After controlling Goma for 11 days, M23 has now left the city. This is, unfortunately, not the end of the conflict. Not only must a more lasting settlement be reached, but what happened when the Congolese army (FARDC) ran away and the world’s largest peacekeeping force, the United Nations Organization Stabilizing Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), just stood by and watched as M23 entered Goma will also have consequences for the UN. Already in 2010 the approval rating of the UN in the Congo was as low as about 15 per cent, and there is every reason to believe that this has dropped significantly lower now after the UN did nothing to prevent M23 from entering Goma. It is not easy to understand why a mission that costs about US $1 billion annually and has a force of about 20,000 peacekeepers was helpless to prevent the rebel advance.
Negotiations are currently going on in Kampala and it is regional actors that have taken charge of the process. This is good, because what is needed is a larger regional concerted effort aiming for not only an end to the current conflict, but also an end to the endless cycle of integration and fragmentation in the FARDC. In this process, there is clearly a role both for the African Union (AU) and the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), and the idea of a neutral African force that was seen as a joke by many international commentators only a few weeks ago should have gained ground after MONUSCO was paralyzed by the rebel advance on Goma. However, all actors also need to realize that the M23 conflict is only one of many that chew away at the social fabric of the Kivus. There are at least 25 different militias and rebel groups operating in the two provinces and this is therefore not the time for yet another shortsighted solution. Rather, the humiliation that both the FARCD and UN suffered at the gates of Goma should be used to confront once and for all the full conflict mosaic in Eastern Congo. The time has come to make a real attempt to stop what has become one of the deadliest conflicts since the Second World War.
However, if this attempt is to succeed, not only must the full range of stakeholders be brought onboard, but one also needs to understand that the conflict is immensely complicated: it is multilayered and involves many actors with different interests. However, despite this, the crisis is commonly presented as a “resource war” and an “international conspiracy” simply about pillage and plunder. This is just one part of the story. This conflict and the borderlands in which it takes places are deeply entrenched in history, and here, as elsewhere, the past and the present are connected in complex ways. It is by and large an agrarian war, and its root causes must be found in the complicated web of uncertainties over citizenship and land rights that have become an integral part of peoples’ lives in a borderland where different populations have been coming and going for centuries. The conflicts this has caused are fuelled and further complicated by the extraction of valuable minerals that are abundant in this part of the Congo.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a poor country, but it contains such a vast reserve of mineral resources that Belgian colonial scholars described it as a “geological scandal.” Congo seems to have it all: bauxite/aluminum, cadmium, cassiterite, coal, cobalt, copper, coltan, diamonds, gas and oil, gold, iron ore, lead, manganese, silver, timber, uranium, and zinc. What it has never had is a government showing an interest in building institutions designed to manage this wealth for the benefit of the people. The outside world has not been kind to Congo either. It started with King Leopold and continued with colonial rule by the Belgian state. Independence almost immediately led to a conflict in which external powers intervened, resulting in Mobutu’s kleptocratic regime that ruled the country for more than three decades (1965-97). In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, about one million refugees fled into Eastern Congo. Here, they found refuge in camps established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but not all of these were civilian refugees. Hutu extremists also blended in with the refugee population and were in fact allowed to maintain their political and military organization in the camps that were established. It is these groups that would later form the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Both the first part of the Congolese civil war and its precursor started along the Rwandan border, particularly around Goma in North Kivu and Bukavu in South Kivu. The war rapidly spread along two main fronts: up the Congo River and along the eastern border, and to the south into the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and Kasai. In both wars, Rwanda and Uganda first denied their involvement, but thereafter legitimized their interventions on defensive as well as humanitarian grounds. This is therefore quite similar to the current situation, as Rwanda and Uganda are once more accused of supporting the rebels (e.g., M23) by the UN Group of Experts.
What is clear is that whereas Rwanda and Uganda may have entered the Congo with relatively clear strategic objectives, such as pushing back Hutu rebels from border areas and disarming Ugandan rebels in the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), these objectives quickly got tangled-up in the political-economy of the complex conflict on the ground. The respective regimes in Kampala and Kigali may have believed, and perhaps still do, that they were calling the shots. However, if we look at the situation today, it is increasingly clear that there is no easy answer to the ‘who is pulling-the-strings question’. Rather, it seems that the Rwandan and Ugandan forces got involved in a series of local identity-based conflicts, which they had little interest in or knowledge about. The question, however, is if this pattern of internal rebellion and external involvement leading to military and militia fragmentation and stalled political solutions can be broken. Is peacebuilding really possible in this part of the Congo, and, if so, how can such attempts not only be imagined, but also facilitated?
Acknowledging the realities on the ground
The recent escalation of the conflict in North Kivu centers on M23. Most of the M23 leadership was previously part of Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) that was integrated into the FARDC as part of an agreement in 2009. However, a group of these fighters mutinied in April 2012, accusing the Kabila government in Kinshasa of neglect and failing to fulfill the terms of the 2009 agreement.
The members of M23 are not that many, but the core M23 officers and fighters are battle-hardened and motivated. They have humiliated the FARDC on the battleground in the past and proved at the gates of Goma that they can do it again. And just as was the case in the CNDP rebellion, many of them now feel that they have no choice but to fight, otherwise they will become permanent losers as a minority group in Eastern Congo. It is this fact, much more than what support they may receive from Rwanda that makes dealing with them so difficult for the dysfunctional and demoralized FARCD and MONUSCO, which have no appetite for engaging in serious combat. There is therefore no immediate military solution to the M23 insurgency, suggesting that a negotiated settlement must be found, and it needs to come quickly as the M23 insurgency is also causing a number of other problems. Most serious is the security vacuum brought about in the rural areas as Kabila has withdrawn FARDC forces into city centers and main bases in order to prevent further mutinies. MONUSCO, for its part, has done little to try to fill the vacuum. Right now, local communities are desperately trying to negotiate security arrangements wherever they can find them – even with the FDLR – as small bands of Mayi Mayi groups that have merged with ordinary bandits and poachers roam the countryside the FARCD has deserted leaving death and destruction in their wake.
Finding pragmatic solutions that include and not exclude
After the emergence of M23, a series of meetings was held in the region under the aegis of the ICGLR, bringing together a number of neighboring countries, including DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda, and this is good. These countries need to talk to each other, as there will be no lasting solution to the Eastern Congo crisis without concerted regional action. Some international observers have written these attempts off as just another example of an African ‘talk shop’ for ‘big men’, while the suggestion that emerged in early September 2012 that a new neutral African force be deployed in Eastern Congo under a AU mandate has been dismissed as naïve. However, given the fact that MONUSCO is operating on an annual budget of about US $ 1billion without making much progress, it is hard to see that such an African force could do much worse. Bringing neighboring countries more directly into the crisis as stakeholders with troops on the ground could lead to some much needed momentum in the security situation as well as new ways to deal with the root causes of conflict. Tanzania has already agreed to contribute troops and the establishment of such a force has also been sanctioned by the AU. Such a development could also lead to some highly necessary rethinking of other issues that must be dealt with if peace is finally to have a chance in Eastern Congo.
There is absolutely no doubt that the conflict is fuelled and sustained by the extraction of minerals and other natural resources, but this extraction did not start the war. As already noted, the conflict is deeply entrenched in history, and rooted in a combination of land rights and uncertainties concerning citizenship. These contested issues are seen as crucial for the very survival of both elites and local populations. Thus, this is the type of conflict that connects local disputes over land and territory with elite commercial interests, suggesting that it must be managed at different levels.
The control of armed actors over the mining sector and other economic activities must be reduced. This is, however, not an easy task as these actors–the national army included–have become figures with autonomous authority, and the state in the formal sense is either absent or colludes with armed groups in extractive activities. Thus, bringing these activities under something that resembles transparent and legitimate political control is a long-term project. It will take considerable time and resources to build a legitimate Congolese state and quick-fix solutions will only recreate the politics of patrimonialism from previous decades. In the absence of reliable and credible state structures, the question is, therefore, where does one start? One possible solution is to rethink current approaches and opt for a building-block approach to state building and statecraft that pragmatically reviews the centers of powers and figures of authority that do exist. “Who can we work with on what kind of issues,” should be the question that concerned stakeholders ask themselves. It may very well be the case that the AU and the ICGLR are better suited institutions to deal with this pragmatically than the UN.
This should be combined with a new approach to disarmament in the region, and the suggested African force could play a role in this regard, as previous attempts to create a national Congolese army out of the old army and different rebel fighters have failed miserably and should stop. The only thing this leads to is the kind of waxing and waning of integration and fragmentation that the history of CNDP and M23 attests to. Instead, Eastern Congo needs a general and large-scale disarmament program that should be combined with a new approach to artisanal mining. Ex-combatants must be given a stake in the peace process as this is the only way to decrease the possibility that the opportunistic elites that prefer the current situation to a lasting solution will continue to manipulate conflict issues.
Artisanal mining is one such possibility, if it is brought under a more transparent regime. The important issue, therefore, is not to prevent mining, as this would mainly hurt households that desperately depend on what little their men can earn from this activity, but to weaken the linkages between mining and ‘the users of force’ who have fuelled and sustained the conflict. The mining sector has been both militarized and informalized during the war. The task is, therefore, to demilitarize and reformalize it. If this is achieved, it would also be easier to deal with some of the underlying issues such as land rights and citizenship, as it could contribute to a demilitarization of social and economic affairs in Eastern Congo.
With regard to the FDLR, it must be dealt with, as its very existence is not only a concern for the Rwandan government, but also gives that government a reason for legitimating its involvement in the conflict in Eastern Congo. The FDLR leadership is clearly implicated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but this is not necessarily the case for the majority of its rank-and-file members. They are too young to have any direct responsibility for this, and many of them are also Congolese Hutu and have no previous attachment to Rwanda. This suggests that what is needed is an approach that combines military pressure with a negotiated solution for those without direct responsibility for the Rwandan genocide. Sorting out the FDLR issue will not in itself create peace in Eastern Congo, but will at the very least remove Rwanda’s ‘excuse’ for involvement. It may also make dealing with other underlying issues easier, such as land and citizenship, at the very least forging an understanding that previous compromises can be revisited in a less paranoid and militarized political climate.
The way out of the Eastern Congo quagmire will be long and complicated. There are no quick fixes. Considerable resources and knowledge will be required, but if the chains of this conflict are not broken, it may even escalate and come to include other neighboring countries as it spills over and (re)ignites other local conflicts in the region. The mining and extractive activities are crucial in this regard, but cannot be seen in isolation from other underlying issues. The people of Eastern Congo and its neighbors in Rwanda and Uganda need each other—to to create peace, but also to ensure economic development.
Trade and commerce are taking place and should continue. The challenge is to bring both the trade in and the extraction of natural resources under the supervision of more transparent regimes. The potential for regional economic cooperation is huge, not only between states in the region but also between communities, and new initiatives taken in Eastern Congo should be framed in a regional context through the ICGLR and other relevant organizations, the AU included.