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Another small failure in the Congo

Stephen Carter

Stephen Carter is the Co-ordinator of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes
Region of Africa, the leading forum in parliament for advocacy, discussion and critical
analysis of policy issues affecting the people of the Great Lakes region. Since 2005 he has
worked extensively in the UK and the region on conflict, governance, and development issues
in Congo, northern Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. He has also worked extensively as a
journalist and political officer in Afghanistan, India and Russia.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is living through interesting times. Of course,
there has never really been a dull moment in the country's 49-year independent history,
including most recently a war that has led to millions of deaths. But events over the past
weeks and months should attract our attention, because they were an unparalleled test-case for
international conflict prevention and state-building - and an uncomfortable illustration of its
limitations.

If the international community is to involve itself in the pursuit of 'altruistic' intervention


anywhere, the Congo is arguably the clearest candidate. The need to develop the state is clear,
pressing, and backed by the moral imperative of 5.4 million deaths in the past decade as a
direct or indirect result of conflict. That is 18 times worse than the figure for Darfur
(admittedly over twice as long a period), in a country that has none of the political barriers to
intervention present in Sudan. It is a complex and difficult conflict, not visibly a matter of the
immediate national security to the UK, and arguably to any country outside of Congo’s
immediate neighbours. But raise the time-horizon just a little, and a strong case can be made
for the central importance of the Congo for the stability and prosperity of the Great Lakes
region and of Africa as a whole. If you prefer something a little harder-edged, you can add to
this the danger posed by the lack on controls over Katangan uranium. The argument for
nation-building since 2001 is that in the long run failed states are a matter of national security
(and perhaps moral concern) for us all. If we really believe that, the DRC is the place to start.

And some ways that is precisely what was done. Congo arguably a showcase for
international intervention: since 2002 it has been the home of the UN Mission to the Congo
(MONUC), currently the largest UN force in the world, with more than 17,000 troops. It is
the beneficiary of a substantial aid programme which will soon see the UK alone – until a few
years ago an unlikely champion for the Congo – giving £130 million a year. Donors funded
an election process in 2006 that despite some significant flaws was still broadly free and fair –
an astounding achievement.

But since last autumn the international effort in the DRC has been facing a grave test. The
festering sore of conflict in the east, universally recognised as the essential obstacle that must
be overcome if there is to be durable progress in almost any sphere, reached crisis proportions
by late October as a fragile peace-deal collapsed and the rebels of the CNDP (Congrès
National pour la Défense du Peuple - the National Congress for the Defence of the People)
advanced to the gates of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu province, as the
notoriously fragile government forces disintegrated. Despite deploying helicopter gunships,
UN forces were seemingly powerless to stop an offensive that was displacing hundreds of
thousands of civilians and threatening the very credibility of MONUC.

What happened next was instructive. There were immediate calls to reinforce the UN forces.
The EU, with a battlegroup on permanent standby, was seen by many as the obvious source of
troops. Ministers argued that the battlegroup (which perhaps not incidentally included a
substantial UK contingent) should not be used because it would duplicate commands in a
situation where there was already an international force present – a concern that was
conspicuously not shared by the UN. Just a few months before the crisis, UK Foreign
Secretary David Miliband himself said that an earlier EU deployment in Ituri province had
“helped to prevent the bloodbath that many were predicting and allowed the UN time to
reinforce and reconfigure its peacekeeping mission.”1 In October Miliband rushed to visit
eastern DRC, but not to support a similar mission: indeed, the lack of UK support in EU
ministerial meetings helped discourage other countries who might have taken the plunge.

Instead the government called for UN forces to be redeployed from elsewhere, and for
reinforcements to be agreed and sent through the Security Council. On the face of it this was a
reasonable proposition - after all, as ministers enjoyed repeating, the UN had 17,000 troops in
the country - surely they could handle a few thousand ragtag rebels? It was probably true that
UN forces could be used slightly better. But for ministers to think redeployment would make
more than a minor difference was to ignore the fact that by any measure UN forces were
overstretched. In a country the size of western Europe 17,000 troops is a lot, but perhaps not
as impressive as it sounds: it is the same number as were deployed to Sierra Leone, a country
one-seventeenth the size. More to the point, it is 6,900 less than the original military estimate
1
'Freedom and Responsibility: New Challenges in Africa', speech delivered at the University
of South Africa, 7 July 2008, available at
<http://www.davidmiliband.info/speeches/speeches_08_011.htm>
of what would be needed. Existing forces are concentrated in the east, but still spread over
four different provinces hundreds of kilometres apart, for the simple reason that there are
active conflicts in all of them. Since Christmas Ugandan rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army
– notorious for kidnapping children and mutilating civilians – have killed more than 900
people in Haut-Uele province: entire communities were reportedly wiped out, including
children, pregnant women, and old men. Helicopters and other units from Ituri province,
south of the LRA's attacks, could perhaps have been sent to help – had they had not already
been diverted to Goma, incidentally leaving Ituri itself exposed to local FNPI militias who
had attacked UN forces on several occasions in the autumn. Other forces were sent to Goma
from South Kivu, reducing cover in a province where anti-Rwandan FDLR rebels, the
descendants of the genocidal interhamwe, had a strong and active presence. The alphabet
soup of different movements gives some sense of the scale of the challenge MONUC faces.

In any case, the UK government itself acknowledged the need for urgent reinforcement,
through its support for the UN resolution authorising an increase in MONUC's troop ceiling
by 3,000 men. Yet many observers at the time pointed out that on past precedent it was
unlikely that troops could be deployed through this route for several months: and sure
enough, several months in, none have been sent. MONUC is no stronger now than it was in
October. This left ministers in the curious position of arguing that MONUC needed
reinforcement, but that the best course of action was one which would likely mean none
arrived until events had taken their course. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the UK was
motivated by concerns that – while perhaps not unreasonable – were not primarily to do with
the demands of the reality in the DRC.

Events, in fact, could have turned out worse. In January a sudden u-turn saw Rwanda, accused
by the Congolese of supporting the CNDP (and criticised in a UN report), instigate a coup
against CNDP leader Lauren Nkunda and shortly afterwards arrest him. The deal that appears
to have been struck in exchange is for Congo to allow a major operation by the Rwandan
army – in name at least jointly with their Congolese counterparts – against the FDLR. It’s a
development that has drawn mixed reactions. It is a huge opportunity, in many respects – a
break in the logjam of conflict in eastern Congo that if handled right could lead to real
progress. But it is also an enormous risk. Previous Rwandan incursions in 1996, 1998 and
2004 are seen by many Congolese as source of the devastation their country has suffered
since the fall of Mobutu, and as motivated to a good extent by the desire to exploit Congolese
mineral resources. The return of up to 7,000 Rwandan troops, whether invited or not, is
already causing great fear. The key question is what happens if the FDLR retreat as they have
before deep into the Congo: if the Rwandans follow them to Maniema or Kasai, or stay for
long enough for their motives to be cast in doubt, the potential destabilising effect will be
huge. If they don’t, their enemies may well regroup. So far, the FDLR seem to have wisely
avoided fighting. If that remains the case, what next?

Some reports suggest Rwandan forces are well-prepared, and if they can in fact put serious
pressure on the FDLR, the incursion may be the most realistic possibility of resolving the
tangled conflicts of eastern Congo. But it is a risky solution. What should surely have
happened was an operation between international forces and the Congolese army to put
military pressure on the FDLR and drive them towards political solutions or repatriation to
Rwanda – an operation that could have been carried out with much less risk of destabilisation,
and perhaps more consideration of the need to protect civilians, than the current offensive.
And indeed, it almost did happen. In September of last year MONUC was on the point of
launching just such campaign: it was never carried out, overtaken by the outbreak of the
conflict with the CNDP.

Whether it would have been effective, we will never know. But it was certainly long overdue.
Security is the first condition of any progress in the Congo: without it everything is built on
sand. The approach over the past half-decade to securing it in the east has been gradualist:
maintaining a basic level of security while pursuing slow negotiations; making efforts to
encourage defections through disarmament programmes; and waiting for the Congolese army
to improve. This was perhaps an understandable approach given the practical challenge of
acting against myriad armed groups across a wide expanse of terrain well-suited to guerrilla
war – and the limitations of MONUC’s capacity. Yet, the strategy was not irrational, events
since August should be powerful evidence it was fatally flawed; not least because all we have
invested in the past few years is now at risk. But MONUC was acting in line with the limits of
the political and material backing it was given. Perhaps if it had not been under-manned by
thousands of troops when it was formed, it would not be needing thousands more troops now.

This is where the failures of international engagement in the Congo are evident. The past few
months are evidence of the risk inherent in managing intervention in a way which reflects the
domestic considerations of Security Council members and contributing states rather than a
realistic assessment of the demands on the ground. Of course it is inevitable, indeed proper,
that these considerations will come into play – the UK, for example, is quite entitled to make
a difficult choice about whether its limited available troops should go to Kabul or the Kivus
(although its manoeuvrings to promote the idea that reinforcements need not come from the
one source likely to provide them in time were inevitably somewhat undignified). But the
militias in eastern DRC cannot be expected to pause to take this into account. The
international effort in Congo so far has been laudable in many ways, but nonetheless a
significant political and military under-investment has greatly contributed to the fact that
despite some progress, the fundamental threats and challenges have been unresolved – putting
at risk all we have invested so far, and amid continuous low-level conflict and systematic
predation against the civilian population. Given the strength of the case for action in the DRC
(and indeed the interest of the world in getting out with honour sooner rather than later) the
rational investment would surely have been to give more, and act harder, sooner.

Instead, the international community is today reduced to watching on the sidelines while
events unfold – for better or for worse. Some may see this as a small failure; but it is one
which sums up the danger of approaching nation-building like charity rather than self-interest.
In the Congo, and in similar circumstances elsewhere, the world needs to be hard-headed and
realistic. It cannot afford to be half-hearted.