A Window of Opportunity in the Democratic Republic of Congo

(Originally published 14 February, 2014)

On November 6, 2013 government forces launched an assault on M23 rebel position in the east of the country. This occurred one day after insurgents called for a ceasefire. The following day M23 issued a statement that it had “decided from this day to end its rebellion” and instead to pursue its goals “through purely political means”.

Is it a breakthrough? The country's vastness (the size of Western Europe), corruption, and prevalent chaos means a fragile peace can easily disintegrate. Nevertheless the relative calm in the country indicates that there is a significant window of opportunity for the country and international community to end twenty years of instability and focus on significant problems afflicting the country economically, socially and politically.

The Congo has an agonising history which started with the brutal Belgian administration under Leopold during which millions of Congolese died through exploitation, disease, and slavery. Independence and the ending of the administration led to a unprecedented political crisis, the country torn apart between old friends turned foes Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Mobutu. The latter’s victory and the gruesome death of the former led to the establishment of a corrupt monopoly and the infamous making of Mobutu’s  fortune made off the misery and poverty of millions. The onset of the Rwandan genocide then led to the First and Second Congo Wars the vile spillage of slaughter, rape, and murder in their tiny neighbor completely de-stabalising the region and has ended Mobutu’s dictatorship.  Over six million people have died since 1998 and politicians have struggled to navigate this particular gruesome quagmire in search of a lasting peace. 

The eastern Congo and Kivu, the epicentre of the conflict is now relatively calm. It is the window of opportunity to end the war. Nevertheless the daunting task of reconstructing the country cannot be underestimated. The infrastructure is bereft of strong foundations, the economy is/and has been in tatters since the 1960s, communication in places is untenable, and parts of the country are virtually inaccessible. The environmental problems add to the issues, with the wildlife and the landscape in areas scarred by illegal plunder and conflict. These basic problems are allied closely to the inherent political uncertainty with rival leaders deeply mistrustful of each others intentions after the violence and brutality afflicted upon each other in the time of war. The sheer complexity of the issues are mind-boggling, with so many factions involved internally and externally.

There is hope though; the U.N has salvaged its reputation in its largest operation globally. The 3,000 strong and well-equipped intervention force, working with the government, has the mission of hunting down and destroying the rebel factions such a M23. This is a first for the U.N, a welcome sign that pragmatic action against obvious dissidents committing rape, murder and pillage is prefereable to being a passive bystander with admirable, but toothless idealistic notions. Certainly it is controversial working with such a corrupt government. Their own troops have on numerous occasions been accused of committing atrocities in their wars against both Mobutu and rebel factions. Joseph Kabila fought alongside his father in a military campaign from the east that removed dictator Mobutu in 1997. His objectives at the moment should be to end the war, tour the country, maintain stability, win the loyalty of the population, and secure the eastern Congo, Kinshasha in the west, and salvage investors who have been scared away by Mobutu and the conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s.

 Rwanda’s (their tiny neighbour) current government under the leadership of Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front illustrates this and has damaged its international reputation. They have punched above their weight, their military organisation responsible for sponsoring the war against the corrupt dictatorship of Mobutu. However they have been orchestrating the chaos and exploiting the conflict to make profit by exploiting the resource and land conflict. They supported the M23, and when they were forced to withdraw their support, the efforts of the former waned in the face of the combined efforts of the Congolese government and U.N brigade. Kagame and Rwanda are the biggest losers in this equation economically and politically, the ethnocratic regime having plenty to answer for including their war crimes in the Congo between 1998 and 2013. 

With a new push for peace, the problems will no doubt require more action against rebel and a concentrated effort by the western powers and African Union to end conflict, not to mention convincing foreign rebels and home rebels to leave or make peace and stop committing atrocities. Today mass-graves were found. Then the new issue of gathering war criminals, re-building the nation, re-building its cultural identity, creating reconciliation and peace, and harnessing it vast economic wealth and resources can begin. It will take a long time for this to happen, but with the correct leadership and a collective effort by both the Congolese communities and international one, the Congo has the capacity to flourish. Perhaps in time, the guns will finally be silent down by the river and the women and children of the Democratic Republic of Congo can sleep quietly.

Matthew Williams