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Congo: Déjà vous all over again

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3 November 2008 07:40

Guest blogger: Jim Terrie is a risk management consultant and former Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group.

The recent fighting and looming humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has thrust it back into the news and brought a flurry of diplomatic activity. It has also highlighted how few options exist in the face of an intractable conflict.

The crisis in the Congo started in the period after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which saw hundreds of thousand of Rwandan Hutus flee over the border of then Zaire. The consequences led to the fall of the Mobutu regime and a conflict involving numerous African countries, Congolese armies and militias. The cost is estimated to have been over 5 million lives. The UN peacekeeping mission, the UN’s largest, has been in place since 2000, and costs nearly $1 billion a year. 

In mid-2003 the Ituri region of the DRC erupted in Rwanda-like inter-ethnic conflict, leading to thousands of killings – many in proximity to UN forces who refused to intervene. Faced with a collapse of the mission, the French led an EU intervention force to stabilise the region and give the UN breathing space to reinforce. In mid-2004, General Nkunda captured the town of Bukavu after the capitulation of UN forces in the town. This resulted in atrocities being committed against civilians both by Nkunda’s forces and the Congolese Army, who later re-occupied the town.

Congolese Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda’s campaign against the Congolese Government is a symptom of the failed state that the Congo continues to be. In particular, Nkunda points to the continued presence in the DRC of Rwandan Hutu forces, many responsible for the 1994 genocide. The Congolese Government has supported and allied with these Hutus against the Congolese Tutsi populations as it has suited them. President Joseph Kabila won the elections in 2006 on a strong ‘anti-Rwandan’ [i.e. anti-Tutsi] platform in the east. Added to this ethnic dynamic are the opportunities for economic exploitation and poor regional relations.

The immediate problem for the UN and the EU, which has taken a direct interest, is what can be done to at least alleviate the humanitarian suffering and maybe prevent any widening of the conflict. The Congolese Government cannot be relied upon and its soldiers have fled in the face of Nkunda’s advance — looting and killing as they went — despite millions of dollars spent on security sector reform. 

It’s possible but unlikely that the EU (ie France and/or UK) will send an intervention force as it did in 2003. The UN and its 17500 troops is now the only force able to prevent Nkunda from capturing the town of Goma, where thousands have fled. To do so it has to, unlike in 2004, be prepared to defend the town. This is likely to be sufficient to deter Nkunda (in part due to pressure from Rwanda) and to allow the negotiation of humanitarian access and a withdrawal.

However, solving the problems of the DRC will require a realistic acknowledgment of the underlying political, economic and ethnic weaknesses of the DRC, of which Nkunda’s rebellion is a symptom and which the Congolese Government is incapable of solving. Likewise, the international community needs to reassess its options, as much of the last eight years has done little to move the DRC forward.

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