it.
Delly Sessanga, a lawmaker, said the state of siege had "shown its limits." "It is time to take a courageous political decision to get out of the state of siege, which is blinding us to the scale of this disaster and distracting us from the real problems and the search for lasting solutions,” he said.
“All the regional and international initiatives on peace in DR Congo cannot fully compensate for our internal failures," he added. Amnesty International has recommended President Tshisekedi "defines a clear exit plan" from the state of siege.
“President Tshisekedi must ensure that any new measures to resolve the armed conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are taken and implemented in full compliance with international human rights standards,” AI said.
In response to allegations of the ineffectiveness of the state of siege, Lt-Gen Johnny Luboya, the military governor of Ituri, said on Tuesday: “The number of soldiers who die every day on the battlefield is enormous. So the work of the state of siege deserves more respect.”
He said for peace to be fully restored in the eastern DR Congo, the Congolese must be patient, "because one year is not enough to destroy what has been built by negative forces for two decades," he said.