Hollow Peace Hopes in Shattered Congo
Hollow Peace Hopes in Shattered Congo
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 6 minutes

Hollow Peace Hopes in Shattered Congo

The war currently being fought in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo involves the armies of at least three neighbouring countries, numerous rapacious rebel groups and militias that are funded by government sponsors in Kinshasa, Kigali and Kampala - and is leading towards the permanent partition of the Congolese state. This may seem surprising to those who follow the affairs of Central Africa. After all, a cease fire was signed at Lusaka in July 1999 by all six nations who were then fighting on Congolese soil, the United Nations established a military observer mission (MONUC), hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged for the demobilisation of rebel and militia groups and, in the past few months, there has been the Inter-Congolese Dialogue - an attempt to heal the political schisms of the DRC and begin to rebuild the shattered state.

But the ongoing violence in the eastern regions known as the Kivus and Ituri, recent large-scale movements of rebel forces in eastern and southern Congo and the failure of the Inter Congolese Dialogue to reach an inclusive political agreement shows this progress to be hollow. The fact is that nearly three years after Lusaka, there has been no political settlement to end the war. Half of the country is occupied and 35,000 Rwandan troops remain in the DRC. Uganda, which pledged to withdraw its troops under a military disengagement plan agreed at Lusaka, has returned its forces several times and continues to sponsor rebel fighters. Angola and Burundi also maintain a small number of troops in Congo. All those countries that fought the wider war - especially Rwanda - push their own agendas through political and military proxies. MONUC estimates there are 8,000 to 12,000 active Rwandan militia fighters in eastern Congo, in addition to Rwanda's troops.

Zimbabwe, another signatory to the Lusaka cease fire, also remains in the DRC, although is not directly involved in the fighting. President Joseph Kabila relies on Zimbabwean troops to protect him - and the Zimbabwean army and the Harare government are major beneficiaries of business agreements with the DRC. Zimbabwe is most reluctant to withdraw from the Congo while its own domestic situation is so grave. Meanwhile MONUC - the UN mission in which the Congolese people have placed so much hope - remains unable to deploy military observers to the east because of the resistance of the Rwanda-backed rebel troops.

Tension between Rwanda and the Kinshasa government is the most dangerous fault line in the Congo. Since the overthrow of the dictator Mobutu in 1997, Rwanda has sought to direct the political future of its giant neighbour. It also has genuine concerns about its own security, but Rwanda's pursuit of its objectives is posing serious problems for Congo's peace prospects. Most recently it was the anti-Kabila RCD (Rassemblement congolais pour la Democratie), with Rwandan support, that thwarted the Inter Congolese Dialogue.

While the majority of delegates from unarmed opposition groups and civil society, as well as Angola, Uganda and Zimbabwe, reached agreement on a transition power-sharing arrangement in Kinshasa, RCD and Rwanda rejected it. They demanded the establishment of a federalist government, effectively legalising Rwandan influence in the Kivus - partitioning the country politically as they have already partitioned it militarily. If not, Rwanda and the RCD threatened to revive ethnic and regional tensions to prevent political reunification, sink the country into general chaos and so seek to justify Rwandan occupation for several years to come. Indeed, since the Inter Congolese Dialogue, the RCD has been talking up threats of renewed hostilities. With Rwanda's considerable military power on its side, this constitutes a serious risk to the potential success of any transition or power-sharing deal. Reports of further troop build-ups in the east further increases the risk of confrontation between Rwanda, Uganda, and Kinshasa's proxy forces.

Knowing it cannot defeat Rwanda militarily, and without a cohesive national army of its own, the government of President Joseph Kabila is supplying and arming Congolese militia groups and Rwandan Hutus opposed to the government in Kigali to keep the Rwandan forces at bay. The government of DRC has been regularly criticised for supporting these Hutu factions - some of whom were involved in the genocidal massacre of Tutsis in 1994. The continued existence of these groups has been an important justification for Rwanda's military expansion and reluctance to embrace a more democratic system of government. However with Rwanda now clinging to the Kivus, and appearing less than sincere about withdrawal of its troops, President Kabila has every incentive to try to win support from local Kivu groups and make the situation in the east as difficult as possible for RCD and Rwanda.

The DRC government has attempted to step up international pressure on Rwanda by taking it to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, accusing Kigali of waging a war of aggression. Rwanda is playing its own diplomatic games, refusing to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, after the ICTR announced that it would investigate leaders of the Rwandan Patriotic Front - the Tutsi-led armed force that eventually formed the basis of the current regime of President Paul Kagame.

While the regional conflict in eastern Congo appears to be a microcosm of the national and international crises, the fighting also benefits 'conflict entrepreneurs' in all the neighbouring countries. A self-funding war economy has built up - largely replacing the traditional agricultural economy. Farmland is being destroyed, cattle are being killed as war and the extraction of minerals become the main means of survival. There is increasing evidence that military force is being used to gain and control large swathes of productive territory. In Ituri, battles have followed the location of gold deposits and the RCD and the Rwandan army are directly involved in the exploitation of all kinds of minerals. President Kagame has himself called this a 'self-financing war'. About half of Rwanda's oversized army is now reliant on occupied foreign territory to survive. A formal peace agreement and withdrawal from Congo would mean demobilising huge numbers of men into a tiny, poor country.

With the political and military dynamics spinning out of control, the humanitarian crisis in the DRC is reaching staggering dimensions. 2.3 million people are displaced. Massacres and murder are common. Rape is used by all sides as a weapon of war. It is thought that about 400,000 people have died as a direct result of fighting with a further 1.6 million dead from starvation or disease. Oxfam estimates that in the worst affected areas one in four children dies before reaching the age of five. A recent malnutrition survey of South Kivu found more malnourished adults than children. The World Food Program interprets this as meaning that the malnourished children have already died.

The complexity and brutality of the Congolese conflict seem almost insurmountable at the moment. Not only are the local realities unimaginably grim, but the regional stakes are very high. However there are ways in which the international community may be able to help bring this terrible war to an end.

First, it is time to give more equal weight to the security concerns of Rwanda and the DRC. Disarmament and demobilisation of the Hutu militias are necessary to ensure Rwanda's security - but so is Rwanda's withdrawal necessary for the security of the Congolese. The DRC government has little incentive to stop supporting militias while Rwanda rejects terms that may bring a political settlement and clings doggedly to the occupation of the east. The security corridor proposed by the UN Security Council at the border of Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo is no substitute for a serious disarmament and demobilisation plan. It will not lead to Rwanda's withdrawal, which must be negotiated as part of a general strategy for peace, security and development in the Great Lakes.

The aim of the international community must be to pressure Rwanda to support the peace process and accept a genuine power-sharing agreement in Kinshasa, independent of its influence or control. The appointment of a new UN Special Envoy for the Congo is a positive step. His task should be to press the demobilisation agenda, stop the DRC supplying rebel groups and finalise a comprehensive deal that will resolve Rwandan concerns and bring the RCD into a government of transition.

The mandate of MONUC must also be strengthened so that it can protect demilitarised areas from reoccupation prior to the total withdrawal of all foreign troops. MONUC should also be given a mandate to help resolve local conflicts and protect access routes for humanitarian agencies.

Rwanda still benefits from the international community's feelings of guilt about failing to prevent the 1994 genocide but it is important that judgement is not skewed by the past. Without a more concerted international effort, the people of the region face more chaos - in which the violent partition of the Congo will continue unchallenged, and the Kivu provinces remain a battleground for militias armed by Kinshasa and troops under the control of Rwanda and Uganda. Thirty-two years after its independence, the Congo deserves to be free from its neighbours' greed and their own colonial tendencies. Otherwise the international community may once again find itself accused of neglect.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

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