GREAT LAKES: Trying not to repeat history

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is on the brink of slipping back into the kind of devastating international war that raged from 1998 to 2003, according to one of the architects of the Great Lakes peace accords.

Jan van Eck, a former member of parliament in South Africa's African National Congress government, and a negotiator for 12 years in the troubled central African region, told IRIN: "The only solution people are trying is the use of military force. There is no military solution to this [the eastern DRC] whatsoever."

A year ago, he predicted another major conflict in eastern Congo, despite the comprehensive peace accords signed in 2003, arising from Rwanda's failure to grant full political rights to returning Hutus, some of whom had fled in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide.

"It is clear that unless a new strategy is formulated - one that will focus on addressing the real root causes of the conflict - the region will move irrevocably towards a major new crisis," Van Eck said in his November 2007 article: Ignoring the ethnic cancer in the Congo precludes the true peace.

"In such an event, not only the eastern DRC will be drawn in, but also its eastern neighbours, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, since the present ethnically based conflict in eastern DRC has its origins in these countries," he wrote.

Rwanda's 100-day genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered, is recognised as the 20th century's most efficient killing spree, eclipsing even the pace of Nazi Germany's extermination camps.

Van Eck said it had created "a sense of guilt" among the 140 signatories to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the convention adopted in the wake of the Second World War by the UN General Assembly in December 1948 and brought into effect in 1951, which compels signatories to act against genocide.

Former US President Bill Clinton's administration - smarting from the deaths of 17 US Army Rangers in 1993 in the Somali capital, Mogadishu - evaded the convention's obligations, referring to genocide as the "G-word", and speaking of "acts of genocide".

This sense of guilt, Van Eck told IRIN, has largely protected Rwanda's President Paul Kagame from international criticism, but unless Kagame permitted the formation of a "Hutu party that is not anti-Tutsi", instability in the eastern Congo would be an ever-present feature.

"Although in some circles it may be seen as politically incorrect to acknowledge this, it remains a critically important fact that too many people are trying to ignore," Van Eck said.

A recent breakaway by members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), comprised of Hutus involved in the genocide and who fled Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide as well as those opposed to Kagame's government, was denied any political space in Rwanda, which was contributing to the vicious cycle of conflict in the region. 

"Unless Rwanda liberalises its internal political situation, and allows freedom of political and ethnic expression, it will remain under threat from politicised Hutus, most of whom are either in the DRC or in the diaspora," Van Eck said.

Africa's Second World War? 

The factors that fomented the 1998 war, which became known as "Africa's First World War" because it involved regional armies from Angola, Burundi, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe, were still present today, Van Eck said.

In the past eight weeks, the conflict between the Congolese army and Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People, a rebel group operating in eastern DRC despite the presence of the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC, has killed several hundred civilians and combatants, displaced more than 250,000 people - many for the second or third time in the last few years - and created an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation.

Since 2003, Rwanda has made repeated threats to invade eastern Congo to seek out the "genocidaires". It did so in 1996 - resulting in the deposing of Congolese despot Mobutu Sese Seko - and again in 1998, when Rwanda turned against its previous ally, Laurent Desire Kabila, igniting the 1998-2003 conflict.

Ileka Atoki, DRC's ambassador to the UN, recently claimed that the DRC had proof that Rwandan forces were in the DRC, which Rwanda has vehemently denied.

Nkunda's rebel group is recognised as a far superior military force to the ragtag Congolese army, which stands accused of fighting alongside the Hutu militia that the Kinshasa government has pledged to disarm.

Henri Boshoff, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, a South Africa-based think tank, said in a security update on 31 October that the latest fighting was another episode in the DRC's "Somalification"; a reference to Somalia's uninterrupted internecine violence since the fall of President Siad Barre in 1991.

The current situation, Boshoff said, was the result of numerous factors, such as the non-completion of the disarmament process, the absence of a strong Congolese army, and because the peacekeeping force had "no clear guidelines as to the implementation of the mandate, rules of engagement and the use of force by MONUC."

MONUC's commander, Lt-Gen Vicente Diaz de Villegas, recently resigned after seven weeks in the job, citing "personal reasons", but Boshoff suggested the reason for his resignation could be MONUC's "ambiguity about the use of force", which has hampered its effectiveness.

Boshoff recommended that to avoid a Rwanda-genocide scenario playing out in eastern Congo, "the fighting must be stopped, and at the same time a mediation process between Rwanda and the DRC must be started as a matter of urgency."

Peace Efforts

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took part in a UN-sponsored African Union emergency summit in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on 7 November, which was also attended by DRC President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame. As the summit opened, fresh fighting erupted near Goma.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) will also discuss the DRC, a member country of the regional body, during an extraordinary summit in Johannesburg on 9 November, called to try and break Zimbabwe's political impasse.
"The only way to stop the fighting is for MONUC to implement its mandate to protect civilians against imminent threats of violence. If MONUC cannot implement its mandate because of lack of capacity, the deployment of an intervention force within the next few days is needed," Boshoff said.

However, neither SADC nor the African Union (AU) possessed the military capability; "the only power with the capacity to project force in such a short time is a European Union Battle Group," Boshoff commented.

According to reports on 6 November, a 1,000-member South African force deployed near Goma in North Kivu Province as part of MONUC has been ordered to engage Nkunda's forces should they approach Goma. Nkunda's forces are about 10km from Goma.

"If armed groups, whoever they might be, want to enter Goma, the rules of engagement of the United Nations and Chapter 7 [of the UN Charter] are sufficiently clear, that in this instance the instructions to be given are to shoot," Alain le Roy, head of MONUC, told reporters at a briefing in Goma.