DR Congo: Ending the Cycle of Violence in Ituri

International Crisis Group, REPORT 292/AFRICA, 15 JULY 2020

Since late 2017, renewed violence in Ituri has revived rivalries between Hema and Lendu and affected other communities, with broader regional implications. President Tshisekedi's government should negotiate the surrender of the Lendu militias and encourage the Quadripartite Summit to put the conflict on its agenda.


What’s new? Since late 2017, armed groups, predominantly from the Lendu ethnic farming community, have committed deadly attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Ituri province. Initial targets were members of the neighbouring Hema community, who are mostly herders, and the Congolese armed forces. But attacks are now increasingly indiscriminate.

Why does it matter? The escalating violence has revived historical rivalries between the Hema and Lendu, who fought each other during the 1999-2003 war. The involvement of actors from the adjacent province of North Kivu, and even from neighbouring countries, could exacerbate the challenges faced by President Félix Tshisekedi.

What should be done? Kinshasa should aim to negotiate the surrender of Lendu militias as part of a broader dialogue between the Hema, Lendu and other communities. The Quadripartite Summit that brings together the DRC and its neighbours – Angola, Rwanda and Uganda – could help address the conflict’s regional dimensions.

Executive Summary

Since December 2017, violence in the province of Ituri, in the north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has left nearly 1,000 people dead and half a million displaced. Breaking out in the territory of Djugu, small-scale attacks first pitted the two main communities in Ituri, the Hema and Lendu, against each other. Subsequently, Lendu militias targeted the Hema, and then the national army, before attacking nearby territories. External actors, including from North Kivu province and bordering countries, are also involved.

To stem a dangerous escalation, the Congolese government should focus on a strategy aimed at negotiating the demobilisation of Lendu militias while supporting a broader dialogue between the Hema, Lendu and other communities in Ituri. Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi should simultaneously work with neighbouring countries to halt support from actors in the region for the attackers.

The current crisis differs from the 1999-2003 conflict in Ituri, during which Hema and Lendu communities participated in massacres undertaken by associated militias. Today, most assailants are recruited from within the Lendu community and brought together in an association of militias, the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo. In contrast to the previous conflict, Lendu leaders have distanced themselves from these militias.

Still, given the limits of the government’s military response, the possibility of escalating ethnic violence cannot be dismissed. Lendu militias continue to expand. Thus far, the Hema have not mounted systematic reprisals, but they do not rule out mobilising their youth if attacks continue. Young Hema have organised into self-defence groups and erected roadblocks in Ituri, which should be seen as forewarning of the risk of ethnic confrontation.

The clashes in Ituri could have multiple ramifications. With its growing violence, the province has already attracted fighters from neighbouring North Kivu, the epicentre of insecurity in the eastern DRC.

Members of former rebel movements, including some cohorts of the M23 group largely based in Uganda, have also sought to profit from ethnic tensions in Ituri and North Kivu and interfere in the conflict. Furthermore, the violence is exacerbating tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, each of which played an important role in the Ituri war of 1999-2003. The two countries now accuse each other of supporting armed groups in the eastern DRC. A COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 in Irumu, a territory bordering North Kivu, risks spreading, which could further weaken authorities faced with a double threat of disease and unrest.

A number of steps could help to break the cycle of violence in Ituri and prevent outside interference:

- The government should resume dialogue with those militias in Ituri that have already expressed willingness to surrender under the right conditions. It should also pursue a dialogue with other militias involved in the Ituri violence to pursue their demobilisation. In order to reach a broad consensus on disarmament methods (including on the issue of amnesty), the government should support the mediation efforts of Ituri deputies’ caucus in the National Assembly.

- Kinshasa should prioritise the reintegration of militiamen into civilian life, in particular by setting up a framework for support and training to provide them with alternative livelihoods.

- Provincial and national authorities should foster talks between the Hema and Lendu communities by inviting traditional chieftains and other eminent figures to discuss local issues – such as land disputes – that generate violence and identify measures to better manage security on the ground. Subsequently, Kinshasa should organise a broad dialogue in Ituri, including communities not directly involved in the crisis, to ensure that these measures meet the population’s general expectations.

- In order to advance Ituri’s development and security, Kinshasa should set up a special fund for the region, and, as far as possible, mobilise bilateral partners and the World Bank to contribute.

- Congolese President Tshisekedi should put the Ituri conflict on the agenda for the next Quadripartite Summit, which will bring together Angola, the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. He and his Angolan counterpart, João Lourenço, should press Rwanda and Uganda to use this forum to discuss reciprocal accusations of aid to armed groups in the eastern DRC, including in Ituri, and commit to ending this support.

Until these steps are taken, the conflict risks escalating in the years to come. A long-term solution to the Ituri crisis would help break the cycle of violence in the eastern DRC and ease tensions in the Great Lakes region.

Nairobi/Bunia/Kinshasa/Kampala/Brussels, 15 July 2020

For the full report,visit: https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/central-africa/democratic-republic-congo/292-republique-democratique-du-congo-en-finir-avec-la-violence-cyclique-en-ituri