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How to save Congo from the UN

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The best way to save DRC is to let it burn. From the ashes of catastrophe lies the chance for a solution

Last week, M23 rebels matched into the eastern Congolese town of Goma with very little resistance. The Congolese army simply dropped their weapons and ran. International television footage showed them leaving the town in haste, driving Armored Personnel Carriers and tanks at full speed. Meanwhile the rebels, armed largely with light infantry weapons, marched on foot and some on civilian trucks into the town. How can a mechanised army give up a strategic town to a light infantry force so easily?


Two myths perpetrated by the UN were exposed. First, that the rebels get arms from Rwanda. Second, that the rebels are a murderous lot hated by the population. Having left most of its heavy weapons in the town and large caches of arms and rounds of ammunition, it was apparent that the rebels get their arms from the incompetence, cowardice and corruption of the Congolese army. Indeed, Kinshasa had already fired its Chief of Staff of the army accusing him of selling arms to the rebels.Then the residents of Goma lined the streets in large numbers to cheer and welcome the rebels as liberators.

Most people I have met trust the UN `experts’ and international media when they claim that Rwanda and, most recently, Uganda, are the ones supplying arms, ammunition and soldiers to the rebel movement. Yet UN `experts’ are often ignorant, sometimes naïve, on occasion gullible but mostly self-interested. They depend too heavily on Congolese government intelligence for their `facts’. Sadly in DRC, political discourse is clouded with wild rumors, a factor that makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction. These `experts’ also have interests to advance or protect and therefore come to the job with a predetermined agenda.

Their claims of heavy weapons shipments from Rwanda are naive. If Rwanda moved weapons across the border, even amidst the darkest night, American satellites in space would get clear pictures of it. Rwanda knows this already given that when it tried to deny involvement in Congo in 1996, the US just brought out pictures showing their troop and weapons movements. Kigali owned up.  Unless the Barack Obama administration is in cahoots with Kigali, evidence of Rwandese arms supply to M23 and their details would be in the press by now.

The fall of Goma combined with the aforementioned manner in which it happened presents the international community with a challenge in dealing with Africa. How can a well-equipped army tasked with the sacred obligation to defend a town and protect the population run away without a pitched fight in the face of a rag tag rebel force? Does a state that presides over such a corrupt, cowardly and incompetent army deserve international support? What incentives will make ruling elites in Kinshasa build a viable army?

Historically, the recognition of a state’s claim over a given territory by other states was predicated upon it demonstrating effective military and administrative control over it. If you failed in this, other effective states could take the territory from you. For instance, if Prussia failed to project power along the Rhine frontier, Austria could take it away. If Bunyoro exhibited weakness, Buganda could lay claims on Mubende. This forced states to constantly improve their capabilities. To preserve themselves, smaller states built alliances with other weaker or powerful neighbours. The American colonies united largely out of fear of Britain. Cooperation is the most powerful instrument of competition.

The history of Europe illustrates this process best. European monarchs had to fight wars abroad in order to ensure security at home. So the classical state was a war-making machine; war made states and states made war. The threat of losing territory forced states to build capabilities to control every inch they possessed. And such capabilities needed money. States could raise money from loot and booty. But this was unreliable. Sometimes, wars could be long and costly. So loot alone could not sustain an army in the field for years. Unpaid troops could munity and match back on their capital. Monarchs learnt that they needed to continually grow their economies to provide them a reliable source of income, taxation or public borrowing.

And this is what gave states a stake in the prosperity of their people. If your citizens are very rich, your tax returns from them or your ability to borrow from them would be higher. If the wealth is held in a fixed asset like land that cannot be hidden, you can be rude and still collect most of the taxes on it. If the asset is fluid and easy to hide like capital, you need the cooperation of the taxpayer to maximize your tax returns. Otherwise they can take evasive action and hide their wealth. Or those who possess it can withhold their productive effort and deny you revenues.

Thus, where tax revenues come largely from movable assets that can be hidden, you need the consent and cooperation of asset-holders to maximize your returns. So rulers devised means – like parliaments – as institutions to negotiate with asset owners for revenues. This gave propertied citizens power to decide the tax rate, the level of borrowing and public expenditure. The American war of independence from the British crown was fought with the battle cry: “No taxation without representation”. This incentive structure worked well to facilitate the evolution of effective states by punishing weakness and rewarding strength. It also gave birth to democratic representation.

In many ways, post independence ruling elites in Africa have really enjoyed a free ride. Their claims to sovereignty and territorial integrity need no longer have to be defended by strength – economic, military or otherwise. They are protected by international law through the UN. Elites in Kinshasa can ignore, neglect or disregard their sacred duty to build state infrastructure to serve their citizens in the east. The international community will subsidise these failures with international aid and protect their borders from other more promising claimants. The presence of a kind, sympathetic and generous international community has been one of the major sources of state weakness in Africa.

And so it was that immediately M23 exposed what a fiction the Congolese army is, the UN Security Council immediately did its usual double standard and condemned the rebels, and issued a tough resolution asking them to leave the town. Indeed, the same UN Security Council members are supplying similar rebels in Syria with weapons. On the day they condemned M23, the British foreign secretary, William Haig, went on television to announce that Great Britain was following the US and France in recognising the Syrian rebels as the “legitimate representatives of the people of Syria”. Never mind that the Syrian government, in spite of its authoritarian ways, has not reached the level of barbaric savagery of the Congolese state.

At a summit in Kampala, Presidents Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame, perhaps bullied and pressured by the UN, surrendered to its unrealistic demands. In a meeting with DRC’s President Joseph Kabila, they also joined the choir of those calling on M23 rebels to pull out of Goma. Perhaps one gives them credit for also making Kabila accept to meet and negotiate with the rebels over their legitimate grievances. Museveni, Kagame and Kabila all came to power through armed struggle. Would they have been happy, when victory looked certain, for the UN or neighbors to threaten action unless they halted their struggle?

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