At 6am on Wednesday, Eduard Sikabuya jumped out of bed in Butembo, a town in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, with a clear idea in his mind: to set fire to one of the three United Nations mission facilities based in his town.
“We will continue to destroy their camps to the point that no place to sleep is left and they leave our country,” the 23-year-old electrical engineering student told Al Jazeera. “We are witnessing never-ending massacres.
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“I want MONUSCO [United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo] to go because it does no good to us,” added Sikabuya, whose two cousins were killed in 2020 by armed groups.
On the day he joined hundreds of others in protests at the MONUSCO facility in Butembo, three UN personnel died, the organisation said in a statement, adding that demonstrators “violently snatched weapons” from the Congolese police and fired at peacekeeping forces.
They had also been throwing stones and petrol bombs, breaking into bases, and looting and vandalising facilities, the UN statement said. The town’s police chief, Paul Ngoma, said that seven civilians were also killed when the peacekeepers retaliated.
Protesters and the UN have also been trading accusations over who is responsible for the killings even as the UN Security Council warned that targeting peacekeepers may constitute a war crime.
Violent protests swept across towns in DRC’s eastern North Kivu province this week with crowds attacking the country’s UN mission which is accused of failing to stop decades-long violence by armed groups.
Demonstrations first started on Monday in Goma, the province’s capital, and then spread to the towns of Beni, Butempo and Uvira, along with others in North and South Kivu. At least 19 people have died in total, while more than 50 people have been injured, local authorities said.
MONUSCO was established in 2010 with the mandate to protect civilians, but UN forces have been present on the ground – in different iterations – since 1999. To date, it is the world’s second largest UN mission with approximately 16,000 military personnel and police officers.
Citizens have been questioning why, despite a budget of more than $1.1bn and a mandate to protect the population, more than 120 armed groups (PDF) still roam the region causing death, displacement and a dire humanitarian crisis. Most of the groups are seeking to control territory in the oil-rich eastern region
Last November, the M23 – an armed rebel group that had lain dormant for years – launched its most sustained offensive since 2013.
The escalation in fighting has forced at least 170,000 people to flee their homes, especially from the Rutshuru and Nyiragongo areas north of Goma. This adds to the five million people internally displaced in what the Norwegian Refugee Council has described as the world’s most neglected refugee crisis for the last two years.
A recent spike in attacks has further exacerbated anger among locals.
“This [the protests] is simply an act to show that the population is extremely angry at the non-existent results of MONUSCO,” said Jimmy Nzialy Lumangabo, chair of the civil society group National du Mouvement Civique Génération Positive-RDC who attended the demonstrations in Goma. “The mission does not respond to the real need of the people,” he added.
Such feelings are shared by other Congolese civil society groups. One group, LUCHA, told a recent Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO) gathering that the mission has failed to protect civilians, considering the resources at its disposal. CENCO’s bishops agreed that MONUSCO has “shown its limits”.
A nationwide survey conducted by the Congo Research Group and two other civil society groups showed that in 2016, more than 60 percent of people believed the mission was doing a good job in protecting civilians. Today that has dropped to 23.6 percent.
Frustrations have also soared over a steep rise in prices, especially after M23 took control of the Bunagana border crossing, a key hub of cross-border trade, in June.
“It’s inexplicable to see this in their [MONUSCO] presence,” Lumangabo said.
“May this MONUSCO leave quickly so that we no longer continue to lose because of it,” said Joseph Tumaini, a 29-year-old owner of a clothing shop in Goma. “They are accomplices of our misfortunes,” he added.
Kassim Diagne, MONUSCO’s chief, defended the mission, saying it reduced the presence of armed groups in several provinces, such as Kasai and Tanganyika, people now enjoy relative stability after violence raged for years.
The UN has similar plans for the three remaining provinces, he said.
“Maybe we have not communicated enough that we have a transition plan,” Diagne said, adding that the UN and the DRC government agreed last September on 18 benchmarks for a smooth withdrawal. No date has been set for the withdrawal yet.
He acknowledged the frustration among civilians over the increasing violence but said it was not fair to put the blame entirely on MONUSCO.
Meanwhile, experts say local politicians are fanning the flames of resentment, using the UN mission as a scapegoat to hide the government’s failure in coping with these issues.
“There has been a campaign of blame in the press, speeches by a bunch of politicians targeting the UN on their inaptitude as a way to make them popular and distracting from the Congolese government’s responsibilities,” Jason Stearns, assistant professor at Simon Fraser University and director at the Congo Research Group told Al Jazeera. “It’s convenient and scapegoating.”
Regardless of the narrative, Stearns said, the fighting has scaled down in some areas, “but the conflict has increased in general and they [MONUSCO] have not been able to cope with that”.
He added that was also due to the UN being confined to a technical role, rather than a political one, and having refrained too much from criticising the Congolese government.
“They should create a political process and be political actors,” he said, adding that this would help the mission regain moral authority.
Felix Ndahinda, a researcher on conflict in the Great Lakes Region, said the UN has not been able to implement lasting peace solutions and failed to involve the local community.
“It pursued an approach feeling to be above the frame, intervening in nasty places while remaining clean – but you can’t build a house without getting your hands dirty,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ndahinda said any potential departure of the UN troops would not be an automatic cure for the insecurity there because the protests are “symptoms of root causes which will continue to flare every time there is a spark”.
“Much of the failure of MONUSCO does mirror the many bigger failures of the government’s politics at a local and regional level,” he added.