Recent events on the ground in Congo have led both to an escalation of conflict and, paradoxically, to the possibility that a comprehensive resolution to the longstanding regional instability might be in sight.
At the root of the DRCâ€™s problems is the artificial nature of the Congolese state. More than a century ago, the immense natural wealth of Congo led King Leopold II of Belgium to hire Henry Morton Stanley to carve out for him a territory 76 times larger than his kingdom in Europe. No move was ever made to right this historical wrong of throwing together in a single unit the size of western Europe an explosive mixture of peoples with little historical basis for national cohesion.
This state of affairs has largely determined the course of events in the DRC. As what had passed for central government essentially withered, various armed groups seized control of patches of territory, acquiring effective dominion over strategic assets which they used to acquire the resources to combat opposing factions.
The 2002 â€œSun City Agreementâ€ brokered by then-South African president Thabo Mbeki was supposed to put an end to all the strifes. However, the terms of the accord were never fully implemented, despite the presence of the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world today, the Mission de lâ€™Organisation des Nations-Unies au Congo (MONUC). The 2006 national elections did little more than bestow a thin veneer of electoral respectability on an unsavoury cast of characters, including President Joseph Kabila who, before he was even 30 years old, had inherited the presidential mantle from his assassinated warlord father Laurent.
Not surprisingly, despite the formal â€œpeace,â€ conflicts continued in various parts of the DRC before and after the elections. In eastern Congo, particularly the provinces of North and South Kivu, militiamen loyal to the CongrÃ¨s National pour la DÃ©fense du Peuple (CNDP), a largely Tutsi group led by General Laurent Nkunda and surreptitiously backed by Rwanda, continued its fight against the Forces DÃ©mocratiques de la LibÃ©ration du Rwanda (FDLR), a group of armed Hutu insurgents, including some responsible for the 1994 genocide, which enjoyed the backing of the Congolese army, the Forces ArmÃ©es de la RÃ©publique DÃ©mocratique du Congo (FARDC), and, presumably, of the Kabila regime. By 2007, Nkunda, who is sought on an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for abducting children and using them in combat, was in open rebellion against the far-off government in Kinshasa. After the collapse of several attempts at mediation, fighting broke out anew in the autumn 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, in the Rwandan resort town of Gisenyi, just across the border from the North Kivu capital of Goma, I asked international observers and Rwandan officials for their assessment of the situation. One thing was clear: 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 concerns of Rwanda over the continuing presence on Congolese territory of the Hutu killers.
Whatever anyone else might think of Nkundaâ€™s CNDP, the movement was viewed by many residents of the Kivus as their protector against the predations of FARDC troops and irregular forces allied to them. While CNDP militiamen are generally not paid for their service, they are fed and receive medical care. Their families likewise benefit from a basic social welfare system. In short, the group has earned legitimacy by providing its adherents â€“ whose ranks have expanded beyond the core Tutsi base to embrace other ethnic groups, including Hutu â€“ with the social goods that the Kabila regime has thus far failed to provide.
Given Rwandaâ€™s recent history, it is understandable that President Paul Kagame is troubled by the 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 â€œHutu powerâ€ regime that ruled Rwanda from 1962 until 1994, brands the current government in Kigali â€œtyrannic [sic] and barbaric â€œ and proclaims its goal to â€œliberate Rwanda.â€ The FDLR supports itself by operating primitive mines in the areas under its control, in collaboration with Congolese businessmen. 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 continued, shifts were taking place closer to the ground. A few weeks ago, the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF) chief of staff, General James Kabarebe, flew to Kinshasa to meet President Kabila, causing a flurry of rumours about a secret deal. A week later, a group of CNDP leaders announced that it had removed Nkunda. While Nkundaâ€™s supporters discounted the manoeuvre, it gained traction when General Kabarebe appeared alongside DRC interior minister CÃ©lestin Mbuyu at a meeting of the dissident CNDP leaders, who declared a ceasefire and said that they were prepared to integrate into the FARDC to fight the FDLR.
But these developments were but a prelude for the entente between Kigali and Kinshasa that followed. First, Rwandan troops entered eastern DRC, with Kinshasaâ€™s assent, to pursue the FDLR. Reports are that up to 7,000 Rwandan troops were sent in the effort to flush out the Hutu militia. Second, and perhaps the biggest surprise of all, Rwandan forces arrested General Nkunda, who had entered Rwanda as the joint operation began. The arrest sparked demonstrations â€“ which were quickly dispersed â€“ by Congolese Tutsis, including some in refugee camps in Rwanda, among whom the general is still popular.
This turn of events may present a significant opportunity to break the logjam that has kept the heart of Africa locked in conflict. If military coordination between Kigali and Kinshasa can lead to security cooperation, then perhaps the two neighbours, so long at odds, may come to believe that it is in 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: Congoâ€™s natural wealth and Rwandaâ€™s growing economy â€“ it grew 10 percent in 2008 â€“ along with its efficient government and enterprise-friendly policies.
Of course, for now, this is all aspiration. More immediately, the Rwandan intervention raises a number of questions, beginning with how long the RDF will remain in the two Kivus. Among the Hutu militants being pursued across 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 MONUC, with its 18,422 personnel and annual budget of $1.2bn, has been unable to accomplish in eight years. Even if the Hutus no longer pose a military threat to the Rwandan state, any government in Kigali would still have a tutelary interest in the fate of the Tutsi minority in eastern Congo. Add to these calculations the temptations of the regionâ€™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 these changing dynamics. President Barack Obama, whose foreign policy agenda on the White House website specifically cites â€œcountering instability in Congoâ€ as an example of his Senate record of â€œbringing people together ... to advance important policy initiatives,â€ has yet to even nominate an assistant secretary to head the state departmentâ€™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 ambassadorâ€™s mission. The UN has done little more than to send the secretary-generalâ€™s special representative in the DRC, Alan Doss, on another fact-finding tour of North Kivu. As for the African Union, the chairperson of the AU Commission, Jean Ping, managed to make it through his late January press conference without even mentioning the word â€œCongo.â€ Despite these disappointments, the mere fact that Rwanda and the Congo are not pulling in entirely opposite directions, at least for the moment, 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). His recent publications include â€œLiberia: Portrait of a Failed Stateâ€ (Reed Press, 2004), and â€œChild Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedyâ€ (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).