The disarmament deal signed by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda on 9 November 2007 is a landmark step in the peace process between both countries. But to finally cool tensions in Africa's turbulent Great Lakes region, all parties are going to have to now tackle the collapsing eastern Congolese province of North Kivu.
Even in the context of the incredible scope of the conflict in central Africa, the North Kivu situation seems intractable. Its immediate origins lie in Rwanda's invasion of its larger neighbour in 1996 as part of the effort to hunt down some of the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda two years earlier. This campaign against the Hutu interahamwe militias sparked what came to be known as the "first Congo war". Rwandan troops then repeated their move into Congo in 1998 - igniting the "second Congo war", in which nine other African countries joined the fray. In the next five years an estimated 3.8 million lives were lost either because of the fighting itself or through hunger and disease; and even after a peace deal was finally signed in 2003, the aftershocks of war were bound to continue to affect the region.
North Kivu has been the epicentre of this violence through most of the past decade. The Congolese transitional government established after the wars subsided has failed to resolve the conflict there. In 2007, fresh fighting between the army and mainly Tutsi insurgents led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda, among a variety of other armed groups, has plunged the area deeper into crisis. A million civilians have been displaced in North Kivu, a third of them within the past year.
The November 2007 agreement between Congo and Rwanda is thus a welcome move toward addressing one dimension of the crisis. Its major added value was the Kinshasa government's commitment to prepare by 1 December a detailed plan to disarm the Rwandan Hutu rebels (now known as the FDLR) with the backing of the United Nations mission in Congo (Monuc). In support of this plan, Rwanda agreed to share a list of wanted génocidaires currently based in Congo, and pledged to stop all cross-border movements from its territory, which have helped sustain Nkunda's campaign.
But the peace deal is only one element of a solution. To build on it, there is a need for a judicious mix of military pressure and diplomatic negotiation. In particular, operations against the FDLR and Nkunda's insurgents must be combined with dialogue with these two groups in the attempt to isolate hardliners from the rank-and-file (who could agree to disarm voluntarily if presented with the right incentives). A particular question hangs over the Congolese army's willingness and capacity to cut its ties with the FDLR, and indeed to combat it and capture its leaders. For its part, institutional reforms in Kigali to provide more political space for the opposition in the country could be part of an intensive outreach campaign from the Rwandan side. Meanwhile, Kinshasa's resumption of contacts with Nkunda's group could help facilitate its departure from the bush and its integration into the national army.
Also in openDemocracy on the DR Congo and the region's wars:
Caspar Henderson, "Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa" (6 April 2004)
Tristan McConnell, "The Democratic Republic of Congo: living up to its name?" (27 July 2006)
Tristan McConnell, "The DR Congo's dangerous run-off" (22 August 2006)
Andrew Wallis, "Rwandan rifts in La Francafrique" (14 December 2006)
Gérard Prunier, "The DR Congo's political opportunity" (14 March 2007)
Gérard Prunier, "Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict" (18 April 2007)
In turn, sustained international support will be necessary to enable such measures to be implemented, and to help minimise risk of further civilian suffering in this delicate transition.
The last chapter
A lasting peace in DR Congo requires a comprehensive and multifaceted strategy to de-escalate the crisis, avoid civilian massacres and tackle the roots of the conflict in North Kivu. This strategy must include redressing earlier failures in the Congo peace process (on integrating former warring factions into a united national army, and achieving justice for the victims of crimes committed during the wars without upsetting the fragile peace) as well as encouraging economic development.
The past eighteen months since the 2006 elections have seen a certain easing of tensions, but only through the appeasement and containment of warlords. Violence resumed following the balloting since the deeper underlying reasons for the conflict had yet to be addressed, and while most attention remained focused on Kinshasa's heated politics, the situation in North Kivu kept deteriorating. A more definitive political transition in DR Congo has yet to happen: deep mutual resentments have festered, and all communities have continued to arm.
Thus, to address the crisis as a whole, a new system of governance must be established, both in Kinshasa and in North Kivu. There has to be a wide-ranging effort to tackle the economic, land, judicial and community-reconciliation aspects of the crisis. The country's international partners must actively support this reform agenda and desist from indulging the central government's misguided desire to deal with the conflict by military means alone.
The new disarmament deal alone will not bring an end to the regional conflict, which continues to produce immense suffering and to carry wider risks for DR Congo and its neighbours. A new page of the Congo's peace process has been turned, but lasting peace will never come until the chapter on North Kivu is written.