The attack on the Italian Ambassador in Congo
by Daniel Ruiz
This article intends to do a critical analysis of the recent attack that cost the life to the Italian Ambassador in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Luca Attanasio, together with his bodyguard and driver on 22 February 2021. It focuses on a security risk analysis in the context of a long-lasting conflict.
The colonial creation of the Congo
The “Free State” of Congo was a personal possession of King Leopold II of Belgium, who established one of the first Western capitalist colonial extractive systems in 1885. He overexploited its population, including mutilations for under-performing labour and their families, to the point that half of its population died during his 23 years of mandate (Hochshield 1999). He was ultimately so much criticized, even by his time´s and his peers’ standards, that his possession was given to the Belgian state to establish a more “regular” colony in 1908, including an apartheid system.
The neo-colonial state
Being a “geological scandal”, at independence in 1960 the Congo became a model neocolonial system. The first elected leader, prime minister Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated under Belgian instigation because he was not eager to abide by the old rules. His secretary, Joseph Mobutu, established an authoritarian regime under the auspices of the West as its “Gendarme” in Africa. He protected the western multinational companies’ interests in the area under a nationalist regime, which soon turned into a “kleptocracy”.
As in other “developing countries”, the end of the Cold War facilitated the dismissal of an uncomfortable regime. The US and the UK supported the regime change by the Anglophile elite Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda and later allowed them to depose Mobutu in the Congo, installing the Kabila family regime (with the son replacing the father after his assassination in 2001). This regime change gave room to a war in the Congo (1996-2003), known as the “African World War” (Prunier 2009), that caused the death of more than 5 million persons (OHCHR 2010). Rwanda and Uganda ended with a strong influence over Eastern DRC through proxy militias and the control of the trade of natural resources.
Under pressure from the International Community in 2018, Joseph Kabila handed over power, not to the winner Martin Fayulu, but to the second candidate Felix Tshisekedi, through massive fraud (Stearns 2019). In 2019 Tshisekedi formed a ruling alliance with Kabila, but in 2021 he managed to build his own majority in parliament, by allying with the opposition and probably bribing part of Kabila’s supporters (Englebert 2021)
Today the DRC has one of the lowest Human Development Indexes in the world (175/189), in spite of having one of the highest mineral, natural, agricultural, and hydroelectric potentials. It is also one of the most corrupt societies according to Transparency International (170/179).
The scramble for resources
The Congo has huge natural resources in its territory and many governments and international companies have been eager to exploit them. In the 19th century, it consisted mainly of ivory and rubber, exploited with slave labour. The bombs of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were built with uranium from the Congo. In the 1960s Katanga tried to secede from the Congo with Belgian support to grab the main copper mines. Diamonds fuelled corruption during Mobutu’s reign. Gold and Coltan are smuggled today through Rwanda and Uganda to finance the armed groups in Eastern DRC. The DRC has 50% of the world’s reserves of cobalt, a mineral in great demand for batteries. The DRC may be considered as the prototype of the country suffering from “Resource Curse”, which has fuelled corruption, violence, and kleptocracy since its creation.
A typical example of the global implications of shady business in the DRC is the Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler. He arrived in the DRC in 1996 at the beginning of the war, made friendship with the president’s son Joseph Kabila, and exchanged weapons for diamonds. He has since expanded, with the support of President Kabila, to copper mines, iron ore, gold, cobalt, oil, agriculture, and banking (Kavanagh 2012). He was suspected of financing the electoral campaigns of Joseph Kabila. His business has been under scrutiny of the IMF and the World Bank. The Panama Papers revealed that some of his shell companies were carried out through Mossack Fonseca. In 2017 the USA blocked its US assets under the Magnitsky Corruption Act, but the sanctions were lifted during the last days of President Trump’s mandate. President Biden has restored them back on 8 March (Smith 2021).
The Kivus were the main theatre of the 1996-1997 and 1998-2003 wars, which saw the participation of several African national armies besides numerous local militias. Its principal objectives, beyond the regime change, were the looting of natural resources and the occupation of territory by certain ethnic groups.
Figure 1: Armed groups in Eastern DRC
The state has little control over Eastern DRC, which continues to be plagued by at least 150 armed groups and many more criminal gangs. Most of these armed groups were initially born as ethnic militias and used crimes like trafficking of natural resources, kidnappings and illegal taxing to finance their activities. The DRC still has around 600,000 refugees abroad and 4.5 million IDPs inside.
The FDLR (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda), descendant of the former Rwandan Army and genocidal militias that fled Rwanda in 1994, is the strongest and most disciplined group and has a clear political agenda of retaking power in Rwanda. The Congolese army (FARDC) is formed by the merging of former armed groups who signed the 2003 peace agreement and often behaves like them. To add to the horror, rape is used as a weapon and children are frequently recruited as fighters or slaves by armed groups.
The Virunga National Park
The Virunga National Park (VNP) was created in 1925 as one of the first protected areas in Africa. It ranges between 600 to 5,000 m height and 300 km from North to South along the Rift Valley. It is one of the most biodiverse spots on Earth and home to the famous mountain gorillas. It has been under demographic pressure since colonial times, which increased after the Rwandan genocide with the arrival of millions of refugees. It is used as a hiding place for numerous armed and criminal groups, who exploit its wood, charcoal, ivory, bush meat, fisheries and mineral resources like gold or coltan. The VNP was declared a World Heritage Site in Danger by UNESCO in 1994.
Since 2010, the management of the park is financed mainly by the European Union. It includes a para-military body of around 400 rangers, who are better paid, equipped and trained than the FARDC, and who exert the state authority inside the park. Almost 200 rangers have been killed on duty in the last 20 years.
In 2011, SOCO, a British oil company attempted to exploit oil inside the VNP (von Einsiedel 2014), authorized by the government but gave up under international pressure in 2014. The Belgian director of the VNP survived an assassination attempt after testifying at court on this situation.
Risk analysis of the incident
The area of Kibumba, 30 km North of Goma on national road 2, where the attack took place on 22 February 2021, includes large refugee and IDP communities. The United Nations classifies the security threat in the roads of the area in a green, yellow and red range. In red roads, the UN vehicles must circulate with armed escort, in yellow, they must circulate in pairs, and in green ones they can circulate individually. These decisions are taken by the most senior UN official in the area, in coordination with the heads of the other UN agencies and advised by security professionals. Ambassador Attanasio circulated with two World Food Programme (WFP) vehicles without armed escort as the road leading to Kibumba was yellow.
Figure 2: Security Matrix (UNDSS 2021)
From a security point of view, Risk is the combination of the Likelihood of a Threat being carried out and the subsequent Impact. Security measures can either be used to Prevent vulnerability from being exploited or Mitigate the Impact of exploitation, or both (UNDSS 2011). In this incident, the available information suggests that the Likelihood of a threat was Moderate. But the Impact of a UN Member State Ambassador being kidnapped or harmed was Critical and difficult to Mitigate. It seems therefore that the final Risk of the mission was High. It could have been advisable, thus, to assign a UN or DRC armed escort to prevent the likelihood of an attack from happening.
The other question to consider is the Criticality of the mission (United Nations 2016). It is not clear that the visit of a donor to a food distribution site in a high risk area was critical enough that the mission could not have been avoided.
There are many past examples when the lack of depth in the analysis of the risks and the balancing with the criticality of the mission has led to negative consequences, because the prevention and mitigation measures were not adequate. One of the most famous is the bombing of the UN HQ in Iraq in 2003 (lack of adequate protection measures in one of the highest risk missions), the kidnapping of two employees of Un Ponte Per Baghdad in Iraq in 2003 (the famous Simona & Simona who declined to evacuate Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s capture, although their mission was far from critical) or the assassination of the UN experts Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan in the DRC in 2017 (the objective of the mission was critical, but the risk was too high). By exposing oneself to excessive risk, one can disserve the mission, contravening the “do no harm” principle.
Let us now examine the threat itself. The FDLR, present in the area, has been taken as the scapegoat by the government of the DRC, as the usual suspect in the Kivus. However, this group issued a communiqué the following day denying being involved (FDLR 2021). Moreover, having a strong political agenda and access to financial resources, the FDLR would not benefit from such an operation. It is more probable that the attack would have been perpetrated by a purely criminal group, who would have tried to obtain a substantive ransom with the kidnapping of a high-profile Western official. Hundreds of kidnappings have taken place in recent years in the area, including two British tourists in 2018 (Sawyer 2018). Other armed groups present in the area are the Congolese Hutu groups known as Nyatura (linked to the FDLR but less professional than them) as well as other Nande and Nyanga ethnic militias, who have a mixed ethnic and criminal agenda. The Islamist ADF is deployed several hundred km to the North, near the Ugandan border, and is unlikely to have been involved. Another possible suspect is the remaining of the Rwandan-linked M23, considering that Kibumba is located around 25 km from the Rwandan border, and that the Rwandan government has a strong hold on the area (Giansoldati 2021).
The attack took place some hundred meters away from a mixed Ranger/ FARDC patrol at the entrance of the VNP, which points to a not very well-planned attack.
Being conspirational, we could imagine that Joseph Kabila, who has recently been betrayed by Tshisekedi, could have had a vested interest in embarrassing the latter. Rwanda or Uganda, which have proxies in the area, also had the capacity to undertake such an operation but would have much to lose if caught killing a western diplomat.
To complicate things, the military prosecutor in charge of the case, Major William Assani, was killed on a road ambush by unknown assailants on 2nd March, not far from the attack against the ambassador (B-one TV Congo 2021).
Conclusions and recommendations
In order to reduce the instability in the Great Lakes region, the International Community (IC) should focus more on addressing the root causes of the conflict (the looting of natural resources; the widespread weakness and corruption of the state; the impunity for grave human rights violations; the demographic and ethnic pressures; the interference and profiteering from neighbouring countries and multinational companies; etc.) rather than on the effects of the conflict, like the provision of humanitarian aid.
The IC should also be careful to avoid exposing themselves to unnecessary risk, which would contribute to further instability.
Finally, the deployment of blue helmets is necessary to protect the work of the IC in unstable environments like the Kivus. Western countries, which ceased to contribute troops to these contingents since the 2000s, should engage anew.
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Daniel Ruiz, PhD, is an Affiliate Researcher at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna di Pisa (DIRPOLIS) and a Senior Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Centre of Peace Science of Pisa University. His main research focus is on the nexus between political and environmental crises and on the root causes of conflicts. He worked for more than 20 years with the United Nations in conflict situations and was the Director of the Goma office from 2014 to 2019. E-mail: email@example.com