Cities seized by rebels. Civilians fleeing from their homes. Murders, abductions, rapes, looting. Foreign forces backing insurgents and denying they are doing so. Rumors of other regional powers sending in military support. It sounds like a drama we have watched before.
Sadly, we have, over and over. Since 1994, when Rwandan Hutu refugees fled there, the provinces of North and South Kivu of the Democratic Republic of Congo have been in an uninterrupted state of armed conflict.
From 1998 to 2003, this enormous country was the scene of Africa’s first world war, with the armies of at least half a dozen countries blasting away at each other while their commanders filled their pockets.
There are signs that we may be headed be down that path once again. Last week, an insurgent force calling itself the March 23 Movement, or M23, seized control of the city of Goma, in North Kivu. It is now marching toward the key airport of Kavumu, which serves Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, where Congolese and foreign troops are said to be arriving by the planeload.
Something must be done quickly, or a series of brutal and inconclusive battles, probably involving countless civilian casualties, is likely to ensue.
Past truces have issued from internationally brokered negotiations that were in reality exchanges of franchises and benefits. None has lasted. On past performance, we’re probably heading for yet another of these. Yet there may now also be an opportunity to break the cycle.
(In 2009-2011 I was based in Goma with the consulting firm Development Alternatives Inc. as adviser to the U.S. Agency for International Development on various peace processes.)
Outsiders are understandably baffled. How can this be, I am often asked, with the expectation that I’ll say something like it’s all about mineral wealth, or it’s all about ethnic rivalries, or it’s all about how Congo is too big ever to be governed.
Those of us who follow these events closely, year after year, are condemned to take a deep breath and, knowing that eyes will glaze over, to say, well, yes and no, it’s a bit of each, but, really, it’s all very complicated.
Right now, though, I actually think that a dose of impatience on the part of the international community is in order. It needs to be impatient with the principal actors in this drama, but it needs also to be deeply self-critical, or the past could indeed repeat itself.
Among the myriad localized rivalries, the tent-pole conflict centers on Goma and the business interests that converge there: control of the mineral trade, but also of the trade in food staples and high-value export crops; control of international assistance, including the housing and feeding of aid workers; control of the rich rangeland in the adjacent Masisi hills; conflict over land titles in all these areas and in Goma itself, whose prosperity has been fueled by the war economy; and, implausible as this may sound now, control of a huge potential tourist industry in a city located by an emerald-green mountain lake, surrounded by spectacular volcanoes and adjacent to Virunga National Park, one of Africa’s finest game reserves.
Instead of agreeing to compete on business terms, elites from powerful ethnic groups have for decades, in collusion with factions of the Congolese and neighboring governments, been organized into mafias. They have built market share and acquired titles, concessions and licenses from corrupt officials, run protection rackets and ensured that most markets remain black.
During the long collapse of the Mobutu regime in the 1990s these mafias became militarized, a process that accelerated in 1994 when the Rwandan civil war spilled across the border.
Spiraling outward from Goma, smaller local militias have sprung up everywhere in North and South Kivu, preying on populations while claiming to protect their interests. A group whose origins lie in the old, defeated Rwandan army, though much depleted, still roams the countryside.
No level of international pressure is going to eliminate the core business rivalries between elites from the Tutsi, Nande and Mushi ethnic groups, just to mention three of most prominent. Nor will it eradicate their ties to Congolese, Rwandan or Ugandan military and political factions. There is a deep and long game of influence being played here. Non-regional internationals lack the skills, knowledge, wits and commitment to play at that level.
But the international community must nonetheless try to get it right this time. Instead of acting as a broker between interests in a game way over its head, it must make itself the champion of the civilian population, demanding that rivalries be demilitarized; that militias be disarmed; that the hapless and corrupt Congolese national army be reduced to a tiny core of vetted units and rebuilt from scratch; and that the political system be rethought to take into account local aspirations.
This latter point is vital. The present Constitution allows for a measure of decentralized administration but falls short of devolving any real authority. A fully federal system might simply displace the seat of corruption and mafia influence to the provinces, but elected, empowered provincial and local assemblies would be better placed to negotiate and broker local power relations.
As militias have proliferated, rivalries, particularly over land use and tenure and over access to markets, have been turned into existential battles in which local interests can only be protected by armed force. This has suited the elites just fine. A settlement that leaves the militias in place, or that again integrates them haphazardly into the national army, will only perpetuate the current mayhem.
A new political dispensation negotiated with civilian participation would almost surely lead to a measure of federalism and provide a local framework for local issues to be resolved. It has only been in recent decades that armed hysteria has replaced deal-making and compromise.
Implementation of such a deal will be hard, and will require solid assurances that international donor resources will be there to back it up. To succeed, the international community must say, in effect, we’re willing to back any reasonable solution as long as it includes rapid demilitarization, as well as meaningful involvement by communities, including women. It must include arrangements for equitable and transparent commercial relations within Congo and with its neighbors. It must promise international-justice action against anyone who works against the agreement by committing abuses. And the United Nations forces must be relieved of their misguided focus on supporting the national army and revert to their previous role as objective policeman.
Such an agreement would take time and effort to implement. But if key international actors can be very impatient now and then patient and steady going forward, the spiral of violence might at last start to unwind.
Willet Weeks is a Nairobi-based regional-affairs consultant for Development Alternatives, Inc. He has been involved in Congo matters since the early 1970s. The views expressed in this article are his own.