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Ben Rawlence: A Signal of Hope for Congo

March 13, 2013

There’s a framework for peace in Congo, and if Rwanda will stop interfering, it just might work.

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Image from Flickr via ENOUGH Project

By Ben Rawlence

On February 24, another peace agreement for the Democratic Republic of Congo, called the “framework agreement,” was signed in Addis Ababa by eleven states, including many of DRC’s neighbors that have variously intervened in the country since the conflict began in 1996: Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and Angola, among others. The agreement was witnessed by the United Nations, African Union and two other regional bodies. It leaves many questions unanswered and a lot depends on implementation, but, for perhaps the first time, there is a clear statement about the main causes of the conflict and who bears responsibility for addressing them.

In brief, back in 1996, Rwanda (and the US) supported a rebellion ostensibly in hot pursuit of Hutu genocidaires hiding in the eastern forests of DRC, but they continued to Kinshasa to remove the ailing dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. When Mobutu’s successor, Laurent Desire Kabila asked Rwandan forces to leave two years later, it invaded again, and Kabila called on his neighbors and mobilized domestic home guards (Mai-Mai) to repel the invaders. Law and order collapsed and armed groups ran amok and established a conflict economy that persists to this day. A patchwork of peace settled in some places after a 2002 international agreement where Congo’s neighbors promised to withdraw, but Rwanda stayed unofficially involved, citing DRC’s inability or unwillingness to disarm the former Hutu militias active on its territory.

Congo’s conflict has about as many sides as the diamonds that lie in its hills, and it looks different from different angles.

The new framework agreement rests on two promises: Congo’s neighbors promise not to interfere, invade or support armed groups there and the Congolese government promises major reform including of the security and justice sectors. These are the twin concerns that the Congolese people have consistently and vociferously expressed since the previous peace agreement and the first post-conflict elections in 2006. Why has it taken so long?

Congo’s conflict has about as many sides as the diamonds that lie in its hills, and it looks different from different angles.

The proximate cause of the recent flurry of peace-making was the takeover of Goma by the Rwanda-backed M23 rebel group last November. The M23 were named for March 23, 2009 the date of a previous deal signed by their predecessor organization the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), an armed group led by Laurent Nkunda—who has been indicted for war crimes by the DRC government—and also backed by Rwanda. They are made up of former CNDP military officers, including ICC suspect Bosco Ntaganda, who had been integrated into the Congolese army as part of the earlier deal and mutinied in early 2012 in protest at the lack of implementation of that deal, and at President Kabila’s alleged rigging of the 2011 elections. The CNDP in turn was an incarnation of earlier armed groups, Rwanda’s proxies in Congo for guarding against the Hutu militia the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

When the M23 walked unopposed into Goma, protests erupted across the country—protests aimed at the rebels but also against President Joseph Kabila, who, they felt, had failed to protect his people. These demands from the ground have been consistent since the conflict began. But as the fighting has intensified again since 2008, the international community has not lined up with the Congolese people until now. Rwanda, in particular, has been given a free pass to do as it pleases in Congo and get rich on stolen natural resources. Despite consistent reports of the Rwandan Army mining in DRC and controlling large swathes of territory through proxies, the United Nations was silent and the US, UK and others continued diplomatic and military support.

Subsidizing regimes that are bankrolling war crimes on a major scale, while extolling those regimes’ records fighting poverty is patronizing in the extreme—and redolent of some of the worst examples of colonial double standards in Africa.

The shaming of Rwanda to the negotiating table following the M23 rebellion last year was a breakthrough. The evidence of Rwanda’s arming of the M23 gathered by the UN Security Council Monitoring Group played a key role but even as the evidence became public, the US envoy at the United Nations, Susan Rice, was lobbying to have the report delayed. Finally, at the end of last year, the international outcry was too much, the evidence too conclusive, and the US and the UK and others, were forced to get tough and suspend aid to Rwanda. The results can now be seen in the kickstarting of the framework negotiations and a parallel peace process underway in Kampala between the M23 and the DRC government, expected to result in a new deal soon.

Some, however, want to turn back the clock and resume aid to Rwanda. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Tony Blair and Warren Buffett argue that cutting aid only hurts the Rwandan people, and that Rwanda offers the best value for money in the world for aid dollars wisely spent. Blair et al. routinely argue that using aid as a tool of foreign policy is neo-colonial, but the opposite is in fact true: continuing to subsidize regimes that are bankrolling war-crimes on a major scale while extolling those regimes’ records fighting poverty is patronizing in the extreme and redolent of some of the worst examples of colonial double standards in Africa. This type of obfuscatory nonsense needs to be stamped on if the framework agreement is to have any chance at all.

Putting Rwanda back in its box, ending its military interference in DRC and using all diplomatic and economic tools to keep it there is central to the success of any local peace initiatives in Congo. If Rwanda were in Europe and fomenting carnage over the border in Germany while maintaining high spending on health care, would world leaders be talking about its record of investment in social services?

Richer countries’ responsibility to assist nations in fighting poverty does not trump their duty to use their influence to stop those same nations from funding atrocities in neighboring countries.

All the evidence suggests that Rwanda does spend its aid money well, and stopping the supply will doubtless have an impact on the lives of ordinary Rwandans. But richer countries’ responsibility to assist nations in fighting poverty does not trump their duty to use their influence to stop those same nations from funding atrocities in neighboring countries. Governments are ultimately responsible for assessing their own public interest—if the government of Rwanda decides that its public interest lies in funding armed groups inside Congo, it is perfectly reasonable for Western governments to decide that their public interest lies in ensuring none of their money goes to that purpose.

Since 1994, however, policy towards Rwanda has not really been based on clear-headed assessments. President Paul Kagame has been assiduous in cultivating friends in high places whom he has impressed with Rwanda’s breakneck progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, from development ministers and heads of state to Bill Clinton, Warren Buffet and Tony Blair. The aid business needs success stories and Rwanda’s brutal suppression of human rights and the democratic opposition has been conveniently ignored. Further, in neo-realist terms, Kagame’s regime could be said to be a stable island in a tough neighborhood. Coupled with deft arguments about Rwanda’s “legitimate” security concerns in DRC and the ever-ready sucker punch accusation of “neo-colonialism” he has successfully kept a lid on international criticism of Rwanda’s crimes in Congo for nearly twenty years. Meanwhile, Rwanda’s export of minerals, which are in all likelihood Congolese in origin, has exploded.

Poor old Congo has no such international profile, perhaps rightly so. Joseph Kabila’s main achievement seems to have been to hold a seriously flawed election and to allow his country to slide back into further conflict. But Rwanda must take some of the blame for that. Now that the scales have fallen from the eyes of the West on Rwanda’s involvement, let’s not voluntarily put them pack on again.

Kabila’s task is huge, some would say impossible. The reform of the Congolese state is a thorny and long-term prospect that goes far beyond the framework agreement. The elections of 2011 were deeply flawed and donors had no stomach then for forcing the issue. Perhaps here, too, outsiders have a limited role: it is not clear what the Congolese government might be able to do even if equipped and cajoled by donors and a special envoy in the way that Congolese civil society groups, excluded from the framework agreement, have called for. So corrupt and divided it has become.

When traveling through remote battle-scared parts of South Kivu and Katanga province in the wake of the last peace deal, I visited places that had a garrison and little else, yet that was enough for people to take matters into their own hands, rebuild schools, radio stations, roads, and in some cases administer their own affairs, and manage their own reconciliations. Many of these gains are now in jeopardy, however, as, emboldened by the M23, Mai Mai leaders, the home guard mobilized a decade ago, and several other motley armed groups have begun to take their chances again. It is this fine-grain highly localized security landscape in which any peace deal must take root, and it is the people that live there that are best suited to negotiating that terrain.

Ultimately, as with any conflict, the green shoots of peace are to be found among the Congolese and their own deep civil resources. The international community, the peacekeepers, Congo’s neighbors and any other interested party, have a role to play in establishing a peaceful framework and a minimum of security. And then they must get out of the way.

Ben Rawlence is the author of Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War (Oneworld Publications, March 2013).

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