Reinforcing What? The EU's Role in Eastern Congo
Reinforcing What? The EU's Role in Eastern Congo
Dans l’est du Congo, « la guerre régionale est déjà là »
Dans l’est du Congo, « la guerre régionale est déjà là »
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Reinforcing What? The EU's Role in Eastern Congo

"Unacceptable and murderous." Those were the words French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner chose to describe the situation in north eastern Congo at a press conference after October's monthly meeting of EU foreign ministers. Sadly, Congo was not even on the agenda of that meeting.

In the following weeks, Laurent Nkunda's rebels advanced on Goma, displacing up to 300,000 people; the Congolese army went on a spree of looting, raping and killing in that town; and there was a double massacre in Kiwanja on 4 November, first by pro-government Mayi Mayi militia, then by Nkunda's rebels against suspected Mayi Mayi loyalists.

At the next meeting of EU foreign ministers, on 10 November, Congo at last made it to the agenda. But the European response to the crisis in central Africa is not encouraging. EU military assistance was not completely counted out in their agreed statement, but turning a general call for "reinforcement of cooperation between the EU, its member states and MONUC [the UN force]" into any specific reinforcements on the ground is far from straightforward.

For now, the EU has chosen the diplomatic route, pressing for a political solution within the framework of two key agreements signed over the past year. The November 2007 Nairobi agreement provides for normalisation of relations between Congo and Rwanda, disarmament of Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo - including some perpetrators of the 1994 genocide - and ending Rwandan support to Congolese Tutsi insurgent Nkunda. The January 2008 Goma agreement outlines a ceasefire, voluntary demobilisation of combatants and the "Amani" peace process between the government, Mayi Mayi militias and Nkunda's rebels.

On the one hand, an international push behind these deals is welcome. The current escalation in violence resulted in part from international complacency once these agreements were signed, despite the best efforts of the EU's Special Representative for the Great Lakes region, Roland van de Geer.

Unfortunately, the EU's recent track record of top-level diplomacy does not give much confidence the 27-country Union will stick together on this issue. Kouchner was the first to call for EU military intervention in Congo. The EU's chief diplomat, Javier Solana, quickly rejected the idea, the Belgians came out in support, and the British were skeptical. Meanwhile visits to the region by van de Geer, commissioner Louis Michel, and Kouchner with UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband left no impression of a unified front. It is not clear if Miliband's primary objective was conflict prevention or Commonwealth enlargement with Rwanda. And Solana was not even allowed on the plane.

Diplomacy by others may prove more coherent. The UN Secretary General appointed an African heavyweight as his special envoy. Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo was then joined by Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, the African Union's representative, as facilitators of the Nairobi and Goma agreements at the regional summit in Nairobi last Friday. Obasanjo and Mpaka could learn from the Europeans' mistakes and initiate a clear division of labour. The former military man Obasanjo should concentrate on the Nairobi agreement and disarmament and reintegration of militias, while Swahili speaking Mkapa should concentrate on other aspects of the Goma process and the Amani peace-building program.

But the EU could still offer practical and immediate assistance. Despite the deficit in political will for the military option, there are possibilities the EU should explore. Europeans could temporarily secure Goma and its airport, allowing the UN forces to concentrate on security in the surrounding areas of Rutshuru and Masisi.

Sure, the EU needs to focus on its commitment to the political solution and ensure that there is one coherent EU message. The best way to protect civilians is a return to the agreements, and by assisting the UN with a specific short-term security objective - allowing the UN some breathing space to fulfill its wider mandate - the EU can play an important role towards that political solution, and reinforce its diplomatic message with real and visible commitment.

Time is short, however. Laurent Nkunda's continued talk of a national agenda risks massive escalation of violence and chaos. But if in turn his rebels are seriously threatened, there is the real chance of widespread revenge killings of the Tutsi minority, to which Rwanda may well respond. And if the fighting continues indefinitely, we may see repeats of Kiwanja on a much larger scale. The paths currently being followed by all armed groups will only lead to an intensification of the conflict, with dire consequences of further regional involvement.

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