It’s been a good year for MONUSCO’s mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the defeat of M23 in 2013 followed by decisive actions against the ADF, APCLS and other armed groups. Senior correspondent DARREN OLIVIER spoke with Lt General Carlos dos Santos Cruz about some of MONUSCO’s successes, future challenges, and the changes that have made it a more effective force.

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This interview transcription has had minor edits for clarity. For the full, original content, please listen to the podcast

ADR: Welcome to the African Defence Review podcast. I’m Darren Olivier. We’re talking today to Lt Gen Carlos dos Santos Cruz, the current Force Commander of the MONUSCO peacekeeping forces in the DRC. General, thank you very much for your time.

Over the last year or so, MONUSCO has had some real successes against a number of rebel groups in the Eastern DRC. What do you think has been the key to what appears to have been a real turnaround in the capabilities of both the FARDC and MONUSCO?

Santos Cruz:  We have many different factors [behind] these results. The first one is the mandate last year, which gave [us] more freedom to take action. The second point was the Intervention Brigade, [which is a] part of the force with the mind that they came here to take action, to be mobile, to have a different military behaviour. One more point is the FARDC, really the main point. I had the opportunity to see the FARDC in July [before] we entered into the fight supporting them in August. And from August, after they had the success against the M23, the determination of the FARDC [was visible], it was visible how they improved [their ability to] take action, their co-ordination, planning and some equipment. The FARDC is fundamental in the results we had. We developed much more co-ordination [between MONUSCO and FARDC] and this combination is the key to the results we had. And armed groups were [now] forced to face MONUSCO and FARDC together. [There were] more psychological factors as well, like the determination to fight, the determination to really take action against armed groups, the determination to not tolerate any more this kind of criminal [element] here in the east of Congo.

ADR:  Thank you, what do you think has driven this change?

killing, raping, looting, [setting up] illegal checkpoints, getting money from the population, doing what they want. This time it’s over, in our minds. This time it’s over

Santos Cruz: What has driven the change? I think that the Security Council was very clear in their intention to really eradicate the armed groups, and then here on the ground, we need[ed] to understand the message we have in the mandate and we need[ed] to take action accordingly. We need[ed] to dedicate our energy, our experience to really protect the civilians. How to protect, that’s the question. The question is how to do that. Our option is to [take] action against the threats. What are the threats against the civilians? You have many, one of them [is] armed groups, killing, raping, looting, [setting up] illegal checkpoints, getting money from the population, doing what they want. This time it’s over, in our minds. This time it’s over. That’s our motivation, the motivation is to understand and to really do something for the people. [That] motivation is the key.

ADR: There are obviously sensitivities around which groups to go after next, how does MONUSCO decide which groups to move on next?

Santos Cruz:  You [have a] situation with many armed groups and first we need to follow the priority of the FARDC and the priority of the government. The government is the owner of the situation, the most important element in the process. And we are here to support the government. In the military [context], the government is [represented by] the FARDC. We follow the planning of the FARDC and we support them. You may have some small actions in parallel, [as] you have [to deal with] different problems at the same time. But basically, we need to follow the FARDC, who decide the pace and priority of any action.

ADR: Can you please briefly explain what Joint operations are ongoing between MONUSCO and the FARDC in the East?

Santos Cruz: At this moment we are providing some support to the action which FARDC is taking against the ADF in the area of Beni, here in North Kivu. To the East of Beni, North of Goma, about one and half hours’ helicopter flight from there, you have the ADF, and FARDC is operating against them, and we are supporting them in many different ways. And to the East here, to the East of Goma, to the [area] of Masisi, we are supporting FARDC as well against a variety of armoured groups, one of which is APCLS. To the West of here, near Inga-Masisi, we are supporting actions against APCLS.

MONUSCO forces on patrol near Ituri. RICHARD STUPART/ADR

MONUSCO forces on patrol near Ituri. RICHARD STUPART/ADR

ADR:  Moving on to the Force Intervention Brigade, can you briefly explain how it fits into the overall force structure and this plays out in practice.

Santos Cruz: The FIB was created by the UN mandate and started to come here in April 2013. I have been here since the 2nd of June. First the Tanzanian Battalion arrived, followed by South Africa, and then Malawi in October 2013. Then we had to have six months to organise the FIB. The FIB came here and they occupied Sake, where they were centralised.

Operations against M23 began in August when we didn’t have the whole FIB here, just two battalions, the artillery, and Special Forces. But in the second round against M23 we had the Malawians here. The fighting in Kibati and Rutshuru, and then in Chanzu, close to Bunagana, then finally M23 was defeated and fled to Uganda.

The structure of the FIB is much more agile, and flexible than the other troops. The other troops have some flexibility now as well, but the structure of MONUSCO [was] in place before the FIB came, and we kept the FIB separate to maintain their flexible structure. That’s the way we manage the FIB inside MONUSCO. We keep the framework brigades defensive, and give the FIB more flexibility in [this] area.

ADR:  So how much difference has this structure had, especially when fighting more counter-insurgency missions against the ADF?

Santos Cruz: The impact of the FIB to have [the ability to address] more targets and more actions, because Congo is a very large country, one of the largest in the world. And then we are here in the East, and we have problems in many different places. Ituri, Katanga, almost 2000km distance. And then the mission is deployed in different places. About nine different areas.

The impact of the FIB is that initiative, to go first and have more information and intelligence, to go to targets at the right time and the right place.

But it’s very difficult to protect the civilians while taking actions against armed groups when you are in static positions, because if something happens, even close to the position, it’s difficult to move. First because we don’t have many good roads, and the actions the armed groups commit against the population [are] very quick. We need to have much more flexible troops, which the FIB has in North Kivu, where we have many different problems and armed groups.

M23 was about 6km from the centre of Goma, and actually inside the city, and then the flexibility of the FIB was different in conception. To not be static, and to take action, and to have initiative, you need to understand that the armed groups [are] 100% criminal. They [have] freedom and the initiative to do what they want. So we need that initiative and freedom, and take it from them. The impact of the FIB is that initiative, to go first and have more information and intelligence, to go to targets at the right time and the right place. And this new dynamic has had an impact.

ADR: In terms of equipment and force capabilities, the addition of the three Rooivalk attack helicopters, of the reconnaissance UAVs and special forces appears to have added new capabilities to your operations. What have been the most useful technical capabilities that the mission has acquired, and what areas do you think will be the focus for the future?

Santos Cruz:  Well, the mission is equipped [for] the tasks that we have in the mandate. The mission is well equipped. Obviously, you always need some things – to renovate some equipment, to modernise some equipment, but basically we are in a condition to accomplish our tasks. And the FIB came with a whole new structure. They came with one new posture, they came with artillery. We didn’t have artillery before in the mission. The FIB came with artillery, it came with one company of special forces. We had three special forces already from before. But it made one special forces [group] specifically to the FIB.

The attack helicopters – we had some attack helicopters, but we received more attack helicopters from South Africa. We have the attack helicopters from Ukraine, and then more [from] South Africa, it was a big reinforcement to the mission. And then now we have more. We have both countries here with attack helicopters. And now this week we are at full capacity with our UAVs.

And then it is much better equipped [for] reconnaissance, to observe certain areas. To know much more on the targets we’ve selected. To collect more information. And then we have a combination of our regular helicopters, the information from the ground, and more [from] the UAVs. And now we have three layers of information – the UAVs, the helicopters and the people on the ground. This combination gives us much more intelligence to operate with. And then out of these the mission is much better equipped. With this equipment, it is possible to accomplish our mission.  I think the combination of the will to take action and the equipment available that we have, we have much more vision and capability.

And we have boats, we have helicopters to transport the people in. We have aeroplanes, and we have everything. We have everything to accomplish our tasks. It’s not easy. It’s not easy, because Congo’s very big. The armed groups, they do atrocities in the most remote places, not close to our troops. And then it’s very difficult. But anyway, we are equipped to do our jobs.

ADR: Thank you. Can you please briefly explain how a mission is planned and authorised? For example, last weekend’s counter attack against the APCLS seems to have been organised quite quickly. In practice, how is this made to happen?

The APCLS took the position early in the morning, and at lunchtime, the position was again in the hands of the FARDC. That’s the response we are going to give to all the armed groups.

Santos Cruz: The mission is a big structure. The largest mission of the United Nations. And then the mission has some procedures, standards, operational standards. But when we have some problems, we need to react very [quickly], we need to react immediately. We should not give the opportunity to the armed groups to consolidate any position. Because if you have a delay because of bureaucratic process, if you have a delay, you are giving opportunities to the armed groups to consolidate their position and to roll back the situation, to lose the gains that we had before. We never accepted to roll back. We never accept [for] armed groups to regain any position. We move forward all the time. And then we had one small problem when APCLS regained the position close to Lukweti, and immediately we took action. We gave the orders, our people, they have initiative. Now we stimulate our people to have initiative, to react immediately [at] all the levels. The lieutenants to the captains, to the lieutenant colonels, all the people. They need to take action and to develop and to exercise the initiative. And that was what we did. Immediately, we dispatched the helicopters to provide close air support to the FARDC, to repel the counterattack immediately. The APCLS took the position early in the morning, and at lunchtime, the position was again in the hands of the FARDC. That’s the response we are going to give to all the armed groups. Our position [is that we] need to be very clear in our messaging, in our attitudes to the armed groups. This was a very classic case, a very good example of our attitudes related to the armed groups.

ADR: Excellent. Thank you. During your time as force commander, what do think have been the key challenges to the mission? And what are your strategic priorities for the time ahead?

A military in a peacekeeping mission needs to every day raise the will, to build determination, to provide, really, something for the people.

Santos Cruz: We have had so many challenges here, that it is very difficult to list all of them. We have many armed groups. It is actually very very complicated, because we have many armed groups. Some of them with more expression, with more… more on the same page, but we have many armed groups. The second point is the dimension of the country. It is very difficult to operate from Katanga to Ituri. We need to have priorities all the time, because it is impossible to take action against all of them. Thirdly, we have many problems [with] communication, because we don’t have the roads and everything. Almost everything we need to do [is done] by air with the helicopters and planes. And we have some limitations with this means [of transport]. We have enough, but anyway, the point is that we need to establish priorities. The challenges we have had have been the number of established groups, the dimension of the country, the very poor lines of communications, the roads – we need to do everything by helicopter and by air. These are the main challenges we have had. How we try to compensate for these difficulties we have… We compensate with energy, with determination, with dynamics. Because we may improve [our] performance not only by increasing [equipment], but by increasing our actions, increasing our dynamics, our will, our [means of taking] action. We are going to compensate with hard work.

ADR: Thank you. That’s the end of our questions. Is there anything you would like to add, that you think our listeners might need to know about?

Santos Cruz: I would like just to say that this kind of mission, it’s impossible to get used to the human suffering. It is very important to every day to not accept the suffering [of] the population. The suffering that we see every day along the roads in the small [villages] and then we need to be motivated every day. To come to this kind of mission, all the soldiers, all the people here in the military, we need to every day not accept what we see and then we are going to be really motivated to the task that we have. That is what I would like to say. A military in a peacekeeping mission needs to every day raise the will, to build determination, to provide, really, something for the people. That is the spirit we need to have in this kind of mission. And maybe one important factor to achieve what we are achieving now.