Congo – Ghosts of Liberation – ISN

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Ghosts of liberation

Genocide’s legacy looms in the eastern Congo as renewed fighting sparks diplomatic grandstanding, Simon Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.

Reacting to renewed fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), British Prime Minister Gordon Brown proclaimed last weekend: “We must not allow Congo to become another Rwanda.”

Foreign Minister David Millband joined his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, in eastern DRC in a show of diplomatic concern, with talk of EU troops coming to back up an overwhelmed UN force.

The Rwandan genocide happened almost 15 years ago, to scandalous lack of concern and glib dismissals by the whole range of actors who could have intervened – from the UN to the US to European powers. Only Ghana, with its pledge to send 2,000 troops if the Clinton administration would provide airlift, reacted with the necessary urgency.

Since the Rwandan genocide, the Congo has endured long years of violence, displacement, disease and by all accounts, the most pervasive cycle of sexual violence perpetrated on vulnerable women that we have reliable record of. All making Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness, set in the Belgian Congo colonial era, seem like an ageless prophecy.

Even in the formal peace established in 2003, the death toll amounted to, on average, over 1,000 people a day, mostly from the side-effects of conflict such as disease and malnutrition. Rwanda led to hearty cries of “never again.” The Congo’s long, bloody, complex and attritional violence prompted little more than wearied sighs of “not again.”

Brown’s call takes on an additional, even shabby, poignancy, given that the latest fighting around Goma is rooted full-square in that same genocide he invokes as warning. The genocidaires were allowed flee into the eastern DRC, where they remain to this day, without any real resolution. Another Rwanda in the Congo? Too late – it has happened already.

There seems little point in invoking the ghosts of genocides past, with perpetrators at large, and the vengeful kin of the victims on the march. The genocidaires – the Forces Democratique du Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) – is, according to Rwanda, in tacit alliance with the Kinshasa government, mocking Kinshasa’s obligations under UNSC Resolution 1804 to disarm the FDLR.

More importantly, however, the FDLR is in direct competition with Rwandan-backed Congolese Tutsis for the plentiful and lucrative resources in the eastern Congo.

As Jennifer Cooke, co-director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told ISN Security Watch: “The economic dimension of the conflict will make the eventual solution even more complicated since the actors and interests involved – local, regional and international – go well beyond the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry.”

Congo’s eastern provinces of North and South Kivu are rich in minerals, notably cassiterite (tin ore), gold and coltan – the latter vital to mobile . Almost all the main armed groups involved in the conflict, as well as soldiers of the national Congolese army (known by its French acronym FARDC) have been trading illegally in these minerals for years, with complete impunity. Many have been taxing the civilian population and extorting minerals or cash along the roads or at border crossings.

The key player now is General Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi backed by Rwanda, who has held position outside the regional capital Goma since a 29 October ceasefire. Nkunda, however, has vowed “liberate” the DRC if negotiations do not go to his liking. This is a direct challenge to the government around 1,000 kilometers away in Kinshasa, and a reminder that Rwandan and allied troops remain capable of the same blitzkrieg cross-country strike at the capital, as launched during the wars in the 1990s.

Nkunda told reporters brought to his jungle base: “We are going to pressure [the Government] to have negotiations, otherwise we will force them from power.”

Ominous words for a people long used to warlords and mass violence. The impact of this latest fighting on local people is severe, the latest bout in Congo’s decade-long implosion.

Ivo Brandau, spokesman for UN-OCHA in DR Congo, told ISN Security Watch by email that “since the last round of fighting between the [Nkunda’s militia] and the FARDC started in late August, 250,000 persons have been directly affected.”

Most tellingly, he summed up: “It is safe to say that more than one million IDPs remain displaced in the province” – i.e., affected by and remaining vulnerable to the depredations of soldiers and militiamen, with precarious access to food, shelter and protection.

Tangled webs have been weaved. The Tutsi government in Kigali, led by Paul Kagame, took power in the wake of the slaughter of their Tutsi in 1994, but has ruled Rwanda as a one-party state, backed by western donors.

This has not hindered Kagame from contradicting the UK view that Rwanda is involved in the Congo – a slap in the face for British diplomacy, after hundreds of millions of pounds in bilateral aid spent on Rwanda since 1994.

More of a problem for Kigali is France, with Paris accused of abetting the Francophone Hutu killers in 1994, all part of an Elysee plot to prevent an Anglophone Tutsi takeover led by Kagame’s rebels, then-based in ex-British colony Uganda.

Now France murmurs about sending troops into the DRC, perhaps alongside the British, to back the overstretched UN force. Superior firepower might deter Tutsis from attacking the French, or Hutus from taking on the British, but whether such a stop-gap and controversial deployment would achieve anything is a slim-to-none shot.

A counter-cry might be “let Africans solve African problems.” Only last time African states tried to solve Congo, nine of them piled into the vast mineral-laden jungle, fought each other for position, and looted what they could while they could.

Ominously, the usual suspects seem to be lining up once more to carve up Africa’s fulcrum country. Rwanda and Uganda offer support to Nkunda, and both countries are somehow exporters of minerals, which are plentiful in the Congo, but unavailable in their own lands. In response, Kinshasa has called on old ally Angola and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to come to its rescue.

A common denominator? China. Beijing is building roads and railways across Angola, in exchange for cheap credit for Luanda, in exchange for sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves. A recent deal to build a much-needed rail network across DRC in exchange for US$9billion in mining concessions would be jeopardized by any Rwandan-backed move to unseat Kabila. And Mugabe was bailed out at the UN Security Council in July by China, which has preferential access to his platinum. Beijing might be calling in its chips in the Congo, seeing Rwandan-backed regime change as contrary to its interests.

Liberation comes in many forms, and General Nkunda’s pledge will hardly be seen as such by the millions of suffering people in the Congo – not least the non-Tutsis who would stand in his way should act on his threat to remove the government. Mugabe, too, once styled himself as liberator, and may bring his own version of same back to the Congo he helped destroy during the 1990s. Liberation seems little more than another Orwellian sick joke, just below all the belated odes to “genocide no more” in the ranking of diplomatic weasel words. These platitudes, and all the tired old Heart of Darkness clichés, do nothing to prevent the elemental brutality pervading in the eastern Congo, and merely abet the cynical diplomatic posturing that is itself as timeless as Conrad’s great novel.

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