Monday, August 23, 2010

Congo's Forgotten Crisis, and How the United States should Address it: Stepping into the Shoes of a Congolese Soldier

Part 3 of a 7-part article about how the ongoing civil war in Congo is rooted in the poor state of the Congolese Army, why Congo matters to the United States, and what policies the United States should enact to address the situation.

Dr. Baaz’s research provides important insights into this question. From October 2005 to November 2006, Dr. Baaz, who is fluent in Lingala, a local Congolese language, interviewed several hundred FARDC soldiers and junior officers, both male and female, who had seen active combat within a year of their interviews (1). The interviews lasted 2-3 hours, and those interviewed had no time beforehand to prepare for their interviews; indeed, most of those interviewed were ordered to report to the interview location by their superiors without warning on the day of the interview, having no idea why they were supposed to be there (2).

Dr. Baaz’s work was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida-Sarec) as part of a larger research effort on gender discourses in the militaries of the DRC and Mozambique (3), and so much of her interviews focused on subjects such as masculinity, femininity, gender roles (4). However, she also asked a great deal of questions about notions of the ideal soldier – what qualities they should have, how they should act, how they should be treated, among others – and how it compared to their own experiences in the FARDC (5).

Most of those interviewed spoke not of strength, ability to kill, or courage, but rather of order and discipline as the qualities of the ideal soldier – the qualities that they strove toward (6). Many soldiers spoke of how it was the ability to strictly follow the Règlement Militaire(7) that distinguished one as a good soldier. Indeed, some thought themselves superior to civilians because of their acquired discipline and ability to follow orders. As one male corporal put it:

“The difference between a civilian and a soldier is that we follow orders/rules
[mibeko]. I get up at 5 in the morning, put on my uniform and go to work. I do
not go to work because they will give me 1,000 FC [US$2] at the end of the
day. I go with both my joys and my sorrows and I will sit on guard until 14:00
or until the superiors tell me it is enough, I can go back home. But a civilian
could not do that. If you tell a civilian to sit guard like we do he would start :
‘Ahh, I have to go to the market’ or ‘ I have to go to Kintambo [an area in
Kinshasa] to look for somebody.’ For me it is the orders [mibeko] that make
me sit there, the rules. The civilians do not know how to follow orders. We sit
as a result of the orders of the superiors. Civilians would not cope, in that case
you would have to hold him by force [kanga ye na makasi].”(8)

Given the lack of cohesiveness and discipline in the FARDC as a whole, it seems ironic that FARDC soldiers would pride themselves on discipline to the point of considering themselves better than civilians because of it. Indeed, most of the soldiers acknowledged a great disparity between their ideal perceptions of being a soldier in the army and their experiences in the FARDC.

Nearly all who were interviewed expressed frustration and anger over the deplorable state of the FARDC in general. As the corporal above alluded to in his testimony, much of the army does not get paid. This is not because of a lack of funding on the army’s part (although, if it had more money, perhaps the meager salary of US$20 a day (9) could be raised), but rather because officers at every step in the chain of command take their own “cut”(10) of the money and equipment that they are supposed to distribute to their unit; indeed, one male sergeant interviewed indignantly remarked that he had to buy his own uniform (11). Understandably, these conditions do not sit well with the FARDC soldiers, who expressed deep resentment at being betrayed and exploited by their superior officers. Take the experience of this former kadogo, who by the time of the interview was 21, for instance:

“As we said above, a good soldier is a soldier who follows Règlement Militaire,
who has discipline and obeys it. But how can we do a good job when we do not
have anything. Here [in Kinshasa] we are hungry and at the front we are hungry.
We don’t get anything. They cheat us. … According to the rules we are supposed
to get rations, food, medical care, but now there is nothing. I will tell you one
thing so that you understand, so that you understand our situation. A few months
ago I had to bury my son. Why did I have to do that ? Because they refused to give
me medicine. He had diarrhea and fever – many days. I kept going to my
superiors everyday to get the money [for medical care] which I am entitled to
according to the rules. But every day, they said, come back tomorrow. Then
he died. I had no money to bury him and that is also something the Army is
supposed to pay for. So we put him in the morgue. I asked again for money so
that we could bury [him], but only tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Nothing. He was three weeks in the morgue, and I had no money to get him out
and bury him. Eventually I made an illegal/informal deal [nasalaki cop moko] with
some people – with guns. I got some money and the rest I borrowed. And I buried
my son. So tell me, how can we be disciplined? They all cheat us. Our superiors
cheat us. We die and our children die. They send their children to Europe, but
our children die.” (12)

Taking bitter, angry men (and women) with no food, pay, or shelter and deploying them, armed, near a village is a recipe for disaster for any military anywhere in the world. While no one can condone or excuse the appalling violence that such soldiers often commit in Congo, it is hard not to feel a bit of sympathy for these men (and women) that are pushed to the limits of existence and still expected to maintain orderly conduct, much less obey orders from officers they rightly suspect of cheating them.

Compounding the problem, there are rarely any negative consequences of rape, pillage, or murder for FARDC soldiers. Although it is against Congolese law for anyone, soldier or civilian, to commit such crimes (13), in practice such illegal actions are rarely punished. Indeed, many soldiers expressed the need to have more severe punishments for such crimes in order to deter wavering soldiers from committing such offenses. Take this example, in which two sergeants explained how they would punish wrongdoers:

Male sergeant A: “To diminish [rapes] you need punishments, it has to be severe
punishments … and public trials. If a soldier at Zeta [military camp in Kinshasa]
rapes a woman, he should be judged there. They should expel him from the army
there, take off his uniform, put him in the car [which transports him away] and
everybody should be there to watch.”
Male sergeant B: “That will give a lesson to all the people that are there to watch
Male sergeant A: “Yes, it has to be public trials : ‘today it is the trial of corporal X’
[they should say to him] ‘Do you know that you took somebody’s woman
with force [ozwaki mwasi ya batu na makasi] ? ’ ‘Yes, my commander, I know’
[he answers]. ‘Do you know that this is forbidden in the law? ’ ‘Yes, I know.’ ‘Ok,
we will give you the death penalty .’”
Maria: “But that is too much maybe?”
Male sergeant A: “[Laughing] It is just an example. Even 50 or 5 years. His wife will
start to cry, his children will start to cry : ‘ahh, Papa’. Then, the other people who
are watching will understand, they will start to be afraid : ‘ahh, so that is the way
it is ’.”
Male sergeant B: “But the punishment also has to be severe, even 20 years. Then
people will fear it.” (14)

Impunity is a huge problem in many spheres of Congolese life, and dealing with it in civilian, business, and other areas will require a significant amount of time and resources to address the other weak institutions that contribute to it. But having accountability in the military, at the very least, is essential. The consequences of continued impunity in the FARDC can be seen in the brutal abuses committed by soldiers every day against civilians, and if a country’s own army cannot control itself, how can a stable society be expected to function?

(1) Baaz and Stern, “Making Sense of Violence in the Congo,” 60-62.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid., 61 and 82.
(4) Ibid., 61.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid., 70-73.
(7) French for military rules/ military code of conduct
(8) Ibid., 73.
(9) Dating back to 2006 [Ibid., 64.]
(10) Sébastien Melmot, “Candide in Congo: The Expected Failure of Security Sector Reform,” IFRI Focus Stratégique, n° 9 bis (2009): 11.
(11) Baaz and Stern, “Making Sense of Violence in the Congo,” 77.
(12) Ibid., 76.
(13) Kippenberg, “Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone,” 18-19.
(14) Baaz and Stern, “Making Sense of Violence in the Congo,” 79.

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