Congo's peace: miracle or mirage?
Congo's peace: miracle or mirage?
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 19 minutes

Congo's peace: miracle or mirage?

On March 22 this year, the worst fighting that Kinshasa has ever seen broke out between government forces and supporters of the opposition. Hundreds of people lay dead in the streets and opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba announced his departure into exile. Yet some diplomats in the capital played down the violence as a hiccup in the peace process. “We think,” one of them told me, “these are the death throes of the old war, not the beginning of a new one.”

Many in the international community feel the same way: too much has been accomplished in the more than four years since the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in Pretoria, South Africa, for war to break out again. Indeed, the Democratic Republic of Congo, once divided among half a dozen warring factions, is now united. A national army has been created. The eight foreign nations at one time involved in the conflict have withdrawn their forces.

Most importantly, in 2006, presidential, national, and provincial assembly elections took place in the first multiparty polls since 1965. The logic of guns, so the saying goes in Kinshasa, has been replaced by the logic of ballots. The incumbent Joseph Kabila (who had assumed the presidency after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, in 2001) won the 2006 presidential race, and his coalition now dominates parliament and most of the provincial assemblies. There have been other successes: the country has a new, improved constitution; Congo’s administration and army have been largely unified; security in parts of the country has improved dramatically.

The peace process, however, has been only partially successful. The elections did eviscerate some rebel groups, but, as the recent fighting demonstrates, new fault lines have emerged. Many reforms have been cosmetic: the Congolese state is unified but remains deeply corrupt and abusive. The administration provides almost no social services to the population. And the integrated army is the largest human rights abuser in the country, terrorizing the people it is supposed to protect.

Herein lies the paradox of the transition’s success: in order to avoid alienating anyone and to keep the shaky political process going, a blind eye has been turned to high levels of corruption and abuse. Impunity has been to some extent the glue of the peace process. This fact could undermine the country’s fragile stability.

Peace on Kabila’s terms

The war in Congo has been one of the bloodiest of modern times, leaving an estimated 4 million dead, largely from disease and hunger. The conflict dates back to 1996, when a coalition of regional powers, including Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, and Eritrea, backed an invasion by a rebel group led by Laurent Kabila. They toppled the dying dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, installing Kabila as head of state in May 1997. Fighting resumed in 1998 when Kabila asked his Rwandan patrons to leave the country. The Rwandans reinvaded, creating a proxy rebel group in the east. Five years of conflict drew in eight countries and spawned a dozen different Congolese armed groups.

The 2002 peace deal succeeded where its many predecessors had failed, offering each signatory something better than the status quo. The timing had much to do with this. After years of fighting, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe were withdrawing their troops from the country, making a military victory for the remaining belligerents almost impossible. For the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), Rwanda and Uganda’s respective proxy forces, the deal provided a lifeline and lucrative positions in the transition. The agreement also elevated the smaller, auxiliary parties—political opposition groups, civil society, and three small rebel movements—from minor players to highranking positions. Finally, by offering Joseph Kabila the presidency and command of the transition, it presented him with peace on his terms and a good chance of winning the elections.

On the face of it, the deal provided relatively equal terms to the principal belligerents. Kabila had to share power with four vice presidents, and all positions in the executive branch, legislature, and security services were divided among the signatories. However, since Kabila controlled the central state apparatus and most of the country’s revenue—in particular from the mining areas of Katanga and the Kasais—many aspects of the agreement amounted not so much to power-sharing as to an integration of the other parties into Kabila’s administration.

While the army command, for example, was given to the RCD, the powerful maison militaire—the head of state’s cabinet of military advisers— controlled army funds and decision making during the first part of the transition. The 10,000-strong presidential guard was an added asset for Kabila, since it fell under his direct control. Similarly, the political opposition took control of the ministry of mines, but businessmen still had to get presidential approval for major deals. Positions in other institutions—such as the central bank; the supreme court; the two largest stateowned mining companies, MIBA and Gecamines; and the intelligence service—were not shared among the signatories, despite promises in the peace deal. Kabila simply refused.

This, of course, did not go down well with Kabila’s rivals. The RCD withdrew from the transition process in August 2004; the MLC threatened to do the same in January 2005. However, in both cases, with the international community’s help, Kabila was able to call their bluff. Real retreat would have forced them into the isolation of their rebel strongholds where, without the military backing of their former patrons, their future would have been questionable. They would also have foregone Kinshasa’s opulence: each vice president was allocated $250,000 dollars per month for himself and his staff. Both the MLC and the RCD had 7 ministers and 118 parliamentarians each, making $4,000 and $1,500 per month respectively (several times more than judges’ or doctors’ salaries). Some of the directors of state companies, most of whose jobs were finally shared out by 2005, made as much as $20,000 a month. As a dissident RCD member lamented: “They couldn’t get their hand out of the sugar bowl.”

The weakness of the political parties also favored Kabila. The belligerents had been motivated by self-interest, not by ideology; once in the transition, each leader tried to fend for himself. Indeed, five MLC ministers defected to Kabila’s camp, as did Olivier Kamitatu, the party’s secretary general. Three RCD ministers left their party. This political advantage helped Kabila during the election campaign. He controlled state radio and television; in violation of electoral law, they broadcast mostly Kabila campaign advertisements and coverage. He deployed his presidential guard to the country’s main airports, where they harassed rival candidates as they arrived or departed. Riot police in Kinshasa prevented large demonstrations from taking place; given the anti-Kabila sentiment in the capital, protests would have been favorable to the president’s rivals. In perhaps the most heavy-handed incident, authorities arrested the private security guard of presidential hopeful Oscar Kashala in May 2006 for an alleged coup plot that was never substantiated.

On August 20, 2006, the day the results of the first round of the presidential election were announced, events offered a glimpse of what might have happened had the transition not worked out in Kabila’s favor. Kabila failed to obtain a clear majority, sending him into a runoff with Bemba, head of the MLC and one of the vice presidents. While the exact chain of events that day is not completely clear, Kabila’s presidential guard launched a frontal attack on Bemba’s residences in Kinshasa with tanks and hundreds of troops.

The international community, which was spending more than $2 billion a year on the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo and aid to the country, did not want to ruffle any feathers—in particular not those of Kabila, the head of state to whom ambassadors were accredited. The International Committee for Supporting the Transition, a group of donors and countries in the region that backed the peace process, had up to that point avoided discussing the threat posed by the presidential guard. When Kabila’s guard did become a problem in August 2006, the committee denounced the violence but refrained from pointing fingers. The bias shown toward Kabila in the transition agreement was problematic in that it assumed he would win the election. In hushed conversations, diplomats wondered what would happen if the incumbent were to lose the runoff. But Kabila did not lose, and the polls themselves were relatively free and fair. The president won by a wide margin, garnering 2.5 million votes more than his rival.

Regional shifts

One of the most important achievements of the peace process has been a realignment of relations in the region. The two main rebel movements, the RCD and the MLC, were created by Rwanda and Uganda, respectively, and relied heavily on their patrons for military survival. During the 2002 peace talks in the South African luxury resort Sun City, both countries came under increasing pressure from donors that supplied more than half of their budgets. Criticism increased after successive UN investigations revealed high-level involvement by Rwanda and Uganda in the looting of timber and minerals from eastern Congo. Perhaps the most damning indictment of their presence in Congo came when the two countries clashed in Kisangani in 1999 and 2000. The fighting over diamonds in a town more than 300 miles from their borders rendered absurd their claim that their intrusion in Congo was strictly for self-defense.

In 2002, the United States abstained for the first time in a vote by the International Monetary Fund on renewing loans for Rwanda. Shortly thereafter, under direct pressure from South African President Thabo Mbeki, Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame signed an agreement for Rwandan troops to leave eastern Congo. Kabila was supposed to demobilize Rwandan rebels, now regrouped as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, whom he had funded and supported during the war.

Under pressure from donors, and less threatened by a weakened rebel resistance, Rwanda slowly shifted its foreign policy from military confrontation to one of diplomacy and cooperation. High Rwandan and Congolese officials held discreet talks. Meanwhile, Rwanda’s relations with Uganda thawed considerably. Even its relations with the former Hutu rebels who had come to power in Burundi in 2005 became cordial.

The logic expressed by Rwanda’s leaders was clear, if somewhat quixotic: they want Rwanda to become the service hub of the region, the “Singapore of Africa,” an ambitious aspiration for a desperately poor, landlocked country. As part of this effort, Kagame has courted investors, including the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Wal- Mart. He has also recognized the need to clean up appearances—a Rwanda open for business cannot be seen as stoking conflict in Congo.

The impact this realignment had on the RCD was evident. Without Rwanda, the rebels lost their military backbone. After the withdrawal of the Rwandan Defense Forces in July 2002, the RCD almost collapsed as Mai-Mai militias supported by Kinshasa took large chunks of its territory. After it was forced into the political process, the RCD’s organizational weaknesses also became apparent. Rwanda had run the rebels as a proxy movement and had never allowed a strong political organization to emerge, focusing instead on military strength. During the war, Rwanda had replaced the RCD’s leader four times in five years. Divisions quickly emerged during the transition as many RCD officials distanced themselves from the hard-line Hutu and Tutsi leadership.

Relations between Kigali and Kinshasa did not improve overnight, and the improvement was endangered by a hefty dose of brinksmanship. At the beginning of the transition, both Rwanda and the rebels wanted to keep their options open. According to several rebel sources, high-ranking RCD officers were encouraged to refuse army integration in order to remain as a reserve force. The leader of these dissidents was Brigadier General Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi and former intelligence officer in the Rwandan army. In May 2004, as UN investigations later confirmed, Rwanda was involved in a mutiny by the dissidents that captured the town of Bukavu for several days. When Kabila overreacted by sending thousands of troops, sparking brutal fighting, Rwanda briefly reinvaded in November 2004.

Although relations appear to be on the mend today, the brinksmanship is likely to continue. Kagame says he speaks regularly with Kabila on the phone, and both sides now insist that their former rival no longer poses a threat. But Kabila, accused of being a Rwandan stooge himself during the election campaign, is afraid of being seen as pro-Kigali. Kagame was not invited to Kabila’s inauguration ceremony, and many Congolese officers still accuse Rwanda of hegemonic ambitions in their country. The UN has evidence that Nkunda is continuing to recruit in Rwandan refugee camps, probably with government consent.

Buying peace

At times, Congo seems condemned to eternal negotiations. The state does not have a monopoly on violence. Its army is desperately weak. And the 17,000 UN peacekeepers present in the country will not carry out the messy counterinsurgency operations necessary in the east, since they lack the will to sustain the casualties such operations would entail. Left with no choice, the government is forced to bargain with warlords.

It is not surprising, therefore, that, in the words of a human rights worker in Kinshasa, “impunity greased the gears of the transition.” In contrast with peace processes elsewhere, justice and reconciliation have ranked low on the list of priorities in Congo. After some talk of an international tribunal for war crimes, it was left out of the 2002 accord. A truth and reconciliation commission was created, but its leadership, too, was divided among the former belligerents, who have little interest in exposing crimes committed during the war.

The absence of justice has ended up rewarding criminal behavior. Six militia leaders from the Ituri region were promoted to the rank of general in 2005 and thirty-two others were offered ranks of colonel, including some of the most notorious human rights offenders in the country. Following an international outcry, some of these warlords were arrested, including Thomas Lubanga, who was the first person to be tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. However, as soon as these leaders were removed, others sprang up to replace them. Even Nkunda, the RCD dissident, is currently engaged in negotiations for positions for himself and dozens of fellow officers.

Government officials tend to blame the impunity problem on a weak army and justice system, but it is also closely linked to members of the political elite. Patronage networks permeate the police and army. During the first two years of the transition, this allowed officers to embezzle, according to some estimates, over half of the payroll, or $3 million each month. Powerful generals and politicians in Kinshasa shield their protégés in the field from accusations. The civilian population has borne the consequences of this impunity. According to UN human rights reports, the Congolese national army is the worst abuser. UN observers documented 344 murders and 349 rapes carried out by members of the police and army in 2006. Since the UN presence is thinly spread across the country, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition, mismanagement of the army has allowed 14,000 to 18,000 militiamen to continue terrorizing the population in the east. In 2006, half a million people were displaced because of fighting there.

Turning a blind eye

Impunity has also devastated public administration, rendering it incapable of even providing social services. According to a UN estimate, more than $1 billion is embezzled in the customs sector alone each year. Again, these losses can be attributed in part to predatory patronage networks that permeate the state to the highest level. In 2004, a parliamentary audit of state companies revealed the complicity of six ministers and Kabila’s chief of staff in embezzlement and graft. The state auditor has compiled evidence of colossal mismanagement that leaves about one-third of the budget improperly accounted for. Despite this evidence, not a single official was tried for corruption during the transition.

Although it is too early to make predictions about how the incoming government will perform, many of the figures in it are familiar. Part of the reason for this is that, in contrast with peace deals in countries such as Liberia, the settlement in Congo has kept power largely in the hands of the former belligerents. The elections only allowed for a limited infusion of new faces into the political elite. With the notable exception of Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga, the leader of the Unified Lumumbist Party, most ministers in the new government were in office during the transition. The most important ministries—interior, defense, foreign affairs, reconstruction, finance, and planning— are all occupied by former belligerents. More important, the president and his powerful entourage have remained the same. This raises doubts about the extent to which the government will be willing or able to crack down on the corruption and abuses that they sanctioned and were at times complicit in during the past three years.

The international community, which funds over half of the country’s budget, has refrained from criticizing Congolese leaders too harshly. In contrast to Liberia, the Balkans, and East Timor, where serious efforts were made to exclude human rights abusers from security forces through a vetting process, in Congo there has been little talk of accountability. Good governance has also been shelved since Security Council members refused to mandate the UN mission to form a donors group to crack down on corruption. Some donors saw impunity as a necessary evil, needed to keep the transition together. As one diplomat explained: “If we start bringing people to justice, where do we stop? Some of the worst abusers are at the top.”

The elections appear to have accentuated donor frailty. During the transition, donors pressured the interim government through the International Committee for Supporting the Transition. They seem more reluctant to do so today with a new, sovereign government. None of the embassies denounced the massacre of 100 civilians in the far western province of Bas Congo in January 2007. And, despite the condemnation of the fighting in Kinshasa, the French development minister arrived in the capital shortly after it broke out to sign an aid package worth $300 million with Kabila.

Another reason for donors’ reticence has to do with economic interests. Congo is enormously rich in copper, tin, diamonds, and gold. With the end of the hostilities, the country is opening up to business again. Two of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP Billiton and AngloAshanti, have bought large concessions and begun operations. us-based Phelps Dodge has acquired one of the world’s largest copper concessions, Tenke Fungurume. Embassies in Kinshasa have been involved in helping to negotiate deals for companies based in their countries. In the absence of strong domestic lobbies for Congo, this has discouraged donors from speaking out too boldly about abuses.

The fallout of elections

If the transition was a mixed bag of successes and failures, where does it leave us now? Congo in 2006 held its first multiparty elections in 40 years. Kabila’s coalition, the Alliance for the Presidential Majority, emerged victorious. Besides winning the presidential race, his coalition won around two-thirds of the seats in parliament, allowing Prime Minister Gizenga to form an Alliance government. The coalition replicated its victory in the elections of senators and governors by provincial assemblies—although allegedly with the help of hefty bribes—winning 10 of the 11 governorships and a majority in the upper house of the national legislature.

Yet the elections, for all their success, have created new divisions and risks. Whereas, during the war, the east was the center of conflict, the west is now also becoming a source of concern. In coming years, there is a good chance of antigovernment unrest bubbling up in the capital and other western towns. Discontent with Kabila was evident in the elections, which revealed a divided country. Kabila won over 80 percent of the vote in the east, while Bemba won by similar margins in five western provinces. Anti- Kabila sentiment runs high in these provinces, since his government administered Bas Congo and Kinshasa for six years without successfully addressing poverty and social woes there. Unemployment is close to 80 percent, and many families eat only once a day. These frustrations are accentuated by ethnic bias—Kabila and his close advisers are from the Swahili- speaking east. Kabila himself is perceived as a foreigner, since he grew up in Tanzania and speaks stilted French and poor Lingala, the language of the west.

Another factor stirring up urban unrest in the west is the political marginalization of the opposition, which is largely based in the west and the center. Although Bemba won 42 percent of the popular vote, his opposition coalition, the Union for the Nation, is too weak in the national assembly to challenge the ruling Alliance. Bemba’s coalition has a majority in four provincial assemblies, but many of its members were bought out during gubernatorial elections, limiting his control to one provincial government. The sidelining of the opposition could push its supporters into the streets, provoking unruly protests and riots in western cities.

A first sign of this took place in Bas Congo on January 31, 2007, when opposition supporters demonstrated against corruption in the gubernatorial elections. The spiritual leader of a local religious sect, Bundu dia Kongo, had been a candidate on the losing opposition ticket. A melee broke out between his supporters and the police, and several people on each side were killed. Feeling under siege, the governor brought in the army. In the ensuing bloodshed, policemen and soldiers killed more than a hundred civilians.

The Kinshasa fighting in March 2007 was different. This time the government’s opposition was armed; Bemba had a guard of 400 to 500 soldiers in the capital. Both sides had indicated they would be willing to negotiate a solution that would guarantee Bemba’s safety while downsizing his militia. Hardliners in both camps won out and forced a confrontation, plunging the capital into brutal fighting. According to one human rights group, 330 people were killed; other estimates go as high as 500. While the security situation is now stable, the government seems less and less tolerant of dissent. Dozens of opposition members have been rounded up in Kinshasa under dubious charges of espionage and treason, and several television stations belonging to the opposition have been shut down.

The opposition, however, may lack the unity and strength to galvanize the population. Bemba will go into exile, and there is no clear leader to replace him. The opposition is full of former followers of the late dictator Mobutu, and none of them have Bemba’s stature. The lack of lucrative positions to pass around will also weaken his coalition; some allied parties already have protested the MLC’s hoarding of the few senatorial and governor positions the opposition can claim.

A crushing weakness

After the elections, the defining feature of the Congolese state remains its weakness. This ailment, the result of decades of misrule, affects public administration, the security services, courts, the parliament, and political parties. While most donors perceive governance to be a technical problem, patronage is deeply political. Weakness has become a strategy of rule, as elites undermine institutional checks and balances in order to continue to profit from procurement contracts, mining deals, and customs fraud. In the meantime, the government provides almost no social services— health care and education are mostly paid for by their users, churches, and nongovernment organizations. Infrastructure rehabilitation is carried out almost exclusively by donors. Of the state’s own revenues, the bulk of what is not embezzled is spent on salaries.

The weakness of the state contrasts with its omnipresence. There are about half a million civil servants in the country and another 200,000 policemen and soldiers. Few of them make a living wage—the official monthly salary of a soldier is $22 a month, while a doctor makes less than $100—forcing them to look for other ways to make money. In a 2005 World Bank survey, when asked what they would do to the state if it were a person, many answered: “Kill him.” This is the Congolese paradox: a state that is perceived as crushingly brutal, yet is deeply weak.

This weakness is in many ways the biggest obstacle to peace in the country. It allows small militias, which should constitute a law-and-order problem, to press the government for negotiations, only for other commanders to spring up later with new demands. It turns the security forces and public administration into predators, causing rampant abuse. And it depletes the budget of valuable resources needed to rebuild the country.

While many sub-Saharan states are fragile and corrupt, Congo’s situation is particularly bad. There are 100,000 demobilized soldiers in the country, many of whom are about to finish a year-long donor program that provided them with meager earnings. There are still thousands of militiamen in the east, operating as warlords in their fiefdoms, as well as an enormous presidential guard. The ranks of the opposition are packed with former rebels and Mobutists who, deprived of lucrative positions in the state, could use civil unrest to bring the government to its knees.

The international community played a crucial role in making elections happen. But the donors’ track record in peacebuilding is not nearly as good as in peacemaking: they lose focus quickly, and the new government is eager to make a show of its sovereignty. In addition, with costly peacekeeping operations moving into gear in Sudan, Lebanon, and Somalia, the temptation to declare victory and go home will be great.

There are no silver bullets for Congo’s recovery. It is clear that the country will not be able to rise out of the trap of poverty, corruption, and war unless the Congolese leadership itself wants to. In order for this to happen, the government needs to be held accountable for its actions by the parliament, the courts, and the media. In short, democratic institutions need to work.

The international community needs to help in this process. A first step will be coming to an understanding with the new government on terms for the huge international investment there. The billion-dollar question will be: How do you implement reforms that go against entrenched interests of the ruling elite? After the scandals and failures of the first two post-independence republics, Congo’s Third Republic has begun with many questions and few answers.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.