Published 29 Jan 09
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
New Twists in Congo Conflict – and Just Maybe a Turn for the Better
In the list I published three weeks ago of the conflicts or other flashpoints in Africa which were likely to demand the attention of the Obama administration in Washington as well as of its international partners in the course of this year, third place was occupied by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the continent's third largest state by area and its fourth largest by population (the new Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, apparently agreed with me at least partially: in testimony at her Senate confirmation hearing, she listed "stopping the war in Congo" as the third objective for African policy, after countering terrorism in the Horn of Africa and helping Africans conserve and benefit from their natural resources). As it turns out, events on the ground moved quickly, leading both to an escalation of what had hitherto been a low-intensity proxy conflict and, ironically, to the possibility that a comprehensive resolution to the longstanding regional instability might actually be in sight.
In order to understand recent developments, it is necessary to place them in a larger context. As I argue in an essay in the current issue of the journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, at the root of the DRC's problems is the artificial and contrived nature of the Congolese state:
It is a not insignificant irony that the lamentable misery in which most of the citizens of the DRC find themselves – the country ranks 168th out of 177 countries surveyed in terms of human development according to the most recent survey by the [United Nations Development Programme] – is directly attributable to the immense natural wealth of the Congo itself. More than a century ago, it was these riches to be won which led Leopold II of the Belgians to hire Henry Morton Stanley to carve out for him a territory seventy-six times larger than his kingdom in Europe, an audacious private venture that was eventually sanctioned by the 1885 General Act of Berlin Conference. Although the inhuman depredations in the Belgian monarch's demesne were widely condemned as brutal, even in comparison with the cruelties of colonial scramble of the time, no move was ever made to right the original historical wrong of throwing together in a single unit the size of Western Europe what has proven to be an explosive mixture of peoples with little historical basis for national cohesion ...
Sadly, but not surprisingly, this state of affairs, whereby the challenges of geographic breadth are exacerbated by the temptations of fabulous wealth and the near total lack of responsive governance, has largely determined the course of events in the DRC. As what had passed for central government essentially withered, various armed groups imbued with a "fend-for-yourself" ethos simply used force to seize control of patches of territory, thus acquiring effective dominion over strategic assets which they then leveraged to acquire the wherewithal to combat opposing factions – all to the detriment of the overall peace of the country and the stability of its neighbors.
The 2002 "Sun City Agreement" brokered by then-South African President Thabo Mbeki was supposed to bring all the strife to close by ending the Second Congo War (1998-2003), a conflict aptly described as in the title of my friend Gérard Prunier's eponymous new book as "Africa's World War" given that the armies of nearly a dozen other African states, including those of Angola, Burundi, Chad, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, had been drawn into the fighting. However, the terms of peace accord were never fully implemented, despite the presence of what is the largest United Nations peacekeeping operation in the world today, the Mission de l'Organisation des Nations-Unies au Congo (MONUC, "Mission of the United Nations Organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo"). As I reported here two years ago, the 2006 national elections did little more than bestow a thin veneer of electoral respectability on an unsavory cast of characters, including President Joseph Kabila who, before he was even thirty-years-old, had inherited the presidential mantle from his assassinated warlord father Laurent-Désiré Kabila; Jean-Pierre Bemba, a vice president during the transitional administration who finished second in the presidential poll and was subsequently elected a senator before being arrested last year in Brussels on a warrant from the International Criminal Court which has charged him with five counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity; and the third place finisher in the race for president and subsequent prime minister (until last October), Antoine Gizenga, an octogenarian who in the 1960s had tried to set up his own government in Stanleyville (now Kisangani) with backing from the Soviet bloc.
Not surprisingly, despite the formal "peace," conflicts continued in various parts of the DRC both before and after the national elections (despite the country's legal name, democratic local elections have never been held since the Congolese achieved independence from Belgium in 1960). In the eastern Congo, particularly the provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu, militiamen loyal to the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP, "National Congress for the Defense of the People"), a largely Tutsi group led by a General Laurent Nkunda and surreptitiously backed by Rwanda, continued its fight against the Forces Démocratiques de la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR, "Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda"), a group of armed Hutu insurgents, including some of the génocidaires responsible for the 1994 genocide, which enjoyed the backing of the commanders of the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC, "Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo") and, presumably, of the Kabila regime. By 2007, Nkunda was in open rebellion against the far-off government in Kinshasa, which tried and failed to dislodge him militarily. After the collapse of several attempts at mediation, fighting broke out anew in the fall of 2008, which resulted in the CNDP gaining control of most of North Kivu after the FARDC failed spectacularly in an attempt to take down General Nkunda in open battle.
In December, when I was in the Rwandan resort town of Gisenyi, just next door to the North Kivu capital of Goma on the shores of Lake Kivu, the smallest of Africa's Great Lakes, it looked like the conflict was set to be a protracted one. My conversations with international observers as well as senior Rwandan officials reaffirmed the diagnosis I made in this column three months ago that nothing would change unless the Kabila regime: (1) acknowledged the reality of the CNDP, with which it was refusing to talk, and (2) addressed the security concerns of Rwanda over the continuing presence on Congolese territory of the Hutu killers. Both, as I have repeatedly argued, are legitimate factors which have largely been sidelined in the otherwise fruitless talks being conducted in Nairobi, Kenya, under the chairmanship of the United Nations Secretary-General's special envoy for the Great Lakes region, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and the African Union's special envoy, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa.
Whatever anyone else might think of General Nkunda's CNDP, the movement was viewed by many residents of the Kivus as their protector against the predations of both FARDC troops and irregulars allied with it. While CNDP militiamen are generally not paid for their service, they are fed and receive medical care. Their families likewise benefit from a primitive social welfare system. In short, the group provides its adherents – whose ranks have expanded beyond the core base of ethnic Tutsi to embrace ethnic Nandé, Nyanga, and Shi as well as more than a few ethnic Hutu – with precisely the social goods that the Kabila regime has thus far failed to make provision for and, hence, has an effective political legitimacy whose influence needs to be recognized.
Given the history of the genocide and its aftermath, it is likewise understandable that the Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame would be preoccupied with the fact that thousands of armed Hutus are just over the border, to say nothing of the support that Kinshasa gives to the militia. After all, the FDLR makes no secret of its ambitions: its website, emblazoned with the flag of the "Hutu power" regime that ruled from 1962 until 1994, brands the current government in Kigali a "tyrannic [sic] and barbaric regime" andproclaims its goal to "liberate Rwanda." The FDLR supports itself by mining gold, nickel, tungsten, and other minerals in the areas under its control, operating primitive mines in collaboration with Congolese businessmen, many of whom are politically connected. What sovereign state, much less one that undergone the trauma that Rwanda has, could be expected to put up with such a provocation?
While the Nairobi talks convened by the UN and AU envoys continued, shifts were taking place closer to the ground. Three weeks ago, the chief of the general staff of the Rwandan Defense Force (RDF), General James Kabarebe flew to Kinshasa to meet with President Kabila of the DRC, causing a flurry of rumors about a secret deal. A week later, a group of CNDP leaders led by the CNDP's chief of staff, Bosco Ntaganda, announced that it had removed Nkunda. Ntaganda, known as "The Terminator," is sought on an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for the war crimes of enlistment and conscription of children and using them in combat, although the charges date from his earlier association with another militia, Thomas Lubanga's Forces Patriotiques pour la Libération du Congo (FPLC, "Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo"), active in northeastern Ituri province during the latter phase of the Second Congo War. While Nkunda's supporters discounted the maneuver, it gained traction when General Kabarebe appeared alongside DRC Interior Minister Célestin Mbuyu at a meeting of the dissident CNDP leaders, who declared a ceasefire and said that they were prepared to now integrate into the FARDC to fight the FDLR.
These developments were but a prelude for the entente between Kigali and Kinshasa which was unveiled over the course of the week. First, Rwandan troops entered the eastern part of the DRC with the Kinshasa's assent to pursue the FDLR. Reports are that up to 7,000 Rwandan troops have been sent in the effort to flush out the Hutu militia. While the deployment was officially a joint operation involving both RDF and FARDC units, it was clear that the highly-trained Rwandans were spearheading the thrust. Second, in perhaps the biggest surprise of all, Rwandan forces arrested General Nkunda, who had entered Rwanda as the joint operation began. Over the weekend, the arrest sparked demonstrations – which were quickly dispersed – by Congolese Tutsis, including some in refugee camps in Rwanda, among whom the general is still popular. The arrest also belied parts of a December 2008 report by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC which alleged a close relationship between the Rwandan government and Nkunda beyond the common interest in preventing a resurgence of the FDLR.
While international nongovernmental organizations have expressed concern about the turn of events – the International Committee of the Red Cross solemnly reminded the parties to the conflict of their obligation "to preserve the lives and dignity of the civilian population and of people wounded or captured during the fighting," while the International Crisis Group put out a press release warning of "an even greater humanitarian crisis" and Amnesty International called upon the governments "to develop clear plans to prevent reprisal attacks against civilians by the FDLR ... and to ensure that civilians do not pay the price of these military offensives" – may present a significant opportunity to break the logjam that has kept the heart of African continent locked in conflict for too long. If military coordination can lead to security cooperation between Kigali and Kinshasa, then perhaps it might be hoped that the current operations could prove to be a "confidence building measure" through which the two neighbors, so long at odds, might be led to discern that it might be in both their interests to strive for a comprehensive political settlement and then, with effort and a bit of luck, joint economic development, leveraging the comparative advantages of each country: Congo's wealth in terms of raw materials and Rwanda's growing economy – it grew 10 percent in 2008, beating mid-year predictions of a 7-percent increase, despite the global downturn – with its efficient government and private-sector-friendly policies (on how the Rwandan economy is different from that of most African countries, see the article last year on "The Rwandan Paradox" by Mauro De Lorenzo of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research).
Of course, for now, this is all aspiration. More immediately, the direct Rwandan intervention raises a number of questions, beginning with how long the RDF will remain in the two Kivus. Among the Hutu militants currently being pursued across the inhospitable terrain of North Kivu are some 7,000 individuals wanted in Rwanda for having taken part in the genocide. Certainly the Rwandan forces cannot be expected to withdraw until the FDLR is totally disarmed, a task which the 18,422 personnel of MONUC with their $1.2 billion annual budget has been unable to accomplish in eight years. Moreover, even if the Hutus no longer pose a military threat to Rwandan state, any government in Kigali would still have a tutelary interest in the fate of the vulnerable Tutsi minority in eastern Congo. Add to these calculations the temptations of the region's abundant resources and one could see a scenario whereby Rwanda maintains a presence in the Kivus for some time, either openly through a status of forces agreement with the Kabila regime in Kinshasa or via proxy in the form of a reconstituted CNDP, presumably under a more malleable leader than the irascible General Nkunda.
The international community has been slow to react to the changing dynamics, much less seize upon the opportunity presented by current rapprochement between Kigali and Kinshasa to move beyond conventional remedies which have proven ineffective towards creative solutions based on on-the-ground realities and local legitimacies. President Barack Obama, whose foreign policy agenda on the White House website specifically cites "countering instability in Congo" as one of three examples of his Senate record of "bringing people together ... to advance important policy initiatives," has yet to even nominate an assistant secretary to head the U.S. State Department's Africa Bureau, much less a special envoy to deal with the various conflicts across the Great Lakes region, most of which are beyond the scope of any one ambassador's mission. The United Nations has done little more in recent days than to send the Secretary-General's special representative in the DRC, Briton Alan Doss, a lifelong UN employee, on another fact-finding tour of North Kivu (to his credit, MONUC's military commander, Senegalese General Babacar Gaye, did announce on Wednesday that his force would provide transport and medical assistance to the new campaign against the Hutu rebels). As for the African Union, the chairperson of the AU Commission, Jean Ping, managed to make it through his monthly press conference on Tuesday without even mentioning the word "Congo." Despite these disappointments, the mere fact that – at least for the moment – Rwanda and the Congo are not pulling in entirely opposite directions is in itself reason enough to give rise to hope.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2009 J. Peter Pham
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