By: David Rilley-Harris, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH)


MONUSCO (Picture: The MONUSCO Facebook page).


Peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been permanently illusive. There was no stability in the territory, formerly a colony of Belgium and which later became the DRC. The residents of the region suffered horrific inhumanity. Failed peacekeeping efforts in the DRC eventually led to the formation of The United Nations Organisation Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) – an acronym from the French Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo. MONUSCO has been a massive United Nations effort spanning almost one quarter of a century. With its failure and current deconstruction, South Africa is reconstituting its presence in the DRC to facilitate peacekeeping in the region with far fewer resources than MONUSCO could bring to bear.


Formed in 1999, MONUSCO was known by its briefer acronym MONUC until 2010. More than a quarter of all the nations on earth have contributed to MONUSCO over the years with South Africa being one of the most aggressive participants. As of 2023, South Africa was listed as MONUSCO’s fifth largest military contributor after Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. MONUSCO’s duty was to take advantage of the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement between the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Remaining proxy rebel forces inside the DRC were to be disarmed and returned to their respective countries or amalgamated into a new DRC military, but as MONUSCO began its work, rebel groups who remained were already manoeuvring to take advantage of their presence in the DRC, especially among the rich resources of the Kivu provinces in the east of the country. With occasional military confrontations still occurring, MONUSCO deployed its fighting forces which initially numbered as few as a couple of thousand. Among them were South Africans, Uruguayans, Moroccans, Senegalese, and Tunisians. This included a South African air medical evacuation team. The initial force was too small to protect the civilian population from military formations and limited itself to keeping some sense of order among civilians who resorted to occasional looting. In 2002, following the signing of the Pretoria Agreement, MONUSCO force numbers were increased to almost 10 000 and they divided into a civilian section and a military section. The United Nations (UN) mandate of only defending UN and civilian positions and refraining for launching attacks remained the status quo. In any case, they had far too few personnel to defend all the civilians from rebel incursions. Conflict between rebel groups and MONUSCO forces began to increase, and reinforcements were provided by a European Union (EU) mission as well as a substantial Indian force which joined MONUSCO.




Indian MONUSCO soldiers (Picture: Wikipedia.


In 2005, MONUSCO forces were numbering around 16 000. While peacekeepers had been suffering intermittent casualties, the situation in the resource-rich east was more intense where, in February 2005, nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers were killed in an ambush in Ituri, north of Kivu. MONUSCO responded with a “search operation” to carry out arrest warrants for war crimes committed by rebel leadership. South African, Pakistani, and Nepalese infantry were supported by Indian attack helicopters and over fifty rebels were killed. Soon after, the DRC military had been reconstituted as an integrated force called the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) and 15 000 rebels were successfully disarmed.


In 2008, despite years of increasing its force size, MONUSCO was finding itself overwhelmed. Civilians were seeking safe harbour in the major Kivu town of Goma and rebel forces were advancing steadily. Panicked civilians rioted outside the MONUSCO offices demanding that the rebel advance be halted. France called for emergency reinforcements from Europe which did not materialise, and the Indian military sent special forces to reinforce their peacekeepers who were under pressure in the crossfire between rebel forces and FARDC. Rebels were stopped short of Goma, but increasing numbers of civilians were being killed in the region, and children were being forced into the rebel ranks. India was coming under increasing pressure to withdraw forces in the escalating conflict and MONUSCO was facing a DRC civil war in place of the regional conflict they had been deployed to handle. When the rebels again attacked Goma in 2012, FARDC was the force mandated to stop them. The regional conflict had been technically resolved and MONUSCO was planning its withdrawal from the DRC, so when rebel forces pushed FARDC aside and entered Goma, the MONUSCO forces did not resist. The criticism received by the UN for the MONUSCO mission’s inability to protect civilians led to the UN forming the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). The FIB was a limited abandonment of traditional UN mandates for the sake of expediency. The official MONUSCO website explains that the FIB was set up “on an exceptional basis and without creating a precedent or any prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping”. South Africa formed the largest single part of the FIB which launched a major attack against the rebel group which had since withdrawn from Goma. The attack was supported by South African Rooivalk attack helicopters and pushed that rebel group out of the DRC and largely into Rwanda which had been suspected of supporting them. MONUSCO increased its force size to prioritize the protection of civilians and intermittent clashes continued to occur between MONUSCO and various rebel forces. In 2017, a large rebel attack killed 15 MONUSCO soldiers and wounded 53. Five FARDC soldiers were also killed. By 2022, civilians in Kivu were still taking casualties and were being increasingly drawn into the ranks of rebel groups. The rebel group which had taken Goma in 2012 returned to Kivu with increased numbers and better organisation. Civilian protests began calling for MONUSCO to withdraw.


A Ukranian Mi-24 on a reconnaissance flight over Kivu. The Ukranian forces withdrew from MONUSCO due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

(Picture: Wikipedia.


In December 2023, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to shut MONUSCO down. MONUSCO’s withdrawal has already begun and is expected to be complete by the end of 2024. Other peacekeeping organisations are also withdrawing but the UN has promised that it is not simply abandoning the DRC entirely. The withdrawal appears to be a military disengagement. Currently, over seven million DRC citizens are displaced and at least one rebel group has begun collecting taxes from some civilians in Kivu. The rebel groups are still making use of child soldiers.


On 5 February 2023, South Africa’s Sgt Vusimusi Mabena, a flight engineer with 15 Squadron, was killed when his Oryx helicopter was hit by rebel ground fire. Almost one year later, on 2 February 2024, another South African Oryx was hit at least 43 times by rebel ground fire, but the pilot managed to land safely saving everyone on board. DRC rebel groups now attack UN peacekeepers with no apparent fear of retribution, either military or legal. Rebel groups are once again advancing on Goma and presently have it effectively surrounded according to some sources. FARDC has had some success in countering the advance and South Africa has deployed soldiers to the region to assist. Their new formation is under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which is called the SADC Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC). Its initial deployment was in December 2023. The SAMIDRC mandate is to again push out the rebel force which took Goma in 2012 but things have changed over the past decade. That rebel force is stronger than it was before, and the South African forces no longer appear to have the air cover that their Rooivalk attack helicopters provided in the FIB attack. Rwanda’s apparent support for that rebel group appears to be holding strong and international pressure on Rwanda to stop supporting those rebels has waned. The fighting in Kivu could conceivably develop into a proxy war between South Africa and Rwanda if that’s not what it already is. Rwanda has provided substantial military intervention against ISIS in Mozambique where South African forces may be withdrawing influence to provide resources for SAMIDRC.



South Africans in the DRC

(Picture: DefenceWeb.


On 14 February 2024, two SAMIDRC South African soldiers were killed and three were injured in a mortar attack. On 29 February, two MONUSCO South African soldiers died in an apparent murder suicide. The SANDF is stretched between protecting Eskom power plants, deployments to combat zama zamas, deployment to Mozambique, remaining commitment to MONUSCO, and new commitment to SAMIDRC. With South African air support largely depleted there are growing concerns of a pending disaster for SANDF forces in the face of an advancing rebel force.

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