, KINSHASA, November 14 – The Congolese army, whose incompetence has been rudely exposed by a string of reverses at the hands of a renegade general, is a hotchpotch of badly-paid troops seen as both corrupt and ill-disciplined.
After beating a humiliating retreat last month from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s main eastern city Goma, the army again disgraced itself this week in a looting spree as rebel general Laurent Nkunda’s forces made further advances.
According to a spokesman for the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the DR Congo (MONUC), soldiers stole cars, ransacked shops and committed other "acts of brutality" in the Kanyabayonga area, to the north of Goma.
Around 26,700 FARDC soldiers have been deployed in the Nord Kivu region but they have suffered a string of reverses against Nkunda’s smaller but better armed force.
Part of the problem facing military bosses has been in trying to develop cohesive units and camaraderie in what is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa.
Morale is hardly helped by low pay rates with regular soldiers only getting around 65 dollars a month.
Corruption is endemic and soldiers are frequently accused of using their position to extort money.
Supplies destined for the front line also have a habit of going missing, with officers taking a cut as the goods find their way to the black market.
"It’s total disorganisation all through the FARDC’s ranks in Nord Kivu," said one senior Western diplomatic source.
"The soldiers are often left to themselves, their commanders appear isolated. They feel they’ve been abandoned by Kinshasa and take bad decisions."
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said after the Kanyabayonga looting that the perpetrators "will be punished" adding there was a "zero tolerance" policy on behaviour that discredited the armed forces.
But it is not first time that troops from the regular army have been accused of acting beyond the law.
MONUC said last year that some 40 percent of human rights violations in the country were perpetrated by members of the armed forces.
The verdict of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog, was equally damning, calling the army ill-trained, poorly-disciplined often unpaid and lacking essential equipment.
HRW and Amnesty International have also detailed allegations of arbitrary arrests and sexual violence in recent reports, in particular around the province of Nord Kivu which includes Goma.
"The national army, police force, and military and civilian intelligence services routinely operated with little or no regard for Congolese and international law, and committed the majority of the human rights violations reported," said Amnesty in its annual survey.
The Armed Forces of the DR Congo (FARDC) were created out of the ashes of the former Zaire national army which acquired a reputation for brutality and abuse of power during the dictatorship of the late president Mobutu Sese Seko.
Mobutu’s forces however proved largely spineless when Laurent Desire Kabila, a one-time general, launched a rebellion in the east of the country with the backing of Uganda and Rwanda in 1997.
Kabila’s forces were able to seize control of major cities and walk into Kinshasa largely unopposed as Mobutu’s soldiers melted away. Many then queued up to join the new army after Kabila became president as the country switched its name from Zaire to the DR Congo.
The FARDC officially numbers around 125,000 men, including 18 brigades.
However it has also received backing from pro-government militias such as the Mai-Mai which has been involved in clashes with Nkunda’s forces over recent weeks in Nord Kivu.