A Selex EX Falco unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) crashed today. The aircraft crashed at the airport in Goma in Eastern DRC, where the aircraft are based. There does not appear to be any reporting yet on what might have caused the crash. Initial reporting by the wire services, variously citing DRC or UN officials, seems suggest there is some uncertainty about whether the aircraft was leaving for or returning from a mission.
Map of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The city of Goma in the highlighted zone has historically been a major point of contention in the region.
MONUSCO only received the drones at the end of 2013 and they were expected to help monitor the activities of the numerous armed groups active in DRC. If there have been no additions to the proposed force, then this reduced the MONUSCO fleet to four unmanned aircraft. Later reports indicated that the drone’s surveillance equipment was undamaged and repairs would allow the aircraft to return to operations.
Concerns about the basic safety of drones have been a matter for debate domestically in both the US and Europe, and were also said to have been the primary motivator for moving US drone operations in Djibouti from Camp Lemonnier to a remote desert airstrip, Chabelley Airfield, last September. The issue of basic safety in these operations will no doubt become a matter of debate in this instance as well.
A team of technicians prepare a Falco unmanned aerial vehicle for the inaugural flight in Goma, North Kivu province, during an official ceremony organized in the presence of Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Herve Ladsous, on 3 December 2013.
The crash also comes as the UN reports that elements of M23 may be active again and possibly recruiting new fighters. Representatives for M23 have denied this, but that very fact highlights what has been said here and by other observers about the ongoing uncertain. M23’s final status remains up for debate, and accusations about support from Rwanda and Uganda remain unresolved. This potential connection should not be dismissed out of hand, especially in light of accusations that Rwandan authorities orchestrated the murder of a Rwandan dissident in South Africa earlier this month. Even if M23 is gone for good, there remains a significant number of rebel groups that threaten security in eastern DRC, such as the FDLR, which MONUSCO said it would focus on following the military defeat of M23 last year.
News items today seems to highlight a certain importance of military aviation in current operations across the continent. Boko Haram militants attacked an airbase in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in Nigeria’s north today, along with other targets. The attack on the airbase was described as large-scale and coordinated, and let to the damage or destruction of two helicopters and three military fixed-wing aircraft. Nigeria’s Ministry of Defence spokesman Brigadier General Chris Olukolade said that the fixed-wing aircraft were decommissioned, and that the two helicopters were “incapacitated.” It is unclear what this might mean in terms of the severity of the damage or whether the aircraft were total losses.
Map released by AFRICOM in its 2013 posture statement showing the approximate areas and density of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria in 2012. Maiduguri can be seen marked in the northeast corner of the country, partially obscured by a graphic indicating “31+ attacks,” the high attack density marked on the map.
Borno state has been one of the primary hot-spots in Nigeria’s campaign against Boko Haram militants. In may a state of emergency was declared in Borno, and twenty-four hour curfew has been put in place following today’s attacks. The attack on the airbase is in many ways unsurprising. In May, the following the increase in violence in places like Borno, the Nigerian military began launching airstrikes against Boko Haram camps. This was said by observers at the time to represent a significant escalation in the government response. As recently as the end of last month, Nigeria had again launched air strikes against Boko Haram. Striking back at this capability would no doubt have been a key priority for the militant group. Boko Haram, along with a splinter group called Ansaru, were designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the United States in November.
Also, it was reported today that a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, would be heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo this week to begin operations. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) will receive five drones of an unspecified type. United Nations peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has described the additions as an “essential tool” for the mission. The utility of drones in peacekeeping operations has been a matter for debate, especially as other elements of the UN seek to develop an international position that may place limits on elements of what has been described as “robotic warfare.” It is felt, however, that in DRC, the drones would provide peacekeepers with additional tools to monitor movements by the country’s various rebel groups and more rapidly respond to protect civilian populations under threat. The drones have been describe as “protection technology” by the United Nations.
Map of the Democratic Republic of Congo showing the approximate zone of conflict. The city of Goma has historically been a major point of contention and one can see the tri-border region with Uganda and Rwanda.
The issue of protecting civilians especially important with regards to DRC, as UN forces had been criticized for their lack of intervention on behalf of civilians threatened by fighting related to the M23 group at the end of last year and earlier this year. The UN responded by stepping up patrols and ultimately activated an “intervention brigade” to carry out mobile operations. This force was said to be in no small way responsible for the decision by the M23 leadership to surrender or flee the country at the beginning of November. The deal that was to end the fighting between the government and M23 remains delayed indefinitely, though DRC President Joseph Kabila has flown to Uganda today in hopes of reviving the negotiations. The status and fate of M23 militants and their leadership remains the most significant impediment to a final agreement. In addition, a large number of other anti-government militant groups remain active in DRC, most notably the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FLDR) and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). A plethora of other smaller, localized groups also exist, broadly categorized as “Mai Mai.”
The leader of the M23 rebel group, operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s historically restive eastern region, issued a statement today calling for a cease-fire with the central government. Bertrand Bisimwa’s call comes as government forces continue to make gains against M23 strongholds and as African leaders prepare to meet in South Africa to discuss a way forward in the Great Lakes Region.
UN-backed talks between the DRC government and M23 rebels, being held in Uganda, were said to have stalled in October. The major point of disagreement was reported to be the desire by M23 negotiators to secure an amnesty for their members. The DRC government is likely wary of issuing such an amnesty given M23’s history, having spawned from demobilized rebels who were integrated into the DRC security forces in 2009 as part of a previous peace agreement.
United Nations peacekeeping forces have also been active in attempting to protect civilians from the conflict. Concerned by the persistence of the conflict in the country’s east earlier this year, the United Nations approved the activation of a reaction brigade in DRC in response to the expanding crisis in the country’s east. The activities of this brigade, authorized to take more offensive action, have also been seen as a reason for government government victories against the M23 group.
DRC’s eastern region, notably the Kivu region, has seen persistent conflict for years now due to various issues, including its ethnography. M23’s members are primary ethnic Tutsi, and have been reported to received assistance from Rwanda and Uganda, though both countries have denied this. M23 is also only the latest in a series of rebel groups, which the DRC government has continually attempted to strike deals with and otherwise integrate into its security forces.
This perpetual conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes Region prompted a meeting between the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), which led to an agreement in February to continue to coordinate and seek lasting peace in the region. Another summit organized by the SADC and ICGLR is scheduled to begin tomorrow.