Nobody understands the new bloody militia war in Congo’s Ituri province. The army is also attacking the Codeco militia.
It is a war that has no name. For more than a year now, the province of Ituri in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been a war zone several times in the past 20 years, has once again been hit by violence.
The army is fighting the Codeco militia (Congo development cooperative), which mostly consists of young people from the Lendu ethnic group. NGOs in Ituri have spoken of over 1,500 deaths and 200,000 displaced since the war flared up in June 2019.
It started in June 2019 in the Djugu district, northeast of the provincial capital, Bunia, where Lendu militia officers occupied the villages of Djaro and Londjango. From there they attacked other parts of the province. The violence is exceptionally brutal even by Ituri’s circumstances. The militias attack towns, massacre peaceful civilians and spare the army, whose positions they bypass to strike at surprising times. They set fire to the houses and steal the cattle.
“Djugu is the most densely populated district in the province and we don’t understand how the army could allow these people to organize,” said Jules Tsuba, president of Djugu Civil Society. “They attack everyone. It is no longer a tribal war like it used to be.”
“The rebels are very mobile and move in small groups,” said army spokesman Jules Ngongo. “The army is doing what it can to encircle it and we will neutralize it. We need the support of the population. It has to reveal where they are because they are boys from here and not strangers.”
The very fact that the Codeco fighters come from the local population means that the army is regularly accused of attacking civilians as well. Most recently, an admiral in the port city of Kasenyi was accused of ordering attacks against the civilian population.
The Codeco itself is not a new grouping, as its name suggests. “It was created around 1981,” explains Lipri Bazonga, a teacher in the city of Mahagi. “Back then, we were talking about a cooperative for the development of Zaire. It was not a rebellion, but a farmers’ savings community. Then, when the war broke out in Ituri in 1999, her then boss, Bwana Dawa, turned her into a militia to fight Hema. And now they have reappeared.”
Justin Ngudjolo originally presented himself as head of Codeco. On March 25, the army announced that it had killed him, but the violence continued. In May, Songa Mbele introduced himself as Ngudjolo’s deputy and called on his comrades to stop the fight. After a few days in Bunia, he disappeared and nothing was heard from him.
The Codeco militia officers are also active in Ituri’s gold mines. “They are everywhere, you can see them in Mongbwalu and elsewhere,” says Mumbere Kalikene, who runs an aid organization for displaced people in Bunia. “I believe that local business people do business with them.” The increase in violence is accompanied by a political crisis. In November 2019, Ituri’s provincial parliament deposed provincial governor Jean Bamanisa; he was not rehabilitated by the judiciary until February. The reason for the withdrawal was the opaque sale of twelve confiscated gold bars by the provincial government.
The power struggle between the governor and MPs continues today. “This prevents the province from stabilizing and troublemakers benefit from it,” says Jacques Miruwo, a dignitary from Bunia.