In March, the United Nations Security Council called for a “strategic review” of the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Part of this review is to include a well-articulated possible exit strategy for the mission. What remains to be seen is whether the Security Council will decide that the strategy is sound and should be implemented, or that MONUSCO should remain functioning with some changes. Taking into consideration the spirit of the March resolution and an evaluation of the state of MONUSCO makes clear the need for a controlled and sound plan for the mission’s exit from the DRC.
On the one hand, the necessity to deeply reevaluate the effectiveness of MONUSCO and reshape its mandate to new challenges and dynamics is years overdue. On the other hand, the timing is opportune given the changes in the national political landscape after the first peaceful transfer of power between former President Joseph Kabila and Félix Tshisekedi, whose policies aim to improve political stability and national security. Prospects aside, the hope for long-term stability and peace are still fragile and uncertain. What this season in the DRC’s politics offers for both the Security Council and the Congolese people is the opportunity to recalibrate their strategies and efforts for peace and stability within an inclusive and acceptable operational framework.
While polarization between political actors makes it difficult for Congolese society to lay a strong foundation for an emerging and stable country, the UN as a third party could facilitate the design of a less partisan framework for peace that could cover social, economic, security, and institutional priorities. The mandated strategic review of MONUSCO could provide recommendations on how to begin constructing such a framework. Doing so, however, requires a survey of the mission’s context, mandate, struggles, and plan for the future.
An evaluation of MONUSCO should begin with the broad question: why does the mission matter? From the perspective of the Security Council, MONUSCO is of great significance given its cost. It is still one of the most expensive peacekeeping operations in history, costing over $1.1 billion annually in the most recent approved budget. Although significant, this figure is a reduction in line with the overall cuts in UN peacekeeping. In the field, the budget cut has conditioned the closure of regional offices and the need for a reprioritization of operational work.
These constraints and local strategic alignments raise valid concerns for the future of the mission, and most importantly its legacy, which is tied to a responsible exit, whether now or in the future. The long-term cost of the mission in light of the instability on the ground is an important consideration, as any transfer of responsibility to the government of the DRC should only be done if the government is able to ensure sustainable peace and eliminate the threats to security. For MONUSCO and the UN more broadly, it is a time where the credibility of peacekeeping operations as a whole could be at stake.
In the DRC, MONUSCO has suffered from a lack of credibility and negative public perception in recent years, even though its mandate includes supporting peace recovery and promoting the rehabilitation of national institutions. For instance, the DRC government under Kabila had repeatedly asked for a complete withdrawal of MONUSCO troops, accusing them and the political branch of the mission for infringing on the country’s sovereignty. This was also relayed by the population in regions such as Beni, where citizens have accused MONUSCO of inactivity and incapacity to stop massacres that were occurring almost weekly, despite the presence of UN troops, including the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), in the area.
An Evolving Mandate
The current UN mission evolved from the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC), which twenty years ago had a diplomatic and political mandate to facilitate peaceful political negotiations between belligerents. In those twenty years, MONUC became MONUSCO (in 2010) and provided support to the work of other UN agencies that were already working in areas such as humanitarian assistances and the protection of civilians. In its configuration as MONUSCO, and due to the changing political situation in the DRC, the soft mandate of observation rapidly shifted to an offensive peacekeeping mission, with the priority of protecting civilians and creating political space for dialogue on stability and institution building.
The key elements and turning points in this change of mandates was always motivated by the negative impact of political actions and/or behavior of armed groups on the population, rather than a perspective of incremental sustainable change based on successful functioning. Over time, this type of strategic response has placed MONUSCO in a reactive rather than proactive position and made it difficult to establish a sustainable framework for peace, let alone to contemplate an exit strategy.
Apart from political difficulties that the mission has had in the past with the DRC government, and apart from the lack of a clear exit strategy, MONUSCO in its current configuration struggles to adapt to the informality of conflict and fighting. In fact, while the mandate is set to be re-examined and reconfigured yearly, the uncertainty of “to do or not do” limits operations on the ground, leading to overall ineffectiveness that diminishes the trust that people have put in the mission and the UN.
It is therefore not surprising to hear people on the streets of Goma, Kinshasa, or even Butembo, asking MONUSCO to leave the country because it’s been unable to provide security and peace. The same narrative can often be heard circulating in New York as well.
Today, MONUSCO and its mandate require another reconfiguration. One aspect that must be urgently addressed is the capabilities of the mission itself. This should go beyond police operations to more robust and tactical approaches related to the composition and deployment of peacekeeping units.
Moreover, there are continually new forms of non-traditional threats such as terrorism and guerrilla attacks in the DRC. These threats and the modus operandi of their perpetrators do not fit into the classical security or peacebuilding approach that MONUSCO and the Congolese army have used so far. To be able to deal with these changing forms of threats there must be an upgrade of the troops on the ground and their strategic adaptation.
Another aspect is the coordination and tactical adaptiveness of peacekeeping units when they are used. The UN FIB continues to be limited due to the command structure, political priorities in the DRC, and the expectations of countries contributing troops. One possible approach to remedy the limitations on the FIB is to reinforce coordination between the UN, African Union, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Regions (ICGL), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and individual countries within the region. A special force could also be set up that operates independently from MONUSCO’s mandate. This force should be mandated to track and dismantle all regional negative forces.
To this end, regional security coordination would be needed with permanent special force’s units able and ready to deploy whenever threats are identified. In fact, the changing nature of national and regional insecurity and the persistent threats to peace require innovation in both preventive and responsive measures.
Hopes and the Future
Outside of the indicators of success used by the Security Council to assess and monitor the mission, sustainable peace and a positive legacy for MONUSCO will likely depend on improving the local perception of the mission, as well as collaboration with and support for local actors who contribute to peace.
For instance, the church and civil society organizations play an important role as mitigators of conflict and promoters of social harmony. The call launched by the church community during the 2017 and 2018 protests which led to the organization of the December 2018 general elections, exemplify how influential the church has been in promoting peace. The power of its voice was again demonstrated during the post-electoral period where, despite massive electoral irregularities and political tension between the two former opposition leaders, Félix Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu, the call for peace and non-violence by the church was largely heeded across the country.
In addition to the church, civil society organizations across the country have demonstrated a high level of maturity and capabilities that have informed and helped support a successful transition of power. These dynamics bring hope for peace and should be regarded as a source of knowledge and wisdom for the work of MONUSCO.
In such circumstances, a focus of MONUSCO should be to empower civil society organizations and collaborate with them in supporting peacebuilding and societal harmony. One such organization is the youth-led group called “All For Social Justice” that operates in Katanga and trains students in the practice of non-violent mechanisms for conflict resolution. Supporting such local and indigenous initiatives in their efforts will help to progressively transfer MONUSCO’s operational capabilities to local actors as the mission works to exit the country.
Additionally, MONUSCO should be attentive to the work of the president, and if possible support him in fulfilling his ambitious initiatives, including: restoration of regional cooperation, openness to the work of the private sector, greater international, bilateral, and multilateral support, promotion of the rule of law, and fighting against corruption.
Also, inspired by local organizations and practices, the international community and the DRC government can learn to invest in innovative practices, especially those operating in informal sectors such as small businesses run by women. In fact, most of the Congolese economy is informal, and though these activities are not being tracked, they are critical to the sustainability of the country. The way the informal economy works and is supported can be transposed into the realm of peacebuilding efforts.
Reviewing the performance of MONUSCO will not be complete if a long-term plan that incorporates a wide range of factors, including the above, is not developed. How to make a plan that includes these factors relies to a great degree on local knowledge on peace and stability and the social and political reality of the DRC, not only the lessons from other peacekeeping missions.
Dr. Yvan Yenda Ilunga is a research fellow at Rutgers University’s Division of Global Affairs.