Fears of a new wave of violence in the restive east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are growing after weeks of deadly protests against UN peacekeepers and rising regional tensions.
Thirty-six people, including four UN peacekeepers, have died in the past two weeks as hundreds of protesters vandalised and set fire to UN buildings in several cities in eastern frontier provinces.
Though there have been similar waves of protests before, few have caused so many casualties. With elections due next year, analysts say political actors are fuelling unrest.
Last week, the DRC effectively expelled a spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping force, Monusco, after allegedly making “indelicate and inappropriate” statements which authorities said contributed to the tensions with the local population. Authorities said this week they want to reassess the peacekeeping mission’s withdrawal plan.
Civilians in eastern DRC accuse Monusco, which has been active for more than a decade, of failing to protect them from the militia violence that has long plagued the region, but which has intensified in recent months. The protesters called for the immediate withdrawal of the force.
Nelleke van de Walle, project director for the Great Lakes region at the International Crisis Group, said Monusco was easy to blame.
“People are actually angry at a failed state, a failed government, an incapable army, but Monusco has a very visible presence with its patrols and bases and so becomes a focus of popular frustrations,” she told the Guardian.
In a poll published on Thursday by the Congo Research Group at New York University and Kinshasa-based institute Ebuteli, 44% of those asked said that Monusco should leave DRC immediately – about the same number as those who wanted the mission to stay in 2016.
Monusco is due to hand most of its duties over to local forces by 2024, according to a timetable drawn up last year, but the government now aims to speed up its departure, said foreign affairs minister Christophe Lutundula.
The force, which took over from an earlier UN operation in 2010, has been scaling down for years, and its current mandate ends in December. A renewal for a further year by the UN security council was expected to be a formality and is still seen as very likely by analysts.
The peacekeepers have been accused of retaliating with force and, in some cases, live ammunition, as hundreds of protesters threw rocks and petrol bombs, vandalising and setting fire to UN buildings.
A government commission sent to assess the aftermath found that 13 people died in clashes in the city of Goma, another 13, including four peacekeepers, in Butembo and three in Kanyabayonga, the DRC’s presidency said.
Four protesters were killed in the city of Uvira when they were hit by an electric cable that had been damaged after troops fired shots at it.
Three civilians died in a separate incident, reported on Sunday, during which soldiers returning from leave to a UN intervention brigade opened fire at a border post.
About 170 people were wounded, the commission added, noting strong anti-UN sentiment among civil society representatives.
At least some of the protests were organised and encouraged by political actors seeking to mobilise popular opinion against the peacekeepers.
“We are basically in a pre-election period now with polls scheduled for next year. So politicians are using and feeding grievances for their own benefit,” Van de Walle said.
Before some of the protests, the Goma youth branch of the ruling UDPS party released a statement demanding Monusco “withdraw from Congolese soil without conditions because it has already proved its incapacity to provide us with protection”.
The president of the DRC senate, Modeste Bahati, told supporters in Goma on 15 July that Monusco should “pack its bags”.
Delphin Rukumbuzi Ntanyoma, an analyst at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, said that in the context, such remarks could be dangerous.
“The UN mission … has long been blamed for what should be the DRC government’s responsibility: de-escalating violence in the country’s eastern region and finding long-term solutions to peace,” he wrote on The Conversation website last week.
The violence in eastern DRC is driven by competition for rich mineral and other resources. Rival regional powers Rwanda and Uganda have long sought to extend their influence in the region, sometimes through armed proxies. Instability has been aggravated by an offensive launched by an Islamist extremist group, the ADF, and the new campaign by a resurgent faction known as M23, which many Congolese believe is supported by Rwanda.
After lying mostly dormant for years, the group resumed fighting in November and made significant advances, capturing the North Kivu town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border.
On Thursday, a UN group of experts said it had “solid evidence” that Rwandan troops had conducted military operations in eastern DRC since late last year and that Kigali has supported the M23 rebel group’s advance there.
The faction’s reemergence is a significant factor in the anger directed at UN peacekeepers, whose commanders have admitted they lack the resources to take on the rebels.
“They said they don’t have the strength to fight the M23, now what are they still doing here?” said Shadrac Kambale, a motorbike-taxi driver in Goma.
Sankara Bin, another protester, said: “We don’t want to see Monusco walking in the streets of Goma, we don’t even want to see their planes flying over.”
The UN first deployed an observer mission to eastern Congo in 1999. It became the peacekeeping mission Monusco – the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – in 2010, with a mandate to conduct offensive operations.
It has a current strength of about 16,300 uniformed personnel, the world’s largest UN mission, and it has sustained 230 fatalities.
A spokesperson for the peacekeeping force said last week the mission would redouble its efforts to work alongside the people and authorities of the DRC to fulfil its mandate from the UN security council.
Analysts say it is unlikely that the peacekeepers will be forced into a sudden departure. They will be needed to provide logistical support for elections in 2023, while many politicians recognise their contribution to stability.
“It would not be in the interests of [president Felix] Tshisekedi and many others to see Monusco leave,” said Van de Walle.
The new poll found that security was the biggest concern in DRC, with 26% of respondents putting it first, ahead of infrastructure and jobs.
International powers are now paying more attention to the DRC. In an effort to counter the efforts of strategic competitors on the continent, such as Russia and China, the US secretary of state will travel next month to South Africa, DRC and Rwanda, the state department announced last week.