Don’t Save Congo

Last week, the Congolese Army defeated the rebel group, M23, with the help of United Nations forces and Tanzanian and South African troops.

Many observers seem to believe that this victory promises to bring an end to the intractable conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet foreign intervention to help President Joseph Kabila secure a military victory against his opponents is treating the symptom but not the disease that ails Congo.

The M23 is a manifestation of a deeper crisis. The Congolese government lacks the rudimentary security and administrative infrastructure to ensure law and order, let alone providing public goods and services like roads, schools, hospitals, electricity and water. Its army is undisciplined, poorly trained and poorly paid (when it gets paid).

All too often, the army survives by scavenging on ordinary citizens whom it frequently loots, terrorizes and rapes. This creates incentives for rebellion against the government.

Worse still, most of Congolese society is polarized along ethnic lines. Without a viable state to mediate these conflicts or protect one community from attacks by another, Congolese civilians often form ethnic militias to defend their specific interests. Although the United Nations, human rights organizations and the media have focused on M23 (perhaps because it was the strongest) there are over 40 rebel movements in Congo, each fighting the central government or holding precariously to an uneasy peace.

These political divisions are accentuated by the natural endowments of the Congo. The eastern region, for example, is heavily forested, mountainous and endowed with rich minerals like gold, tantalite and diamonds. These physical conditions create opportunities for violent rebellion; forests offer sanctuary to rebels; the mountains make it difficult for Congo’s corrupt and incompetent army to use mechanized vehicles to attack their camps while rich minerals provide revenues to sustain the rebellion.

The state in Congo is mostly absent. And where it is present, it is rapacious and repressive. Hence, most Congolese citizens prefer to either fight or avoid the government. The United Nations intervention will not resolve the issues that make violent rebellion attractive for many Congolese citizens. The United Nations has simply taken one side in the conflict. And this is likely to accentuate rather than ease existing tensions.

Defeating M23 might provide the Congolese government with a temporary reprieve from its most formidable opponent. But a viable solution won’t come from outside actors. It will have to come because incentives force elites in Kinshasa to build a more effective state that can defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The best incentive is a threat — and it has to be an existential threat.

If Mr. Kabila and his ruling allies in Kinshasa knew that they have to defeat rebel groups or otherwise face losing power or territory, that would be a powerful incentive on them to develop a state worthy of its name — one that can exercise a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence.

The only way to achieve this is to build an effective military and police force to ensure order and security across the country. This is unlikely to happen when the international community subsidizes Mr. Kabila’s incompetence and fights his wars.

In defeating M23 and establishing a semblance of peace, the international community has achieved a short-term humanitarian objective — an end to one rebellion. But it is a partial victory at best. It won’t end the myriad other rebellions raging across the country. And it hasn’t given Congolese elites any incentive to build a more robust state that defends its citizens against violent insurgents or seek political accommodation with them.

The defeat of M23 has created an artificial winner and an artificial loser. Mr. Kabila knows he has won because of external intervention. Fighters from M23 know they lost for a similar reason. In the future, Mr. Kabila will likely always seek to lean on his external benefactors to resolve internal conflicts. That, in turn, will make M23 and other groups wait for Mr. Kabila’s external benefactors to leave so that they can relaunch their rebellions.

Foreign intervention is helping Congolese leaders in Kinshasa look outside for a solution to a problem that can only be solved by internal political reform. It is liberating Mr. Kabila and his government from the necessary internal military and political bargains that can secure a lasting peace. And so Congo will remain a fragile state.

The most likely outcome will be to force the international community to continue babysitting the government in Kinshasa in the naïve hope that it will be able to defend itself against its internal competitors in the future. But as the experience of South Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan show, this is likely to become an open-ended commitment.

To solve the problems of Congo, the United Nations and other African countries may need to allow the belligerents to fight until one secures a decisive military victory or all sides get exhausted by war and find working together more attractive than further fighting.

Anyone with capacity to organize an army, mobilize resources and pacify the country should be given a chance to prove this on the battlefield. If no one can secure a military victory, they may then seek political accommodation. Indeed, this is the path Mr. Kabila had begun in 2009, when he co-opted various belligerents into the political process, thus turning enemies into strategic allies.

It could happen again, but not if the international community fights his wars for him.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding managing editor of The Independent, a Ugandan news magazine.

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