This is a guest blog by Nickson Kasola, the director of Centre pour la Gouvernance, a non-profit conducting research on democracy and governance based in Kinshasa. Their report on the recent fighting in the eastern Congo can be found here.
Our regional leaders have got two things right about the crisis gripping the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). One: that it needs their urgent attention. Two: the leaders of the Great Lakes countries, including their east African members, have a crucial role to play in bringing stability. But they are failing to do what they need to.
In the next days the International Conference on the Great Lakes region (ICGLR) will discuss sending a ‘neutral force’ of yet more soldiers to Congo that they say will help bring peace. Plunged deeper into conflict and chaos since the April emergence of the M23 armed group there and the increased activity of other armed groups, it could appear to the inexperienced eye that a military response by a ‘neutral international force’ would fit the bill. But in fact this is not the case; their public muscle flexing has merely allowed these nations to avoid the political heavy lifting they must do.
What needs to happen is an urgent end to Rwandan support to the M23. The illegal backing that Rwanda has already given the rebel group, including arms and ammunition, has bolstered the group immensely and turned it into a real threat to the DRC government’s control of a part of North Kivu province. In addition, as the Congolese army has focused on fighting the M23, other armed groups have taken advantage of government weakness and expanded their control. The result is catastrophic: Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by fighting by the in eastern DRC this year alone. A vast area has been destabilized.
ICGLR members should be putting all the diplomatic pressure they can on Rwanda to stop. Focusing instead on a ‘neutral force’ is a massive distraction at a crucial moment.
The truth is that these troops, if they materialize, will not be able to deal any more effectively with the armed groups that have been terrorizing our communities for many years than any of the other soldiers who have tried, including UN and Congolese troops. They will perhaps be able to force groups out of areas temporarily but will not be able to destroy them completely. As battles rage back and forth over “territory” – the homes of ordinary people – it will be civilians who suffer most: yet more children, women, men will be forced to flee. Yet more people will die, yet more children will miss out on schooling. And if the force includes troops from Congo’s neighboring countries, they may pursue their own agenda while on Congolese soil, rather than working in our interest.
Ideally, the Congolese army should be able to put down the M23 rebellion and to provide our communities with the security we need, but it hasn’t been able to. Our government should do more to make sure its army in the east is well-trained and properly provided for and ends its abuse of civilians. We need better, more decentralized governance that actually works and we need real, local political dialogue across the country that means Congolese have a voice in what happens in their country. If the other ICGLR members truly want stability in eastern DRC they must push our government to listen more to its own people.
The ICGLR countries should immediately begin to improve relations between DRC and Rwanda, who. have shown they are unable to do this without international mediation. The ICGLR, together with the AU Peace and Security Council, could do just this, perhaps with European or American support. But above all, the ICGLR’s members must be brave enough to speak to the real failures of Rwanda and DRC and seek practical solutions for the sake of ordinary people whose lives area again being needlessly ruined by conflict.