Pulling Back from the Brink in the Congo
Pulling Back from the Brink in the Congo
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
War and Dizzying Regional Alliances in Congo’s East
War and Dizzying Regional Alliances in Congo’s East
Briefing 18 / Africa 6 minutes

Pulling Back from the Brink in the Congo

The crisis provoked by the struggle in late May and early June 2004 for control of Bukavu, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's strategically sensitive South Kivu province that borders Rwanda, is a stark reminder that the political transition agreed in May 2003 is not synonymous with peace.

I. Overview

The crisis provoked by the struggle in late May and early June 2004 for control of Bukavu, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's strategically sensitive South Kivu province that borders Rwanda, is a stark reminder that the political transition agreed in May 2003 is not synonymous with peace. Instead, it should be seen as another phase of the war that began in 1998, cost the lives of millions, and has never been conclusively ended[fn]The present situation results from a series of agreements concluded over the past five years, including: the Lusaka ceasefire agreement 1999, Pretoria and Luanda agreements 2002, and the Sun City agreement April 2003 (Inter-Congolese Dialogue).Hide Footnote

The Congo[fn]The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is referred to in this briefing as "the Congo" for reasons of familiarity and convenience. It is not to be confused, of course, with the Republic of Congo, with its capital of Brazzaville.Hide Footnote is in transition from a country ravaged by a major war to what is intended to become a reunified polity legitimised by democratic elections. This is meant to happen through a process outlined in several agreements that were mediated by South Africa and concluded among the Congolese and external belligerents in what was both a civil and an international conflict. However, that process has not yet reached the crucial stage at which all concerned have concluded that the benefits of peace outweigh the illusory gains of further fighting. The political transition mapped out in the Sun City agreement must be pursued with more resolution and more resources if genuine elections are indeed to be held in 2005 and Central Africa is to achieve a degree of stability.

The Bukavu crisis has dramatically shown that peace-building in North and South Kivu remains an urgent priority.[fn]A detailed ICG report on the Kivus is in preparation.Hide Footnote  The Congo's wars of 1996 and 1998 both started in the Kivus. There will be lasting peace in the country only if it has a strong foundation there. To a large extent, the intertwined conflicts that are still brewing in these eastern provinces are not different from others in the rest of the country, almost all of which was left destitute and ridden with ethnic antagonisms and communal rivalry over land and natural and mineral resources by 32 years of Joseph Mobutu's repressive and divisive politics. But these rivalries have reached no higher levels of violence than in the Kivus. This is due partly to local characteristics (land scarcity, high population densities) but mainly to the influence of the conflicts in the neighbouring states of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

As many other Congolese provinces, the Kivus are home to communities that straddle international borders. The Kivus' neighbours, however, have all suffered from disastrous civil conflicts and, in the cases of Rwanda (1994) and Burundi (1972), genocide. The fear of extermination and the ideology of genocide, which crossed into the Kivus, give them their potential for extreme violence. Between 8,000 and 12,000 Forces Démocratiques de Libérations du Rwanda (FDLR),[fn]Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a generic term for the politico-military movement of Rwandan Hutu rebels.Hide Footnote  Rwandan Hutu rebels, still roam the hills of South Kivu with no significant national or international effort to disarm them.[fn]ICG Africa Report No63, Rwandan Hutu Rebels in the Congo: A New Approach to Disarmament and Reintegration, 23 May 2003. The FDLR was entirely formed in the Congo, with strong backing from President Laurent Desiré Kabila, the father of the current president. It gathered in remnants of the ex-FAR (Forces Armées Rwandaises), which was the former predominantly Hutu Rwandan army, and the Interahamwe -- the name in Kinyarwanda means "those who pull or work together" -- a militia established by the former Rwandan government. The two shared responsibility for the 1994 genocide. A large majority of the FDLR rank and file fighters, however, are second generation Rwandan Hutus, who were too young to have taken part in the genocide. To considerable international scepticism, the movement has attempted to distance itself from the genocidal ideology of the ex-FAR and Interahamwe, professing commitment to international humanitarian law and claiming it is opposing an autocratic regime in order to restore democracy, not wipe out an ethnic minority.Hide Footnote Although these fighters no longer have the strength to represent a genuine security threat for Rwanda, they offer it both a real incentive and an ideal excuse to remain deeply involved in the political affairs of the two Kivus through the manipulation of frightened Rwandophone communities and periodic threats of military intervention. It is widely acknowledged that Rwanda's governing elite has developed important commercial interests in the Congo that alone may be sufficient to motivate continuing involvement in its internal affairs.

Moreover, it is only in the Kivus that national and regional forces opposed to the current peace process have the opportunity to confront one another and the Kinshasa government and ultimately weaken the transition. Spoilers -- Congolese and non-Congolese alike -- who have nothing to gain from a successful transition concluded by free and fair elections regularly manipulate the acute ethnic and political tensions in the Kivus to contest some of its key components such as the territorial reunification of the country, the transfer of tax revenues to Kinshasa, the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR process[fn]ICG has attempted to popularise the simpler term DR to identify all aspects of the post-conflict process of disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration, rehabilitation and repatriation of former combatants. For consistency with what appears to be the developing international consensus, it will henceforth use the term DDR as shorthand for these concepts.Hide Footnote ) of militias and the creation of a national army under a unified command.

Since the beginning of the transition, dissenting elements of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), a rebel group strongly backed by Rwanda during the civil war, have resisted reunification. The most important of these, RCD-Goma, fears that despite the large gains it made during the inter-Congolese negotiations, it would be the ultimate loser.[fn]The original RCD split into a number of groups. Only the RCD-Goma faction remains a significant factor in the current situation although the RCD-ML and the RCD-National are also represented in the transitional government.Hide Footnote  Simultaneously, anti-RCD extremists in Kinshasa did everything they could to frustrate the former Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC, the RCD's military wing) soldiers and humiliate them, as if they had lost the war. Finally, discontent with the poor performance of the government of transition has contributed to loss of momentum in the peace process.

At the end of 2003, Rwanda resumed military support to several Kivu militias, generally promoted a rebellious environment in Goma and Bukavu, and thereby gave some of its old allies the belief that they could maintain the status quo. Despite some DDR progress in the past few months, including the voluntary return of a few key Hutu rebel leaders, Kigali has given the impression that the restoration of effective Congolese sovereignty generally or Kinshasa's authority in the Kivus specifically is not in its interest in the present political context.

The crisis is far from over. None of the problems that rocked Bukavu in February 2004 and degenerated into a more direct confrontation in May-June that shook the very foundations of the Congolese peace process have been solved. Goma could easily become the next centre of turmoil, and Bukavu could fall again to the renegades.

The international community and its principal representative, the UN Mission for the Congo (MONUC), have failed to develop a strategy that could radically change the environment of political competition. The agonisingly slow transfer of MONUC military resources to the east -- not yet completed -- has not had the desired stabilising effect as it has not been backed up by the pro-active initiative to disarm the rebellious elements that has been awaited for more than a year.

Coming a year after the transition began, the May-June Bukavu crisis was a wake-up call for all parties to the peace process and the international community. Unless peace-building in the Kivus receives new priority and resources, a repetition could destroy the peace process before any elections can be held. The transitional government must demonstrate that it is capable of finding political solutions, while taking the necessary decisions, for example on the law on nationality and amnesty. At the same time, MONUC's shortcomings, which were evident during the crisis, need to be overcome, and it must implement its mandate more assertively.

The international community should put pressure on Rwanda to cease all military involvement in the Congo, whether through its own armed forces or through arming or otherwise encouraging Congolese surrogate forces. Rwanda should recognise that this peace process is the best security pledge it can expect, and accordingly let it proceed.

Kinshasa/Nairobi/Brussels, 7 July 2004

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