Africa's forgotten war
Africa's forgotten war
Supporting Dialogue and Demobilisation in the DR Congo
Supporting Dialogue and Demobilisation in the DR Congo
Op-Ed / Africa

Africa's forgotten war

WHILE THE world dithers on the killing in Darfur, it ignores another deadly conflict -- in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An estimated 30,000 innocent men, women and children are dying every month in Congo, mostly due to hunger and disease. Since 1997, Congolese civilians have suffered two wars, and an estimated 4 million have died. It is time for the international community to press all sides to commit to peace.

Despite a peace deal between the belligerents and a transitional government, the fighting in Congo is far from over. In late February, militia in the eastern Congo region of Ituri ambushed UN peacekeepers and killed nine Bangladeshi soldiers. The UN is now fighting back with helicopter gunships in some of the fiercest fighting by UN forces in recent years.

The new forcefulness of the UN peacekeepers is a welcome shift. But the international community is wrong to leave the process to the peacekeeping forces. The real problem is that the political transition process is broken. Each side is hedging its bets, nervous about losing its grip on power and economic assets. The elections scheduled for June are likely to be postponed. Meanwhile, the Congolese are paying the price.

I recently visited the capital city of Kinshasa. It is a mass of chaos; the government essentially does not function. Cellphones are the only reliable service. Electricity is sporadic, clean drinking water is scarce, and crime is rampant. Gangsters -- 1930s style, complete with flamboyantly colored striped suits -- run illicit trade, drug, and prostitution rings. While a third Congo war remains a possibility, continuing instability is taking a devastating human toll and risks destabilizing the region. The international community must urgently push for progress in two areas.

First, security remains a key challenge in the country. The warring parties signed a peace agreement in 1999, and 16,700 UN peacekeepers are on the ground. Still, an estimated 10,000 armed Hutu rebels, including some responsible for the Rwandan genocide, remain along the Rwandan border. They pose a distant menace to Rwanda but are an immediate menace to Congolese civilians and now the UN peacekeepers as well. The government has not fulfilled its commitments to protect civilians. Until these rebels are disbanded, Congo will remain at risk of a return to war. While some have called for an intervention force to attack the rebels, no such force has stepped forward. The job will be up to the nascent Congolese army.

Yet, the Congolese army is woefully behind in its efforts to demobilize and integrate soldiers into a new organization. South Africa, Belgium, and Angola are training integrated brigades, but these four brigades are far from sufficient to exert control over a territory nearly the size of Western Europe. The UN and donors must train more battalions and provide equipment, intelligence, and communications support. UN forces in the country must do more to help build a functioning Congolese army, protect civilians, and monitor the border. The Congolese government, too, should be more aggressive in confronting this threat.

Second, the international community must press for a stronger commitment to the transition among local leaders, not all of whom have the political will to finish the job. Many believe a permanent state of transition serves their interests better than democracy, in which they would lose influence -- and corresponding access to the country's vast resources based as it is on military prowess, not popular support. As one western ambassador described the situation to me, 'this is not a coherent government; it is a group of people cohabiting, deeply suspicious of each other, each maintaining an army."

It is time the international community set clear benchmarks for the parties and press them hard for progress. The international community should also call for accountability in cases of corruption and for greater transparency in government and the role of international business. Key ambassadors from Africa and Europe, as well as the United States, sit on the International Committee to Accompany the Transition, so we have a clear responsibility to see this through.

The fact that 30,000 people are dying every month is not capturing the world's attention. It is time to act boldly to avoid another crisis in which the world responds too late, and innocent men, women and children pay the price.

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