'State of siege' brings mix of hope, uncertainty to DR Congo

Étienne Tshisekedi wearing a suit and tie: President Felix Tshisekedi has asked for French support to eradicate fighters based in eastern DR Congo © Ludovic MARIN President Felix Tshisekedi has asked for French support to eradicate fighters based in eastern DR Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo's move to impose a "state of siege" on two violence-wracked eastern provinces brought praise on Saturday from local leaders but also sparked concern in a country where the army faces allegations of rights abuses.

President Felix Tshisekedi had said Thursday he was preparing "radical measures" for the mineral-rich east, where an estimated 122 armed groups operate as a legacy of a spate of 1990s conflicts.

Friday saw him follow 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 the president for a decision which he said "responds to our expectations", stressing 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 it welcomed the move but called on parliament urgently to pass legislation to "prevent abuses" which might stem from the imposition of a siege.

The country's prime minister had Monday 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.

- Army must be 'without reproach' -

"If the army must have more power then it must be without reproach," warned citizen movement Lucha.

Visiting Paris on Tuesday, Tshisekedi had asked France for help "eradicating" the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), Ugandan Islamist fighters based in eastern DRC since 1995.

Branded a jihadist organisation by Tshisekedi and the United States, the ADF has killed more than 1,200 civilians in the Beni area alone since 2017, according to a monitor called the Kivu Security Tracker (KST).

The army has conducted operations against the group -- which Washington brands a "terrorist" organisation" affiliated to Islamic State -- since October 2019, but has not been able to put a stop to the massacres.

That failure prompted protests by high school students which police and soldiers 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 rise in abuses by the military in the province of North and South Kivu as well as Tanganyika.

Lucha member and academic Bienvenu Matumo told AFP:  "One must set aside military who commit rights violations and who participate in economic wheeling and dealing."

Alongside such fears that a state of siege could have a negative effect on human rights, one 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 lost no time in indicating he planned large-scale interventions by a 150,000-strong military which contains former rebels in its ranks from two recent civil wars 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 CNDP and M23 rebel groups, amid thinly veiled suggestions that some troops retain links to various armed groups.

Overall, however, Tshisekedi, who enjoys US support, is in a strong position having gained majority support in a parliament previously loyal to predecessor Joseph Kabila, something which had restricted his hand during his first two years in office.

st/cdw/har

'State of siege' brings mix of hope, uncertainty to DR Congo