DR Congo: the politics of suffering

A rise in violent tension in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, across the border from Rwanda, is the latest phase of a conflict unresolved since the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The wider story it tells is one of state failure in the DRC, says Andrew Wallis.

Andrew Wallis
5 September 2012

The crisis in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has continued for much of summer 2012, a recent month-long ceasefire notwithstanding. Claim and counter-claim about responsibility for the situation have increasingly added to the tension. A worrying by-product, almost entirely unreported in the media, is that the hostility has spread to Europe as diaspora communities become involved in the violence. The international community may have produced numerous stern speeches and articles, but seems to have decided that the DRC crisis is one to live with and manage, rather than push for radical solutions. Yet it is the latter, which take account of the underlying historic and structural issues, that are needed for lasting peace to be achieved.

The recent report by the United Nations Group of Experts, backed by other sources - western media, Human Rights Watch, Congolese politicians - have put the blame solidly on neighbouring Rwanda for the current problems. They allege that the government of President Paul Kagame has armed and recruited soldiers for the newly formed M-23 militia, whose rebellion against the state has in turn destabilised the neighbouring DRC provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu.
Rwanda has hit back by producing an in-depth point-by-point rebuttal of every charge, and accusing Kinshasa of seeking to shift the blame for its own internal security and governance failures. Rwanda’s foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo addressed the UN Security Council on 29 August, when she strongly rebutted accusations that Kigali was fuelling the current unrest. “Rwanda’s national interest is served by peace and sustainable security in the eastern DRC”, she argued, saying that continued violence harms Rwanda’s economic and social development.
It’s true that the summer revolt by Bosco Ntaganda’s M-23 militia is a symptom of a much deeper underlying disorder. In this respect it resembles the equally well-publicised Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (National Congress for the Defence of the People / CNDP) campaign by Laurent Nkunda in 2006-07. M-23 has in many ways become (as did Nkunda) a convenient short-term target on which politicians can focus. By doing so, they accuse outside actors of responsibility and evade confronting the real source: intrinsic, intra-state problems. For at heart, this crisis is about belonging, about inclusivity, about insecurity and about a failure of governance.

The regional context
For more than a century, Rwandans have settled in the two Kivu provinces. In the late 1880s, they were welcomed by the Belgian colonial government because they increased the local labour-supply. More Rwandan immigrants arrived in the Kivus in the first decades of the 20th century. Such Rwandaphones - or “Banyarwanda” - have survived decades of attempted integration into the DRC state and society. Their fight for land-rights and citizenship in what they regard as their home has been a major cause and accelerant of unrest.
The post-colonial president of the country he renamed as Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seke, used the question over Banyarwanda land-rights and citizenship as a tool of political control in the 1960s and 1970s - effectively continuing the colonial “divide-and-rule” tactics. Mobutu did, shortly after he seized power, grant citizenship to all who had lived in the Kivus since 1960; but he later reversed this policy, thus adding to the distrust and antagonism felt in the locality by ethnic groups competing for a finite and increasingly rare commodity they needed to survive - land.
The Kivus are some of the most densely populated parts of Africa. Ownership of land-rights in the steep-sided fertile land is vital - and without citizenship such rights cannot be granted. Among other ethnic groups such as the Nyanga and Hunde, the need to assert their own claim to land-rights led to direct conflict with the Banyarwanda, an inter-ethnic conflict which the central government in Kinshasa watched with satisfaction. There was further conflict within the Banyarwanda community, as Banyamulenge - Congolese Tutsi settlers - fought to retain their land-rights against Hutu Congolese; the latter had been favoured by Mobutu after a deal with his friend, Rwanda’s then dictator Juvenal Habyarimana.
Habyarimana was assassinated on 6 April 1994. This was the trigger of the planned genocide of the Rwandan Tutsi over the ensuing hundred days. As the victorious Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Paul Kagame defeated the genocidal interim government, tens of thousands of Hutu extremists fled across the Rwandan border into the Kivus. High-profile genocidaire such as Protais Mpiranya - wanted by the Arusha-based war-crimes tribunal - have since used the DRC as a base for their post-1994 activities such as planning attacks on Rwanda, looting mineral resources and attacking civilians within the region. As a result, numerous militias have emerged directly related to the Rwandan conflict, either to promote the genocidaire (among these the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda [ALIR] and its outgrowth the Front Démocratique pour la Libération du Rwanda / Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda [FDLR)]), or to “defend” the Banyarwanda community (among these the Rally for Congolese Democracy [RCD-Goma] the CNDP - and now M-23).
There were two hugely destructive post-genocide wars between 1996-2002, and an assortment of peace treaties and agreements, but the land-ownership question has remained unclear. Politicians have continued to use the issue to provoke division between ethnic groups, rather than bring clarity and stability to this highly emotive area. As an example, the DRC constitution of 2005 “left the citizenship (and therefore land rights) of Banyarwanda ambiguous.” Until the government in Kinshasa finds the political will to settle the issue by granting citizenship and addressing the hugely controversial land rights of the Banyarwanda and indeed all the differing ethnic Congolese who have lived in this region for generations, the conflict will continue. The alternative is to force tens of thousands to leave their homeland. Playing politics with the issue for decades has only brought disaster for the people of the Kivus.

Crucially, there has also been a lack of any fully functioning security sector that assists public protection and economic stability. The Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) and local police are widely blamed for assisting or organising massacres, distributing arms to militias and sexual crimes. The militias are active alongside, while the absence of a proper national and local justice system means there is no protection from impunity.  

The Amani programme (the word means “peace” in Swahili) was agreed to in 2008 by the DRC's president, Joseph Kabila, aiming to bind all militia groups in the Kivus to a ceasefire, and to begin the disarmament and reintegration of them into civilian life.Within eighteen months the programme had failed, a result that an analysis by eighty-three NGOs attributed to a lack of political will by Kabila to negotiate with the CNDP. The security issue needed a political solution as much as a military one; without compromise from the government, nothing of any lasting benefit could be achieved. Instead, then as now, vested interests sought to prolong instability for short-term financial and political gain, and this overtook any real desire to bring a long-term resolution to the conflict.
The Kinshasa government’s failure of responsibility to pursue a long-term negotiated peace in 2008 was compounded by the international community’s partiality, which had the effect of assisting the repeat, four years on, of the same crisis. An assessment by the Washington think-tank Enough team in October 2008 was prescient: “[without] immediate and robust diplomatic pressure on the Congolese government and a more impartial effort by the United Nations peacekeepers to stop the fighting, [the] region could descend back into total war.”

The corruption dimension

A major source of difficulty is the continued presence in the region of the FDLR. The group is composed substantially of Hutu extremist genocidaire whose aim is to overthrown the current Rwandan government and bring terror to Bayarmulenge communities in the Kivus. The FDLR has been implicated in numerous massacres, rapes and human-rights outrages since being formed from its predecessor, the ALIR, in 2000. For the wider Banyarmulenge community, its existence is a major threat; any solution to the conflict will need to see the FDLR totally extinguished. That requires the Congolese government to stop playing politics with the FDLR situation: one moment ordering its curtailment, the next seemingly allowing its continued presence for political reasons (by using them to stop an anticipated Congolese Tutsi power forming in the eastern DRC).
Besides the militias, Congolese civilians of all ethnic groups have to contend with violence from their own “security” operatives. A report, Taking a Stand on Security Sector Reform, was produced in April 2012 by thirteen international and local Congolese groups; it noted that “many of Congo’s seemingly intractable conflict-related problems can be traced back to the dysfunctional security services: the army, police and courts. The Congolese government has failed to take concrete action to reform these vital institutions.” The report speaks of the FARDC preying on the populace, with highly positioned officers and government in the security sector “raking off salaries of servicemen, taking kickbacks or being involved in illegal mining, trade or protection rackets.”
Such corruption filters down the ranks, leading ill-paid recruits to force illegal payments from the local population. The judicial system breeds corruption so that impunity is the rule, not exception. Bosco Ntaganda, and indeed FDLR head Sylvestre Mudacumura, are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague for alleged war crimes, which shows how the DRC’s own judicial system seems incapable of holding them - and thousands of others who may have committed heinous crimes - to account. While there has been pressure on Kabila to hand over these suspects to the ICC, there has been very little pressure on the DRC leader to lead radical reform of his own judiciary and penal service; in the medium-to-long-term, the latter is vital to the health of the nation.
The DRC is currently ranked in last place in the world development index  - 187th out of 187 countries. This, despite having some of the worlds most prized mineral-deposits, and since 2002 having had $12.3 billion of debt written off along with more than $14 billion in aid. It is clear the international community must put pressure on Kinshasa to bring about tough new security-sector reforms; without that, any meaningful policies to bring resolution to the land and citizenship question, and to implement vital reforms in the areas of healthcare, education and gender-based violence, will come to nothing.
The security forces must become a means for protection, not enrichment. Militias - including M-23, the FDLR, the Mai Mai, the Congolese Resistance Patriots (Pareco), the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and others - need to be aggressively targeted by political and military action to get them disbanded, indicted for crimes committed where appropriate, and reintegrated into civil society.
In Goma and the wider Kivu area, the failure of state governance has resulted in localities setting up “self-governing” movements. Where the state cannot ensure their security, militias spring up. In April 2012, a land dispute in Minova and Bulenga spread over two villages, leading to deaths and injuries. The local police took one side, the military the other. Where social services fail, the populace have to rely on NGOs and their own small-scale initiatives. In the region, the government is accused by critics of being interested in taking taxes - but never spending them. Electricity and water supplies are sporadic at times as the infrastructure struggles to cope after years of neglect. Unemployment of young people has led to greater drug-taking in areas like Majengo, and provides a constant stream of recruits for political gangs and militia groups - a hangover from the Mobutu era that encouraged such mobilisation.

The way forward

The DRC has been rated by Transparency International in the bottom ten countries worldwide regarding corruption for the past decade. The TI’s report of 2010 sees corruption as a clear and ultimate driver of much of the state’s internal crisis. “The poor infrastructure, an underdeveloped regulatory environment, lack of institutional capacity and weak rule of law fuel the country’s persistent governance crisis”, it found. “Despite being endowed with considerable mineral wealth, extraction of natural resources continues to be combined with widespread corruption, including within the armed forces, fuelling violence, insecurity and public discontent. Corruption in tax and customs administration, as well as in the management of state-run companies, undermines the state’s capacity to collect revenues and escape the trap of mismanagement, conflict and poverty.”
It has been customary for Congolese politicians and politically-motivated western media to cast the blame on neighbouring Rwanda for all its ills. But the root of the DRC problems lie in the weakness of the state itself. Kinshasa urgently needs to resolve long-standing issues to do with citizenship and land-rights, to reform its security sector, cut corruption and restart good-governance programmes. It can no longer continue to use insecurity - some of it of its own making - as a way to distract international observers from resolving internal issues. Equally, the international community must address its failure to take a unified stand in targeting aid money to the most needed areas of reform, and to press Kabila’s government, however fragile, into radical reform of both its current practice and future vision.  
The conflict within the DRC can be solved only with a political will in Kinshasa and internationally that has long been missing. No amount of new border-security, billion-dollar UN stabilising forces, or NGOs can bring the needed reform within the DRC that, in reality, only central government can implement. And while the continuing distraction of how to respond to M-23 hogs the political limelight and international attention, the underlying problems remain - as does the daily hardship and violence suffered by citizens of this failing state.

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