The new force commander of the United Nations’ uniformed mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, has been announced. RICHARD STUPART talks to the new commander of the UN’s largest peacekeeping force, LT GEN. DERRICK MGWEBI, about his hopes for the mission.

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Richard Stupart: It was announced about a week ago that you would take over as the new commander of MONUSCO. Can you  talk about how the handover process for that will work?

Gen. Derrick Mgwebi: The correspondence coming from New York is that they are looking at me reporting to New York somewhere between the 18th and 19th [of January]. After that I’ll be moving to the mission area in the DRC. My  understanding by now is that the general who was commanding the forces of the UN then has already left for his home country. I suppose therefore that the deputy who was there, and also the Major General from France will bring me on board [as to] what has happened in the mission area.

RS: have you been in contact with any other components of the mission. For example elements of the civilian mission, or any of the other people there at the moment, or is this all going to happen round about the 18th?.

General Derrick Mgwebi. Photo taken during Gen Mgwebi's visit to Task Force Alpha, FIB at their base in Kiwanja, DRC on the 30 Oct 2013, three days after they fought there. By BoonDock [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

General Derrick Mgwebi. Photo taken during Gen Mgwebi’s visit to Task Force Alpha, FIB at their base in Kiwanja, DRC on the 30 Oct 2013, three days after they fought there. By BoonDock [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

DM: No, not before the 18th.  I’ll first be doing my own handover back home in terms of what I am doing to whoever will be taking over from me. I won’t report to the mission area until headquarters in New York has briefed me.

RS: Shortly before you were nominated for this position, you had just come back from heading up an observer mission in Burundi. Can you tell us a little bit about what that  experience was like, and what do you think are important lessons that may be beneficial for your time in  the DRC?

DM: First of all  the exposure and being part of the international community and working with multinational forces there was quite a challenge. And of course the mandate itself and the attitude of the host country to the UN becomes very critical in terms of making the mission a success. In light of that, one would have to work very closely with the authorities in the DRC. The ground forces for the UN must also understand this, and the reason why we are there. Working with the civilian community of the UN and of the local area becomes very critical. So those are the things which I will be taking across.

RS: What are your views on the best ways to take forward MONUSCO’s relationship with the DRC government and with many local communities? From time to time, MONUSCO has had fraught relationships with both communities. What are your thoughts on how best to manage them?

DM: I think that coordination and cooperation is the first thing. First of all we need to understand each other. From a military perspective, [the] military should at least be able to say ‘if [the FARDC] must take over whatever the UN forces are doing on the ground, to what  extent are they ready?’ Now that speaks to their being operationally ready, and in my view their challenge on the logistics side [is] in terms of putting up a logical system in place and also dealing with the families of their soldiers. And together we must agree about some kind of benchmark about how we determine their readiness, and how do we measure that level of readiness. Looking at the situation on the ground in relation to the level of insecurity.

RS: Do you see, in terms of insecurity in the region, MONUSCO continuing with the more aggressive type of peacekeeping headed by the FIB, or do you see a vision for MONUSCO more as stepping back and allowing the DRC to lead operations?

DM: The challenge, if one thinks of some of the armed groupings there, some of which are foreign, taking what happened three or four weeks ago, where they had the audacity to attack the UN forces in their own bases, and the civilians in the nearby town, killing people using machetes. That mandate at least – of being offensive – is still required in my view, until such time as we suppress these attitudes that they can attack government and UN forces, kill civilians and raid hospitals and towns, I think something has to be done there using that offensive mandate.

RS: Are there in your view particular armed groups that stand out above others as significant security threats at the moment?

DM: The insecurity as far as the locals are concerned is high, and then working with the UN and the government armed forces, we need to assess – and I’m talking from a distance now – we need to assess and then be able to say what are the levels of insecurity and what causes them, and in which areas are they covered or not.

RS: Do you feel in terms of the equipment and capabilities MONUSCO has, that there are certain areas in which they could be improved upon, or in terms of logistics, weapons systems and so on, they could be improved upon. With the M23 rebellion there was talk about how well the Rooivalk helicopters had performed , and it was felt in some quarters that this [capacity] had been missing for a while. Are there particular capabilities that you would like to see the mission gain, or ways of operating?

DM: I’m not well-versed with what the other contingents have at their disposal, but taking into account the helicopters which are there, including the medium transport and combat attack helicopters, I would say that’s enough. In terms of the ground forces, who are mostly equipped with 12.7mm systems, well I think the challenge is that the enemy forces can turn anti-aircraft guns into ground weapons. So they aren’t governed by international laws of conflict, so there’s a question of tactics and application of force. So I don’t think that there is any additional need to be added, except to consider the early warning systems which we have on the ground, so that with that information we are able to do what needs to be done.

RS: One of the events that may be taking place under your command would be the national elections in the DRC. This was an area in which you were involved in airlifting materials in the last elections. Do you see that as a being as might be occurring under your watch? And do you think MONUSCO would play a role during an election period?

DM: The 2011 elections – by chance my country happened to have placed me there to assist. As it happened the voting material was being produced in South Africa. Tons of voting material had to be transported from South Africa to the DRC, and they requested our government to assist. With that experience, one has got at least an idea in terms of the extent of the size of the area, and the access of the infrastructure, especially the road infrastructure. And therefore, the the need of the air assets to perform the distribution. So I was involved in that in 2011, and it was almost four weeks before the elections. Now being there on the ground, of course as I indicated before cooperation and collaboration with government becomes critical. If government is committed in terms of conducting elections this year, then it begins to speak in terms of early planning for that. I suppose from their side as government they’ve done their own planning, but then they need to bring on board whatever assistance and support they might be requiring from the UN, and then we’ll take it from there. 

RS: What was your experience from that period in working with the government, what were the most important factors  in having a smooth relationship between your end and the DRC government’s end?

DM: Well I got to know the government officials in terms of military and independent electoral commission, and the administrators in charge of various logistical bases where the [election material] was being stored and distributed from . During that period, I would venture to say there is a fair amount of understanding by the administration in what needs to be done. Well, I was carrying the flag of South Africa and it was a bilateral relation so that was smooth.Luckily, the assets we used were not just South African, but to distribute the ballot boxes and papers internally, we used the UN’s assets, so UN officials personnel were also participating in the planning. So I would venture to say that was a good experience. I just trust that we will be repeating that experience. 

RS: Do you feel at all that your background as a South African commander will place you in a better or different position in diplomacy and in terms of dealing with the DRC government than if you were not from the continent.

DM: Most of the commanders there are my colleagues. The DRC is part of SADC, so in terms of the multinational exercises and bilateral arrangements we have work[ed] together so we know each other. In light of that I am going to be meeting the people I know already by name, and we[‘ve] worked on a number of projects together.

RS: Have you heard anything from the DRC’s side since your announcement? 

DM: Not directly with me, but hearing from some of our people on the ground who are talking to them, like our defence attaché, it seems positive.

RS: In the days from when you take command what will be your foremost short-term priorities? What do you think will be the most important tasks on your agenda when you arrive in the DRC.

DM: The most important thing is to just understand the different armed groupings which are there, and whatever programmes they might have and their method of operation. And of course the areas where they are and the difficulties and the challenges we are finding as the UN to engage them. The second part is the level of readiness and understanding of the DRC armed forces and their approach to the whole issue of working with MONUSCO. One of the planning issues is an armed grouping coming from Rwanda which has been there since 1994 and Rwanda feels very strongly about it. I need to understand what is the approach towards this group from the DRC government. From the perspective of the UN and the international perspective, these are one of the armed groups which we need to deal with.

RS: In terms of the forces you’ll be in command of, how do you see the FIB complementing or fitting into MONUSCO’s broader forces. How do you see them working together optimally?

DM: My understanding is that they are under one manager. What is going to be critical is to understand from the contingent commanders their own understanding and interpretation of the mandate, as well as their level of readiness to engage. I see the framework brigade (??) more in the role of the protection of the civilians, protection of UN assets civilians, and making sure that those civilians, especially internally displaced people are protected. The intervention brigade mainly is dealing with armed groupings. The fallout from that may extend to civilians being injured and threatened, so the question is how do we use the framework brigade to make sure that they are secure and there is a little bit of safety as far as that is concerned. So it’s just to fine tune that understanding.

RS: Finally, is there a message you would like to send to people who are watching the DRC or living there, perhaps looking ahead? Is there something that you’d like to let them know, what will characterise your time?

DM: Well, the problems of Africa, for me as a military man, are not military. They are political. The DRC should at least share the issue of democracy and good governance, and rule of law. Because it is only those aspects that will reduce the level of tension and reduce the level of competition that is there. If we can [solve that], we can reduce the level of division and support the politicians so that they can (inaudible) going forward. So those who are watching the DRC should be supportive and help advocate those aspects of good governance. 

RS: Thank you very much General, is there anything else you’d like to add?

DM: To the international community, especially Europe through the European Union. Thanks for your support. Not just in terms of the DRC, but in terms of the African peace and stability programme. Because without them we would not be where we are. The challenge is a big one. We appreciate their support, and we will go together as one family.