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CODECO: The DRC’s Lesser-Known Insurgent Force Continues to Fight On
Rarely does a weekend pass without word of a militant attack taking place in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). However, since there are many players in the region, the question of what group is responsible for any given incident emerges and can be tricky to answer at times.
It is known that an attack was reported around February 15th in Ituri province. The incident resulted in the deaths of 18 people. Routinely, the guessing game began in hopes of attributing the attack to one of the many militant groups operating in the area. It was learned that it wasn’t the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) responsible for this attack, nor was it the March 23rd Movement (M23). Instead, it was a group whose history predates the wars that ravaged the country during the 1990s, a loose coalition of ethnic-Lendu militants that called themselves the Cooperative for the Development of Congo, or CODECO.
The acronym CODECO variously stands for the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo’s Economy as well. The history of the group is quite interesting, as they first emerged in the 1970s as an agricultural cooperative for the Lendu people in Ituri province. The group participated in a formal period of the ongoing ethnic conflict between Ituri agricultural people and their pastoral Hema rivals known as the Ituri War (1999-2003). CODECO actively targeted Hema people throughout this conflict. It is estimated that CODECO currently has approximately 2,350 fighters in their ranks.
Since 2003, the group’s activities have been overshadowed by incidents involving other militant organizations in the Kivu provinces of the DRC. Yet, the group was blamed for the resumption of violence in Ituri province in 2017, and they have grabbed headlines in several ways such as declaring a unilateral ceasefire in 2020, which was followed by reports of surrendered fighters walking out of camps set up to house them after peace talks with the government collapsed. The group has since resumed operations and is currently under investigation for committing war crimes.
So, how has CODECO managed to endure so long, especially among a dynamic landscape of non-state armed groups, many of whom are short-lived? One reason could be the failure of the intelligence apparatus of the Armed Forces (FARDC) to identify who is an insurgent and who is simply a civilian in the region. Another reason could be that neither the authorities in Kinshasa nor the head of MONUCSO (United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Congo) considers the group to be a serious threat to the stability of the eastern DRC, while the ADF instead appears to garner the bulk of their attention.
This brings into contrast the view of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who was quick to condemn an attack claimed by CODECO earlier this month. The incident in question was an attack on the Savo camp for internally-displaced persons where 58 civilians were killed and another 35 were wounded. There was little disclosure about the attack by the current Congolese government, but NGOs working with the camp were very vocal about the incident. The peacekeepers did respond by increasing their number of patrols in Djugu territory of the Ituri province and sent reinforcements from their base in Bunia as a response to the February 3rd attack. The short timeframe between attacks indicates CODECO’s current mobility is superior to that of the UN’s peacekeepers. Their ability to remain active for five decades with operations in the field for three of them is just another sign of the poor governance in the Congo during the time of the group's existence.
It is not only the local population that has suffered at the hands of CODECO but foreign nationals as well. In November 2021, the group was accused of launching an attack against a Chinese gold mining operation. At least two individuals were killed in the incident with another 10 Chinese nationals remaining unaccounted for. This incident came only a week after another attack where a Congolese police officer was killed and five other Chinese miners were taken away. By the end of November, the Chinese government would order its nationals out of the region as the number of kidnappings and violence was rising in the area. This is yet another sign of Kinshasa’s indifference towards the situation in the region. How long it takes for Chinese nationals to return to the area is a key question for observers.
It appears that a change of leadership in Kinshasa has not had any impact on the conflicts in either Ituri Province or the Kivus. Clearly, there should be a Congolese-inspired solution to resolve issues relating to the lack of governance in the region. In the meantime, CODECO’s durability and future prospects seem fairly certain as long as conditions permissible to the activities of armed non-state groups persist. As armed groups in the DRC go, CODECO can already boast a remarkable lifespan.
On March 9th reports emerged of another attack by the group in Ituri Province that targeted a church compound that was housing victims of previous militant attacks.
It appears that the group will remain an active regional force as long as threats to the Lendu community remain unresolved or the concerns of CODECO’s supporters remain unaddressed. Only then would there be a possibility of the group disarming and leaving the field of operations as others have in the past.