Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Thursday, October 25

Eastern Congo: Deeper Background

Renewed fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo's volatile eastern region threatens to plunge the country – and its neighbors – into a third regional conflict since 1997, tempering optimism from last year's historic elections.

Despite the presence of United Nations peacekeepers, clashes between government forces and various armed groups have flared after a period of relative calm, displacing some 370,000 civilians this year.

The Congolese army, poorly paid and heavy-handed, has attempted to wrestle control from two major rebel blocks in the east. First are forces loyal to General Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi guerrilla leader with Rwandan ties. Second are various unruly militias who have also fought with Nkunda.

Kigali is accused of supporting Nkunda while Kinshasa is charged with backing the other, largely Hutu factions. Both deny meddling in a proxy conflict borne from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. All sides have brutalized civilians in North and South Kivu provinces, the fighting's center, particularly through rape.

"Violence has overwhelmed the east," said Herbert Weiss, a Woodrow Wilson Center Senior Policy Scholar and longtime DR Congo expert. "There is not a great deal of goodwill between the key actors…one wonders how it will end."

DR Congo, a sprawling, little-developed country, is no stranger to conflict. Between 1997 and 2003, two wars killed an estimated four million people, mostly from disease and starvation, an unprecedented number in any country since World War II.

The mineral-rich eastern region has long been an area of conflict, but last year's multi-party elections, the country's first since 1965, brought renewed hope for calm to a population that has experienced near constant unrest since the ouster of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. President-elect Joseph Kabila promised peace by sharing power with rebel leaders, including Nkunda, and rooting out recalcitrant Hutu forces. But so far Kinshasa has been unable to extend authority to its eastern border, despite the support of 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers, 4,300 of whom are in North Kivu.

The latest tensions threatens to draw Rwanda back into the conflict, which has previously entered DR Congo to hunt Hutu forces responsible for that country’s 1994 genocide. However, President Kagame denies his troops are preparing to cross the border, despite reports that he is backing Nkunda and his 5,000 men. Like Rwanda, Uganda continues to be bothered by rebels in the east even though Kinshasa says it will drive them out. The Lord's Resistance Army, party to the county's longtime civil war, is based in a northeastern DR Congo game park and threatens to undercut a recent peace accord. Uganda has also recently massed troops along its border with North Kivu to prevent spillover from any fighting between the Congolese army and Nkunda.

While all governments in the Great Lakes region say they are committed to peace, the presence of an estimated 14,000 to 18,000 militiamen and lucrative mineral resources – including gold, diamonds and coltan – will likely continue the violence in the absence of an effective state in the east, which is essentially lawless.

Previous attempts at peace in the east have failed because "the resources of the state haven't overwhelmed the resources of the locals," said William Zartman, an Africa scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He said that violence would likely continue until Kinshasa establishes a rule of law, which it currently lacks the resources to do.

Nkunda is central to the current conflict, having alternatively fought with and against the Congolese military since 1998. Previously supported by Rwanda, Nkunda's ostensible concern is to protect ethnic Tutsis from Hutu militias who fled into eastern Congo following the Rwandan genocide. Kabila's forces have been unable – or perhaps unwilling – to root out FDLR, FLNK and Mai Mai guerillas in the region, groups they backed during fighting between 1998 and 2002, a period when Nkunda fought for the largest rebel group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD).

Later, Nkunda joined the transitional government, but broke with the state in 2004, again claiming to protect Tutsis. Despite being wanted for war crimes in Kinshasa, he rejoined the Congolese army in late 2006 to hunt the Hutu militias in special mixed brigades. The integration failed and, using the cash and weapons he received from Kinshasa, Nkunda extended his power in the east, attacking Hutu militia and civilians accused of collaboration. After several months of skirmishes with Nkunda, Kinshasa has issued an ultimatum to the renegade general: integrate or be forcibly disarmed.

"Nkunda is a pyromaniac masquerading as a firefighter," said Jason Stearns, a Congo expert and former International Crisis Group field analyst, in a September Enough Campaign report, an advocacy group. "The abuses committed by forces under his control fuel pervasive anti- Tutsi sentiment in the Kivus, yet he claims to be the only person who can protect his people."

Other militia groups in the east are more illusive and disorganized than Nkunda's men. Based in the region's lush forests, they prey on local civilians to survive, raping and killing in the process. FDLR forces are made up of Rwandan Hutus who participated in the killing of 800,000 compatriots in 1994 and a new generation raised in eastern Congo's Hutu refugee camps. Mai Mai is a term for various local militias that formed to protect themselves from abusive Rwandan and Congolese troops but that now also abuse local populations. FLNK soldiers are a combination of FDLR and Mai Mai fighters, and consider themselves an ally to the Congolese army, despite Kinshasa's repeated denial. Other groups are shadowy, violent bands like the Rastas, who sport Los Angeles Lakers jerseys and dreadlocks.

Resurgent fighting in the east has taken its greatest toll on the civilian population. The hundreds of thousands of displaced persons are at elevated risk of disease and starvation, and aid workers have had trouble accessing those in need.

Worse, all armed groups in the east, including government troops, have committed human rights abuses. Rape, in particular, has characterized the conflict; the region now has the highest rate of sexual violence against women in the world, according to the United Nations. The use of child soldiers is also growing.

International pressure has helped prevent large-scale fighting this year. MONUC head William Swing, speaking on behalf of the ambassadors of the U.S., Belgium, France, South Africa, and the U.K., convinced Kabila to extend the deadline for Nkunda to disarm. Previously, diplomats have helped facilitate a rapprochement with DR Congo's neighbors, especially Rwanda.

The presence of the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping force has reduced violence in the east, but has not prevented it. "MONUC doesn't appear ready or indeed have the mandate to take over the DRC army's role in the east if this involves a full fledged campaign to dissolve the Nkunda and/or the FDLR forces" said Weiss.

In general, experts are not optimistic. "It's doubtful that [Kinshasa] has the resources and stomach to defeat Nkunda and/or the FDLR," said Weiss. "Kabila is looking to a military solution, but the problem is that his fighters have a consistent record of failure in addition to being the greatest perpetrators of human rights abuses in the country."

The Enough Campaign’s September report warned that "War in the Great Lakes region has been in a state of suspension over the last few years…and it ominously appears that the conflict has not yet reached its conclusion."