On the night of August 30th, 2023, the Special Presidential Force conducted military operations against the Wazalendo Religious Group in Goma, DRC. According to the Civil Society, this operation resulted in the deaths of over 100 people, with more than 200 arrested and others still missing. Shockingly, most of the victims were ordinary civilians who believed in the spiritual power of their ancestors and opposed the presence of the UN Mission in the DRC. These individuals were unarmed and were found either inside their church in Nyabushongo, Goma, or in the surrounding neighborhoods. The Wazalendo church had planned a demonstration against the UN Forces, the East African Community Force, and UN Agencies operating in the DRC.
In 1962, former President Mobutu orchestrated a massacre in a church in Kasai involving religious members. He used this incident to justify a coup d’état against Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Mobutu, who had been promoted to head of Defense Forces, went on to carry out his coup and subsequently killed Lumumba.
Is the Current Situation Similar?
The North Kivu region, currently under a state of emergency, is governed by General Constant Ndima, a former soldier loyal to Mobutu. General Ndima later joined the MLC rebel movement, supported by Uganda, before integrating into the national army. The current Defense Minister, Jean Pierre Bemba, is also a former member of Mobutu’s regime and leads the MLC, a politico-military party.
The massacre occurs within a political context of upcoming elections, where Jean Pierre Bemba appears to be a presidential candidate with limited chances of winning. After the December 2023 elections, his political future in the DRC may become uncertain, making a coup d’état a potentially attractive option. It’s worth noting that the major opposition parties in the DRC have refused to participate in these elections.
This situation coincides with significant leadership changes in North Kivu province. The Mayor of Goma, who was seen as closely aligned with the current Felix Tshisekedi regime, was transferred, and his deputy, a product of officers trained by Rwanda during the RDC Goma period, assumed office. The Police Commandant responsible for handling issues related to demonstrations in Goma was also transferred. Both the Governor and Deputy Governor of North Kivu are former rebel leaders, with the latter having ties to RCR Goma, closely associated with Rwanda.
Possible Motivations for the Soldiers’ Actions
Three scenarios are possible:
- The first scenario involves the possibility of the massacre aiming to justify a coup d’état against President Felix Tshisekedi, similar to what Mobutu did as previously mentioned.
- The second scenario is to make President Felix Tshisekedi more unpopular in North Kivu, a region with a significant number of voters, in order to promote Jean Pierre Bemba.
- The third scenario involves a potential connection with Rwanda and other forces opposed to the current state of emergency, including the United Nations. This connection could be achieved through bribing the current military regime in North Kivu to create reasons for M23 to capture Goma, with the aim of forcing Kinshasa into direct dialogue.
Events Leading Up to the Massacre
A month before August 30th, 2023, a religious group called Wazalendo (Patriots) wrote a letter to the Mayor of Goma, seeking permission for a public demonstration. The request was against MONUSCO, EAC Forces, and foreign organizations. Unlike the former Mayor, the current mayor did not engage in dialogue and negotiations with the Wazalendo Group, which contributed to tensions. Additionally, the technical expert responsible for handling demonstrations in town had been transferred, creating a potential vacuum.
Meanwhile, the Wazalendo group’s ability to mobilize large crowds in various activities in Goma caught the attention of MONUSCO and prompted United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to describe Wazalendo as a dangerous group that the government should deal with swiftly.
How the Special Presidential Forces Became Involved
Determining how the Special Presidential Forces became involved remains a challenge. This category of soldiers is relatively new and is believed to have recently completed military training in various developed countries. They typically operate under direct orders from the President of the country. However, the President has claimed to be uninformed about the operations that led to the massacre.
The Special Presidential Forces are responsible for the deaths of more than 100 people, and their orders and information about the religious group remain undisclosed.
Events Leading to the Massacre
Events preceding the massacre include:
- An attack by the Special Presidential Force on residents in Rwasama Ndosho/Goma on August 28th, 2023. During this attack, residents mourning the loss of a family member were targeted. The attackers looted property and shot one person who later died on August 29th, 2023.
- On August 29th, 2023, a confrontation occurred in Bulengo IDPs Camps between police officers and a young man on a motorcycle who failed to stop at a checkpoint. The police officers pursued and tortured the young man, leading to his death. This incident incited anger among some residents of Goma.
The massacre began on August 30th, 2023, around 3:45 AM when the Special Presidential Forces initiated their operation, resulting in the death of one police officer due to resistance from the residents.
As of now, more than 100 people are believed to have been killed, and many families have not yet located their missing loved ones.
Divisions Between the United Nations and the People
The United Nations has been present in the DRC since 1999 with a mission to bring peace, yet peace remains elusive. Many people simply want the UN Forces to leave, viewing some UN Agencies as closely collaborating with countries like Rwanda and Uganda, which are involved in conflicts in the DRC. These agencies include the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The East African Force has also failed to restore peace in the country, leading to demands for its departure.
Would the Departure of MONUSCO, EAC Forces, and UN Agencies Bring Peace?
While not guaranteed, in areas where there is less UN Agency presence and MONUSCO has withdrawn, relative calm and peace prevail. For many Congolese, peace simply means the absence of gunfire. The continued presence of UN Forces and the inability to clearly define their purpose remain sources of confusion and frustration. The Eastern African Force is perceived as cooperating with the M23 terrorist group.
Why Target the UN, EAC Forces, and UN Agencies Rather Than the DRC Government?
Many people believe that the real power and influence responsible for the government’s inaction against the M23 rebels stem from the United Nations’ influence, which calls for negotiations. To many Congolese, the true adversaries to deal with are the UN, EAC Forces, and these UN Agencies. After reducing the substantial support from the UN, the people might redirect their discontent towards the government.
It’s worth noting that both the United Nations and the Eastern African Community Forces have expressed opposition to any notion of engaging in warfare against the M23 rebel group. However, they have thus far struggled to effectively communicate with the Congolese population regarding the terms of potential negotiations. Many Congolese are inclined towards advocating for military action against the M23 as a means to conclusively resolve the issue.
Taking Part in a Series of Initiatives
This evening, alongside fellow mourners at Unity Stadium in Goma, I participated in a public mourning event. Commencing on Saturday, September 2nd, our objective was to pay respects to all those who lost their lives in the recent massacre. This marks the initial step in a series of actions, as we await decisive measures from the Kinshasa Government to address the individuals responsible for these heinous crimes.
Our expectations are as follows:
- The apprehension and prosecution of the current Governor of North Kivu, the Mayor of Goma, and the Commandant of the Presidential Special Forces.
- Expedited withdrawal of MONUSCO, with a decision not to renew the mandate of the EAC Forces, and the cessation of UN Agencies’ operations in North Kivu.
- Dignified burials and compensation for the families of the victims of the massacre, as well as other affected individuals.
- The establishment of a designated memorial site for those who lost their lives, transforming it into a place of pilgrimage.
Progress Made So Far
The President has directed a delegation to travel to Goma in order to investigate the events and circumstances surrounding the tragedy. Additionally, he has instructed the judicial system to swiftly engage in the matter.
The trial proceedings involving all individuals who were apprehended and which had commenced on Saturday, September 1st, 2023, have been temporarily suspended.
The Central Government has provided specific details and an updated count of the individuals who tragically lost their lives. These figures differ from those initially reported by the Governor.
Kulihoshi Musikami Pecos,
Human Rights Defender Goma, North Kivu, DRC