The DR Congo: behind the headlines

The military and political tensions in the contested eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo are reinforced by diplomatic failures. A turn towards negotiation and compromise is vital if the area's long-term problems are to be addressed, says Andrew Wallis. 

Andrew Wallis
2 November 2012

Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, told the United Nations general assembly in September 2011: "‘Today, peace and security prevail throughout the national territory. All state institutions are in place and functioning normally… Today, the Democratic Republic of Congo is at peace with all its neighbors. And now, it’s time for reconstruction and development."

Just over one year later, the national army (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo / FARDC) is moving its heavy weaponry towards the east of the country, signalling a likely new offensive against the M-23 militia active in the region. This development follows several months of disastrous political and military efforts that have only added to long term development and governance difficulties throughout the vast country.

The M-23 uprising, led by renegade officer Bosco Ntaganda, has destabilised the two eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu and unsettled the DRC's relationships with other states in the region, especially Rwanda. A military effort to defeat the movement is a big call for the embattled Kabila, who is in some respects as politically cornered as Bosco Ntaganda is militarily. But whatever the outcome of any military confrontation, the lack of political will (internationally as well as nationally) to tackle the very sensitive problems of this part of the DRC - some of them deeply rooted in its modern history - will remain (see "DR Congo: the politics of suffering", 5 September 2012).

In late September 2012, the UN's secretary-general Ban Ki-moon attempted to bring together Kabila and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame during the annual general assembly meeting. This much-heralded effort sank after the UN demanded Rwanda sign a declaration condemning "foreign support" for the M-23 - a none-too-subtle reference to Kigali's alleged involvement which had the effect of provoking Rwanda's withdrawal from the proposed talks. The respective leaders delivered speeches that reiterated familiar positions: Kabila accusing Rwanda of arming and recruiting the M-23, Kagame denying the charge and telling Kinshasa to solve its own problems and not blame others for them.

A diplomatic tunnel

The failure to open these vital political talks is in many ways symptomatic of the UN's inability to find any positive solution to the crisis. This leaves the only positive initiative now underway being led by regional actors under the auspices of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. The ICGLR, chaired by Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, has mandated a force of 4,000 troops from regional states to end the militia violence. In effect, the effort seeks to replicate the success that regional actors have had under the auspices of the African Union in peace missions in Sudan and Somalia. Tanzania has already offered troops for the new "international" mission, but progress in the initiative is crucially dependent on its ability to find the necessary funding from the international community.

The UN is currently spending $1.2 billion annually on its 20,000-strong United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission (Monusco) in the eastern DRC, This, however, has failed to stop militia violence and has itself been caught up in several high-profile scandals. For the UN simultaneously to fund a new, smaller force aiming to do what Monusco (and its previous incarnation Monuc) has failed to achieve during the past decade is hard to imagine. If any new "international" force was to operate in the DRC under UN funding, the hope is that its African background and motivation would bring the success that has eluded Monusco.

A military assessment team (MAT) from the ICGLR is already in situ to explore possibilities for the new force, should it receive the financial, political and military green light. The MAT experts were due to report back to the committee of ICGLR defence ministers on 25 October. In addition, monitors from the expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (JVM) are already in place at border-posts to report on any movement of arms or recruits to militias going into or from the DRC.

A question of independence

Any new international force will, though, be hard-pressed to defeat the M-23, and indeed any of the numerous other militias (such as the FDLR) which have expanded operations over the summer of 2012 and contributed to a worsening security situation. The M-23 has around 1,000 members and the FDLR around 3,500, a strength that a variety of factors has helped sustain, including dense forest retreats which enable them to survive against superior firepower. Of equal significance is that their respective leaders, the M-23s Bosco Ntaganda and the FDLR's Sylvestre Mudacumura, have had arrest-warrants issued against them by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for a host of war crimes. They thus have an interest in preserving their life of power in the bush, living off its desperate inhabitants, rather than surrendering or risking arrest by fleeing to a neighbouring country.

The ICC's warrants have made negotiation with the M-23 more difficult. However there is communication between it and the DR Congo government (with Museveni as the mediator) - though Kabila, for internal political reasons, is adamant that he will not talk to the militia. Any short-term solution to the crisis has to embrace a political dimension besides any military operation. If the M-23 fighters are to lay down their arms and be reintegrated into society, the DRC government will have to make concessions; the same will likely apply regarding the FDLR, unpalatable politically and morally though this will be given its murderous history.

The UN has found the DRC issue to be an intractable one. The failure of Ban Ki-moon’s efforts also reflects the organisation's lack of insight and understanding of the many interconnected political and security issues involved. Moreover, the UN’s own objectivity has been seriously questioned after the repeated leaking of the UN Group of Experts report (GoE) into the Kivu situation, written by Steve Hege. Since May 2012, both the report and its various updates and annexes (due for its official release in November) has found its way almost monthly into the media, with the clear political objective of embarrassing and pressuring Paul Kagame.

Steve Hege’s clear animosity to the Kigali government and the way the report has been made public have meant that what should have been an important objective opportunity for fact-finding and analysis of the situation has been lost amidst recrimination and public-relations spin. The UN has yet to explain who has been leaking the report or why Hege, a figure with a long track-record of hostility to the Rwandan government, was entrusted to produce such a sensitive report.

The latest leak on 18 October - the day before the vote on Rwanda’s bid for a seat on the UN General Assembly - included new accusations that Uganda had given political assistance to the M-23. Kampala responded by saying it had been mandated by the ICGLR to act as intermediaries between the militia group and the DRC / regional actors, and that it was complete "rubbish" to describe Uganda as in any way supportive of the group. In a press briefing on the Ugandan dimension, Joseph Kabila then accused the region's media of telling "lots of lies; lots of fiery tales" that were responsible for the downturn in the DRC’s tourist and development investment.

A peace precedent

Yet the paradoxes and contradictions continue. Kabila’s efforts notwithstanding, Rwanda was on 18 October elected as one of three countries to take up a non-permanent place on the fifteen-member UN Security Council, gaining 148 of 193 votes. And while Kabila and the GoE have characterised Kagame as a warmonger, on 29 October the Rwandan leader was named the African Peace Personality of 2012, after receiving votes from more than 817,000 students and youth across the continent.

Kagame himself, speaking as Kigali played host to the African Economic Conference on 30 October, pointedly referred to the DRC by blaming the ongoing regional crisis on weak leadership and a failure of governance, as well as poorly targeted and conceived interventions by the international community. The current events in Kivu have highlighted how far apart the two presidents are in their respective visions - yet also that any solution needs meaningful regional reconciliation.

The former Nigerian president and regional peace advocate, Olusegun Obasanjo, has weighed into the debate by calling for Kabila to return to the original peace plan of 2009. "Quite honestly, from what I know and see, I believe that if the recommendations we gave to the DRC had been implemented faithfully, we could have seen a return to peace in eastern DRC."

In effect, the answer is already on the board for a return to peace: namely, the disarming of the militias and their reintegration into a national army and society. One of Obasanjo’s greatest achievements in 2009 was bringing together Kabila and Kagame after the two leaders' tense stand-off in 2008 over responsibility for the revolt of Laurent Nkunda’s Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) (which proved to be the precursor of Ntaganda’s M-23’s mutiny). It remains to be seen if the Nigerian diplomat can again pull off the impressive feat of bonding Rwanda and the DR Congo governments in the search for a desperately needed peace.

But the current signals from Kinshasa show only a hardening of views against Rwanda: On 23 October, the important trade border between Goma and Gisenyi between the two countries had its opening hours severely curtailed after orders from the governor of Kivu. Also, DR Congo MPs boycotted a meeting in western Rwanda of the eleven-country Amani Forum, a regional parliamentary body, held to discuss a way forward in the peace process.

A long-term vision

A far greater challenge still remains as and when the current situation is resolved: developing a strategy that looks beneath the militia-led headlines to address the root causes of fragmentation, unrest and division in local communities and provincial government.

In its recent sixty-page report, "Ending the Deadlock: Towards a new Vision of Peace in the DRC", International Alert urges that "a broad, long-term vision should incorporate: the country’s potential for the development of a stable and effective system of governance; a more open and inclusive society; and a buoyant and equitable economy that benefits Congolese citizens at all levels." The problems faced, it argues, are inherently political and need a political solution, including sweeping political and structural reforms that are inclusive and participatory. The report recommends a new "bottom up" approach that would include stakeholders from local communities as well as provincial, national and regional players.

The final official release of the GoE’s report will soon ensure yet more difficult headlines for Rwanda and Uganda. But it will change little for the inhabitants of Kivu, who are facing acute hardship. After the media dust settles, President Kabila must make some delicate political decisions on dealing with the M-23 - and his neighbours in Kigali and Kampala. If there is to be any chance of implementing the vital long term solutions the people of Kivu and the DRC deserve, then at some point the blame-game has to stop and the process of negotiation and mutual accommodation must begin.

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