By: David Rilley-Harris – Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History


The Force Intervention Brigade Insignia (Wikipedia).


The Great African War (1998-2003) brought about the formation of a UN (United Nations) peacekeeping operation in 1999. It would become the largest ever UN peacekeeping operation and one of the longest running operations. It is still in operation in 2023 and will be needed for years to come. The operation became known by the French acronym Monusco (United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)). It was in the DRC that the Great African War was centred. Over the years, around one third of the countries on earth have contributed to Monusco in some way and there are currently around sixty countries contributing personnel. South Africa is well within the top ten contributors of troops and is a substantial part of the mission’s most notable brigade – the Force Intervention Brigade.


The United Nations peacekeepers typically position themselves to protect civilians and they do not pursue forces which have attacked their positions. This has generally allowed aggressors to raid and attack civilian areas and simply withdraw to regroup when the United Nations defence is too stiff. After years of repeated attacks, it became clear that the United Nations required a military unit with an offensive mandate to pursue those who had attacked them and interrupt their ability to regroup and attack again. This Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) would be the first UN peacekeeping element ever permitted to go on offensives which target specific rebel groups. Historical offensive combat supported by the UN was either never a part of a peacekeeper mandate or did not name political entities as targets. The existence of the FIB was authorised in March 2013 by a unanimous UN Security Council vote with none of the Security Council permanent or non-permanent members abstaining. The idea had first been formally mentioned at the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region which was working to address the failure of Monusco to bring peace to the DRC. It was South Africa and Uganda who made the proposal for the development of a single small military unit which could escalate peacekeeping into peace enforcement. With some legal issues in permitting such a unit to exist, its presence must be annually reauthorised.


The FIB initially consisted of three infantry battalions supported by companies of artillery, reconnaissance, and special forces. Most of the infantry were made up of South African, Tanzanian, and Malawian soldiers and, in the first major FIB offensive, the 6th South African Infantry Battalion was supported by three South African Rooivalk attack helicopters from 16 Squadron based at Airforce Base (AFB) Bloemspruit. In October 2013, the Rwandan-backed M23 rebel group attacked the DRC city of Goma, and not for the first time. On this occasion, the FIB was ready to counter. After primarily South African and Tanzanian soldiers cleared the area around Goma, a series of engagements led to the routing of the M23 rebels. This included the use of Rooivalk attack helicopters to reach and destroy M23 mountain bunkers. The rebels were pushed back to hideouts on the Rwandan border and M23 attacks ceased. It was almost ten years before M23 began to resurface in any notable way. The FIB has since been used in a handful of other smaller engagements, but they have come under some criticism.


Rooivalk helicopters of the FIB (DefenceWeb).


The criticism has included complaints at their occasional failure to engage enemies, as well as their targeting of specific groups which calls UN neutrality into question. In further contradiction, the FIB has been accused of failing to end conflict in the DRC while also being criticised for occurrences of collateral damage which have included the loss of civilian lives. At times, administrative inefficiency has led to the FIB failing to save civilians who came under sudden attack. After attacking the M23 rebels, the FIB was intended for doing the same against the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) who are remnant Rwandan Hutus who fled into the DRC after working with the 1994 genocide against the Rwandan Tutsis. The FIB failed to commit to an attack on the FDLR partly due to suspicions that the FIB and supporting DRC military had hidden motives to use the offensive mandate to attack Rwandan interests. The FIB instead began committing to attacks on the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces), and the APCLS (Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo). Despite finding targets, the FIB has found that areas it clears are not held onto by the other Monusco forces and the DRC’s own military have themselves been accused of attacking civilians. Despite their early success against M23, the FIB is being increasingly described as ineffective and there are threats to have it disband. To take on the ADF which is using aggressive guerilla tactics, the FIB is being reorganised with quick reaction elements to more effectively respond to civilians who are under attack. The SADC (Southern African Defence Community)-heavy FIB is also being widened with forces from Kenya and Nepal. As the United States leads efforts to reduce the cost of the Monusco mission by reducing its forces, the FIB is trying to stay excluded from these reductions and is searching for ways to be more effective. Ultimately, the UN is unable to field a continuously effective peace enforcement brigade when the overall function of Monusco is restrained into peacekeeping.


South African FIB personnel have suffered several wounded and one killed by rebel forces. In February 2023, Flight Engineer Sgt Vusi Mabena died when his Oryx helicopter was hit by possible sniper fire while flying over the DRC. Several Tanzanian and Malawian soldiers have also been killed by rebel forces. While the UN is looking for an exit strategy in the DRC, the population remains under severe threat and the FIB remains the Monusco element with the potential to create a more militarily stable environment where political solutions to the DRC’s troubles can be effectively considered.


A South African Oryx helicopter in the DRC (DefenceWeb).


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