DR Congo: A Full Plate of Challenges after a Turbulent Vote
DR Congo: A Full Plate of Challenges after a Turbulent Vote
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

The Congo Re-erupts

Years of peace-building are at stake.

The war that claimed millions of lives and involved six African armies is close to being reignited in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. For the third time in 12 years, a Tutsi-led rebel group is on the offensive and threatening to take Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, with the support of next-door Rwanda.

Once again, Kinshasa is calling on Angola for help in resisting what it perceives as Rwandan aggression. Once again, the fighting has created a humanitarian crisis, with more than 200,000 new displaced persons adding to the 1.2 million already in camps. And once again, the United Nations peacekeeping force, though 17,000-strong and the biggest of all U.N. missions, seems unprepared to confront the crisis and fulfill its mandate to protect civilians. There have been calls to reinforce it or even to send yet another multinational force into eastern Congo.

But in the current fighting between the Kinshasa government under President Joseph Kabila and Congolese Tutsi insurgents under rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, not everything is evolving according to an old script. Mr. Nkunda's claims that Congo's government is run by perpetrators of the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda are ludicrous. President Kabila, although a major disappointment to the Congolese and the country's international partners, is far from committing such crimes. He has also come to power by far more democratic elections than those held in neighboring Rwanda, where opposition politicians tend to be put in jail before presidential polls are held.

Mr. Kabila's legitimate election in November 2006 -- heavily supported by Western powers, South Africa and Angola -- closed the national chapter of the Congo peace process. Its wider Central African chapter had made clear progress by spring 2003, with the withdrawal of the last foreign troops from Congolese territory. Yet it was never really fully settled. There was no successful disarmament of the Rwandan Hutu rebels who live in Congo and whose leaders had been involved in the Rwanda genocide, and North Kivu has remained the crucible of a deadly conflict. Some of the former Tutsi rebels refused to integrate with the regular Congolese army, claiming the Congolese Tutsi minority needed protection from the government, and started a new insurgency soon after the beginning of the transition in August 2003.

Two main factors explain Kinshasa's continued military collaboration with the Rwandan Hutu rebels, despite the untold suffering they are inflicting on Congolese civilians in the territories they control. First, there is a strong thirst for revenge against the government of Rwanda and its former proxies. This thirst exists in the Congolese high command and Mr. Kabila's inner circle after the humiliations suffered following the two regional wars initiated by Rwanda, as well as among his Kivutian and North Katangan political base, who suffered from four years of brutal Rwandan occupation.

Second, there is simply no national Congolese army to speak of which can contain Mr. Nkunda's Tutsi insurgency or force it to disarm and demobilize. The attempted 2006 army integration process for Mr. Nkunda's troops collapsed within a couple of months, sabotaged both by the lack of support and rampant corruption within the high command of the Congolese army and by Mr. Nkunda's intransigence. Unless Mr. Kabila reins in his extremists and accepts direct international supervision of the Congolese army in the province, there will be no decisive progress on the dismantlement and disarmament of the Rwandan Hutu rebels and no successful integration with Mr. Nkunda's men -- the only way for the sustainable restoration of state authority.

The U.N.-negotiated Nairobi declaration of November 2007 and the January 2008 Goma peace agreement provided a fairly comprehensive political framework for the disarmament of all militias. But the implementation of these accords fell through.

Dealing with the Tutsi insurgents will require a radical shift of international attitude toward Mr. Nkunda and Rwanda. Mr. Nkunda is confident in his military superiority, which has been sustained thanks to his access to Rwandan and Ugandan territories, where he gets medical and military supplies. Mr. Nkunda also actively recruits young men within Tutsi refugee camps and among the demobilized contingents of the Rwandan army. Last but not least, Mr. Nkunda knows he can still easily and efficiently manipulate Western guilt over the early 1990s genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda by flagging the fears of similar Tutsi victimization in eastern Congo, even though his troops have been among the worst human-right abusers in the province since 2004 -- every bit as bad as the national army. Rwanda is motivated not only by a desire to protect ethnic Tutsis but by a desire to control mineral interests in Congo. Unless it comes under heavy pressure by Western powers and South Africa to strictly prohibit the free movements and operations of Mr. Nkunda's insurgents and their backers on its territory, as per its commitment under the Nairobi declaration, Mr. Nkunda will have no incentive to disarm.

It would not be wise for U.N. Security Council members to expect the U.N. mission to solve all these problems. Ending this latest chapter of the Congo war will require sustained and significant pressure by the U.S., China, France, the U.K., South Africa and Belgium, the former colonial power. Specifically, they must demand that Kigali and Kinshasa implement the Nairobi declaration; insist that Mr. Nkunda retreat to his previous deployment points; and require Mr. Kabila to remove all army commanders collaborating with the Hutu extremists.

The international community has already invested billions of dollars to build and maintain peace in the Congo. To not invest hugely in diplomatic terms right now would risk it all.


Former Program Director, Africa
Former Vice President of Multilateral Affairs

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