The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced Tuesday that militia leader Banaloki "Cobra" Matata, who heads the Front for the Patriotic Resistance of Ituri (FRPI), plans to surrender to the authorities, along with "a significant number of his fighters."
It is not yet clear when or where Cobra will hand himself over to the army. For now, he is believed to be dug in with his men in his stronghold in the northeastern province of Ituri, where he has been stationed for most of his fighting career.
Ituri is a mountainous region, which borders neighboring Uganda, and is close to Kivu. The province is one of the richest areas of Congo, with deposits of gold, diamonds, and oil. It is also home to 15 ethnic groups, including the Lendu, Hema and Pygmy tribes, and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch often describe it as the bloodiest corner of the DRC. Armed groups operating in Ituri exploit the region's natural resources to buy weapons, which in turn fuels the ethnic conflict. The UN's MONUSCO peacekeeping mission has been based in the region since 2010, and is tasked with enforcing ceasefire agreements between warring ethnic groups.
Luc Mbala, managing editor of Congolese newspaper L'Observateur, is one of few journalists to have met Cobra Matata.
Speaking to VICE News, Mbala highlighted the similarities between Cobra, who is a member of the Hema tribe, and Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. Cobra has many supporters among the Hema people, who have been persecuted since the '60s at the hands of neighboring tribes. They also live in fear of the FARDC, Congo's national armed forces, who have been known to attack civilians.
"Cobra is a key figure in the Hema struggle. During the ethnic clashes of 2002-2003, he took it upon himself to defend the Hema," Mbala said. "When the European Union launched Operation Artemis, many of these groups were dissolved. But he kept going with the support of his tribe, who regard him as their hero."
'Several warlords have been killed as they were trying to surrender'
Despite the efforts and support of UN peacekeepers in Congo (MONUSCO), government forces had so far failed to defeat the FRPI. An officer in the Congolese army told Mbala that each time his forces attempt to ambush Cobra in the remote mountains of Ituri, the warlord is immediately warned by Hema informers.
Mbala remains cautious about the government's announcement of Cobra's surrender. "According to the statement, Matata laid down his arms, but when you see what is happening on the ground, there is a strong possibility that [the surrender] will not take place immediately," Mbala told VICE News. "He doesn't trust the FARDC at all; several warlords have been killed as they were trying to surrender."
Mbala gives the example of Paul "Morgan" Sadalas, another militia leader from Ituri. After surrendering to the FARDC in the spring, he died in custody under mysterious circumstances, during his transfer to the Congolese authorities.
According to Mbala, this is not the first time Cobra has expressed willingness to "go straight," and join the government forces. A few years ago, the Congolese government announced that it would reward demobilized militia leaders with senior army positions. Cobra allegedly integrated into the Congolese army in 2007, then defected three years later to take up leadership of the FRPI armed militia and political party.
"[Matata and his men] felt like they were in a gilded cage," Mbala explained. "He claimed he needed to travel north to visit a sick relative, and instead, of course, he took to the hills."
On Tuesday, a Congolese government spokesperson indicated that Cobra and his men, "once they have been rounded up, will be enrolled in a DDR [Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration] program," a recent government initiative to rehabilitate militiamen.
Mbala thinks that the government announcement could help bring peace back to the unstable region. He is uncertain, however, whether or not Cobra Matata will have the authority to persuade his men to give themselves up. Control of the region's armed groups will also largely depend on the relationship between the armed government forces and the local population.
On November 8, a Congolese court sentenced former rebel leader turned army general Jérôme Kakwavu to 10 years in jail for war crimes committed between 2003 and 2004. The court found Kakwavu guilty of rape, murder, and torture. Kakwavu, who integrated the military in 2004, and was promoted to the rank of army general, is the highest ranking Congolese army officer to be convicted for war crimes since the end of the first Congo War in 1997.
Follow Virgile Dall'Armellina on Twitter : @armellina