Once more, international politics on the verge to fail the Congo?

(Most of this essay, I actually wrote a few weeks ago, but I considered it still interesting now with a few amendments.)

Two months ago in Kinshasa, Congolese flags and Francophonie logos were edging the boulevards. Heads of State, including French President Hollande, of l’Organisation Internationale de le Francophonie attended their summit secured by heavily armed policemen and military patrolling around to disperse any attempt of uprising roughly a year after flawed presidential elections in which Joseph Kabila eventually maintained power over Etienne Tshisekedi. Subject to repressions during the campaign, the latter did not stay innocent either: Ethnically framed slogans increased the prevailing tensions. Prior to the summit, Hollande made clear the Congo’s democratic and human rights performance was unacceptable. Obviously, he pointed on the polls, pending local and regional elections, the case of assassinated human rights activist Chebeya, the repression of NGOs and opposition politicians, overwhelming corruption, and not least the myriad of conflicts in the East.

In opening up “une nouvelle page” in Franco-African relationships pursuant to “Françafrique”, Hollande spoke out but the actual value of his remarks are likely to remain an anecdotal side-event in the Congo’s long history of conflict and international involvement. The “international community” has done little to prevent the country’s Nth backlash into civil war and humanitarian suffering. Although MONUSCO is the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, consuming more than a billion dollars per annum, its performance is viewed critically by many observers. Despite its mandate having been verbally sharpened over time, both in operational focus and related rules of engagement, achievements on the ground remain poor given the recent proliferation of militias and the alleged regional involvement. MONUSCO is now required to first and foremost protect the civilian population and the humanitarian personnel – even before protecting its own soldiers. This has been specified in the UN Security Council’s resolution S/RES/2053 where a prioritisation has been made in this regard. Nonetheless, recent helicopter gunship attacks in the frame of MONUSCO support to the Congolese army’s struggle against M23 rebels have highlighted that, in operational terms, the reality is different. Protection of civilians remains a challenge. The current situation in terms of funding, material, and personnel reflects both the lack of willingness among major stakeholders and the mission’s lack of capacity, not only to adequately tackle but also to understand the local and regional dynamics of the conflicts.

In New York, meanwhile, the final report of the UN Group of Experts has been published, reiterating and reinforcing accusations against Rwanda and Uganda. Major donors of Congo’s accused neighbour Rwanda froze their aid due to the alleged support to the M23 rebel configuration now renamed “Armée Révolutionaire du Congo”. Rwanda, in turn, has had presented its rebuttal to the midterm report addendum – quite similar to the UN report in form and to Kagame’s political rhetoric in style – denying basically any support to M23 and maintained this stance after the publication of the final report. A thorough analysis leads to the following conclusion: Some of the facts the Group tabled should be taken cum grano salis, but after all their probability is too high to dismiss them. Rwanda’s reply deconstructs everything but only partly in a persuasive way. Although it is undeniable that Rwanda plays a role, Kagame is right in asking to look at the domestic aspects being a fertile soil to the M23/ARC instead of purely focussing on Rwanda.

On the international level in general, protagonists remain idle except a condemnations of all forces supporting M23/ARC by the Security Council, accusation against “their supporters” and some aid freezing towards Rwanda and Uganda. No major power wants to overly endorse the current DRC government after the alleged electoral hold-up. Remembering the failure of yet so many mediation attempts, the “international community” has become cautious in its political activities towards the Congo while country’s east sinks into a renewed quagmire with alarming humanitarian consequences, a yet worn down socio-political tissue gets under further pressure. The emergence of Raia Mutomboki, initially a locally confined militia in Southern Shabunda, as a multi-chapter, decentralised configuration is but one example of this development. It is also sign of a paradigm shift happening in the region. While many observers tend to say that history is repeating itself in the Great Lakes, the phenomenon of Raia Mutomboki – combined with the observation that M23/ARC is not simply a pure Tutsi-led successor of CNDP – prompts the assumption that classic fault lines may shift. The increasing number of so-called “alliances contre-nature” adds to this. As of now, awareness among Western media and politics seems to be limited at that point.

The earlier mentioned inactivity of the “international community” has opened a window of opportunity for what is commonly coined “African solutions to African problems”: The ICGLR, a regional organisation comprising eleven member states (www.icglr.org), backed by the African Union, has taken a lead. It both seizes a chance to perform as an honest broker and takes a risk to fail as a mediator between its own members. Unfortunately, the noble idea of ownership is on the verge of failure, since 1) ICGLR is neither equipped nor funded in adequate manner to perform as a peacemaker in such a protracted environment and under centrifugal pressure from its own members 2) both ICGLR and its members are detached from the affected populations in the Kivu provinces 3) the holy grail of ICGLR summit diplomacy is to deploy a neutral, multinational military force to a yet overmilitarised area. Especially the third aspect is telling: After six summits, ICGLR member states and AU representatives are still struggling over troop contribution, the nature of the force’s “neutrality” and, of course, the financial aspects. This is not surprising given that each multinational military intervention has to be paid for. Investing all available resources into this task, however, has been one of the reasons for other options to be neglected ever since. A crucial question is therefore, whether Western and regional leaders will be willing to plunge into more complex initiatives of conflict resolution at all.

In summary, a short-time outlook is not promising: Rwandan and Ugandan troops have been reported pouring into North Kivu as the rebels took Goma. The Congolese government still seems to refuse talk to M23/ARC although the latter have put that a condition when they left Goma again. The ICGLR-brokered “accords” have now led to a situation whereby shared control will be established in Goma (FARDC, M23/ARC, and even one battalion of the famous neutral force) but a breakthrough looks different. Negotiations between DRC and M23/ARC, even if they finally take place, will not alone solve the problem. The same holds true for DRC–Rwanda talks. The reason for that is that any negotiations between “big players” will necessarily leave out lots of grievance-laden other groups, Raia Mutomboki to be cited as an example again. They will also leave out classic groups of thugs that operate as satellites of FARDC or M23/ARC and another notorious player on the field – the FDLR. Hence, many of the underlying root causes of the multi-layered conflicts are unlikely to be addressed, such as:

1) Land ownership and contradicting land rights remain a vital source for local conflict.

2) Ethno-political tensions between communities need a comprehensive socio-economic agenda that is inclusive towards all populations in terms of access to basic goods.

3) The so-called resource curse is not in itself cause of the conflict but fuels the latter and Dodd Frank is a clear step in the wrong direction as increased smuggling activity indicates.

4) Security sector reform including police, military, paramilitary, and judicial organs remains absolutely necessary for its potential as a broadband remedy for many areas to be tackled.

Particularly among international actors engaging in or on DRC, a more sensitive understanding of these is vital in order to overcome a vicious circle of repeating wrong stimuli time and again.

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