I have been studying conflicts in the Great Lakes Region for several years and even visited the region but I would not consider myself a specialist of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of the reasons is that this one of the most, if not the most complex, conflict in the world today. We are talking about a long-existing war, nearly twenty years, involving a multitude of countries, armies, armed groups (20 and 30 armed rebel groups), and a large UN peacekeeping force. I am not even talking about the number of NGOs and UN agencies also present on the ground. The UN mission in the Congo, known as Monusco, is the largest existing UN mission in the world today. It has been on the ground for more than a decade but despite the presence of this 20,000 strong force, peace in the eastern DRC remains illusive. In November, a rebel group known as the M23 successfully invaded Goma despite the presence of the national army, the FARDC, and Monusco. Intense international forced the rebels to withdraw to northern areas but considering their success, it would be legitimate to believe that the population has stopped expecting anything from the FARDC or Monusco. Having been to Goma myself, though only for a day, the sense of insecurity is always present.
The outbreak of the new rebellion in May 2012 prompted the signing of the Framework Agreement (Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework – PSCF) on 24 February 2013. This UN-led agreement was signed by the President of the DRC and ten other African heads of state, under the eye of the UN and three African regional bodies. The objective is to tackle underlying problems and core drivers of violence in the region: armed groups, weak Congolese institutions and governance, poor development, and foreign interference in the DRC’s internal affairs. The agreement highlights the need for concrete reforms in the DRC as well as increased regional cooperation, particularly between the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda (the latter two have both been accused of supporting rebellions in the eastern DRC).
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Jim Kim (World Bank), and UN envoy Mary Robinson visited Kinshasa, Goma, and Kigali last week in an attempt to show their support for the new agreement. “We are determined to do more for crisis-stricken countries,” Ban said in Kinshasa and described the agreement as “best chance for peace in years.” Whether the Framework Agreement will actually contribute to peace depends on many factors, most importantly, I think, on 1) genuine commitment to Agreement 2) additional political strategies (national and regional), c) and political will to implement reforms and strategies once and for all.
With its large number of natural resources, the DRC could be a thriving, prosperous nation. But the corrupt government combined with hungry rebels and neighboring countries (Rwanda and Uganda long waged proxy wars in the DRC, and may still do so today according to several reports) make this impossible. Since the PSCF was signed, the government has set up a plan for national reforms, which includes dealing with impunity, reconciliation, decentralization, the justice system, and, most importantly, Security Sector Reform. But the government has a history of being slow to implement reforms. Enough pressure must therefore be put on the regime Kinshasa to genuinely execute these reforms and to engage in political dialog with various political and non-political actors. This pressure could come from the opposition (although it is currently divided), Congolese civil society, donors and NGOs, and from the international community.
Another major challenge remains the commitment of key countries in the Great Lakes region to actually work together. The Framework agreement pushed for regional cooperation on the extraction and export of minerals, and on security issues. There has been increasing international pressure on neighboring countries, especially Rwanda, to commit to this. Recently, several donor countries, including Great Britain, froze then unfroze or reduced their aid to Rwanda when Kigali was suspected of backing the rebels. Rwanda has always been a donor darling but the relationship is changing. However, I have always found it hard to believe in the will of the DRC and its neighbors to cooperate in a transparent and legitimate way instead of illegally interfering in each others’ affairs. Perhaps international and regional pressure can force them to do so but these country had better understand that cooperation on political, security and economic issues is more beneficial for development in the long term.
(M23 rebels in Bunagana, near the Ugandan border)
Special Intervention Brigade: can a more robust mandate work?
The Framework Agreement also cleared the way for a new UN intervention force. With Resolution 2098 (2013), the UN has embarked on an unprecedented military approach to deal with armed groups by setting up an Intervention Brigade with an offensive mandate. The 3.069 soldiers from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi will reinforce troops already on the ground but will also be responsible for neutralizing and reducing the threat posed by armed groups. The new brigade is therefore authorized to engage in offensive military action.
The reaction of the M23 was immediate. After months of truce, fighting with the FARDC erupted again around Goma last week. The rebels have also been trying to dissuade Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa from providing peacekeepers by appealing to their parliaments. In areas under their control, the M23 is holding rallies, and conducting propaganda campaigns against the Intervention brigade in order to turn the population against the force. Furthermore, the leader of the rebels stated that the M23 would fight back if attacked. Whether the rebels will actually fight back is difficult to say. They could eventually disarm or at least negotiate. The M23 has been in talks with the Congolese government since December 2012 but talks have stalled since the DRC agreed to the deployment of the brigade. The rebels clearly see the new force as an aggressor, not as a peaceful mediator.
Will the Intervention Brigade be able to carry out its mandate? At the end of April, a Mai Mai self-defense group attacked the town of Pinga despite the presence of Monusco peacekeepers responsible for protecting civilians. This is not the first time Monusco has failed to intervene. Just think about what happened in Goma last November. The passivity of Monusco seems in part due to a minimalistic reading of its mandate, which emphasizes that it is the “primary responsibility of the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for ensuring security in its territory and protecting its civilians (…).” As a result, Monusco often appears to hide behind the inefficiency of the FARDC. Second, the mission seems more inclined to protect their own staff first rather than civilians. This kind of pasivity leads me to question the efficiency of the future brigade. Is it actually ready to fight or will it stand by again?
This leads to another problem. The brigade should not simply focus on the M23 and the FDLR. This would be too restrictive. But let’s also not forget that there are about twenty to thirty very armed groups in the DRC who use different tactics and have different interests. How can one Brigade composed of 3000 men possibly neutralize them all? Finally, what will become of those rebels who decide to lay down arms? Will they be reintegrated into the FARDC again? This plan has proven widely detrimental to peace and is part been part of the problem. I think the new mandate is too large for the small brigade and only constitutes a short-term solution. The objective should not be to simply manage the problem of armed group but to actually solve it – thus my emphasis on the need for a genuine political strategy.
All previous national and regional peace-building efforts have more or less failed and lasting peace can only be reached through a multi-faceted and holistic approach (political, economic and security) to peace building. This strategy needs to tackle the political and structural nature of the long-lasting conflicts in the region. But it also mean involving multiple actors with diverse and agendas and approaches. The Framework Agreement may be a step in the right direction but the DRC still has a long way to go. As Ban stated “I think this framework agreement could be a landmark one, but it’s the minimum which we are doing. I think we should do more.”