By Onyeka Chidozie
Last November, as the month drew to a close, the world witnessed the latest chapter in the unending conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This time around, on 20 November, the M23 rebel movement overran Goma, capital of eastern Congo’s mineral-rich North Kivu Province, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Neither the Congolese army nor the United Nations peacekeeping mission stationed in the area was able to stop the rebels. The rebels practically rolled in virtually unchallenged.
Reports from the area spoke of tens of thousands of civilians being forced to flee as the rebel forces advanced, having to scatter from villages and refugee camps. UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s fund, warned that hundreds of children had been separated from their parents and ran the risk of being recruited by armed groups.
International outcry followed and pressure was put on the rebels. In particular, the United Nations Security Council acted by the adopting a resolution condemning the seizure of Goma and calling for sanctions against M23 leaders. That got the rebels to pull back and to begin negotiations with the Congolese Government. But even that pullback only came after they had cleaned out the central bank and taken all the ammunition dumps as well as assassinated some enemies.
In the words of Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, Congo has become a never-ending nightmare, one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II, with more than five million dead. It is a conflict that has left the biggest country in sub-Saharan Africa, and on paper one of the richest, that is teeming with copper, diamonds and gold, vast farmlands of spectacular fertility and enough hydropower to light up the continent, as one of the poorest and most hopeless nations on earth.
Yet, the source of the bloody conflict is not very hidden from view but is there for all to see. As with previous outbreaks of violence and conflict in Congo’s recent past, the root cause of this latest invasion is very much linked to the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In that tragedy, almost a million people were killed when Hutu militias targeted Tutsis. The Hutu majority set out in a methodical effort to eradicate the politically dominant minority ethnic Tutsis. The killings only came to an end when the Tutsi army, led by the current Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, and supported by Ugandan soldiers, drove the Hutu forces out of the country.
However, as Peter Eichstaedt, points out in a Foreign Affairs magazine article, the Hutu-Tutsi war was not really over. It merely moved across the border into the eastern the Congo provinces of North and South Kivu and into the northeastern province of Oriental. In the aftermath of the genocide and the defeat of the Hutus, many Hutus moved into camps in the Congo. From those bases in the Congo, the Rwandan authorities believe, they continued to plot atrocities against Rwanda and its Tutsi leaders. Not surprisingly, Rwanda, seeking to mitigate the situation, sought increasingly to maintain influence over the Congo. Using ethnic Tutsi militias and Tutsi businessmen inside Congo to do its bidding, Tutsi-led Rwanda continues to try to carve out a zone of influence in eastern Congo.
In most other circumstances, the international community would have reacted strongly to that level of interference by one country in another. Rwanda was, however, able to get the international community to effectively turn a blind eye to it’s meddling in the Congo by leveraging the guilt that other countries feel for not intervening in the genocide, using that act to blunt any criticism of its actions.
But more than anything else, as Gettleman notes, it was Rwanda’s invasion of the Congo in 1996 that sent Congo into a tailspin it has yet to recover from. Following that invasion, a peace deal had been reached. A key part of that deal involved integrating the CNDP, a Tutsi militia rebel group formed and run by Gen. Laurent Nkunda, into the Congolese army. That arrangement seemed to work until early 2009 when Rwanda captured Nkunda and put him under house arrest. Bosco Ntaganda, who had been his second-in-command, replaced him. Soon after, on March 23, the Congolese government brokered the peace deal with the CNDP.
Ntaganda was, however, wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which had charged him in 2006 with the crime of conscripting child soldiers during his time as a commander under Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese rebel leader who was convicted by the ICC for the same crime in 2012. Fearing arrest, Ntaganda dropped from view and the loyal Tutsi forces he commanded defected from the army. They resurfaced as M23, named after the March 23, 2009 deal.
According to a report by the BBC, the latest round of conflict is, thus, a continuation of the rebellion that began in April 2012, with the formation of M23 after the mutiny in the army in which the former militia members, who became Congolese soldiers, defected. Their claim was that they had not been given army posts they had been promised in the 2009 deal to end the previous uprising. About 500,000 people were displaced in the April conflict.
What is clear is that the goal of the latest invasion is to gain more land, mainly for the benefit of the Tutsis currently living in densely populated Rwanda. “More than 200,000 Tutsis have had to flee the violence in Congo and are now living in camps in Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania,” claimed Kabasha, one of the leaders of the M23. The Tutsis in those camps “want to return to Congo — that’s what we’re fighting for,” he said in a report published in the German magazine Der Spiegel.
Through all this, Rwanda has consistently maintained the public posture that it has nothing to do with supporting the rebels in the Congo or fuelling the conflict there. However, according to Gettleman, there has recently been a mountain of allegations showing how that country has funneled arms into Congo and how it has even directed the recent capture of Goma.
Today, the M23 has now withdrawn from Goma and the surrounding areas, but it remains clear that the situation still very fragile in eastern Congo. The Congolese Government in faraway Kinshasa is unable to assert or maintain any real control over the region. Lack of discipline, improper training and inadequacy of equipment mean that, at best, the national army is a demoralized bunch. It is a force that is totally incapable of withstanding the disciplined Rwandan militia, were it to decide to carry out another invasion.
The negotiations between the rebels and the government, on the other hand, only serves to appease the rebels and, in fact, puts the government in the untenable position of always giving in to whatever the rebels demand.
This means that a lasting solution to the Congo conflict must, of necessity, come from the international community. Already, the country is host to one of the largest peace United Nations peacekeeping operations. Maybe the time has come to give that peacekeeping force a robust enough mandate to actually enforce the peace in the Congo. If countries and individuals are held fully accountable for their actions in the Congo that would mark a critical first step to finally bringing the carnage in that country to an end. The countries that keep interfering and promoting violence and conflict in the Congo must be made to understand that they would be held accountable for their actions.