Africa /Phil Moore/Al Jazeera

Published on November 26th, 2012


Dealing with the Congo question

How President Kabila can pick a leaf from his neighbours and his own past to craft a solution for his country

Over  the last so many months, the international community has been grappling  with the crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  Human rights groups and the United Nations “Panel of Experts” have  presented the problem as one of a Tutsi-led rebel group, M23, wreaking  havoc in that country. The mass media sings this chorus. The UN  “experts” claim that M23 are a proxy of the government of Rwanda. In a  second leaked report, the UN panel has added Uganda among the sponsors  of M23. 

Anyone following the news would easily be tempted to think that if M23  were crushed today, DRC would become a stable country. Yet M23 is not  the only militia rebelling against Kinshasa. There are over 20 rebel  movements against the government of President Joseph Kabila. These  misrepresentations may have played to the political advantage of the  governing elites in Kinshasa and their allies elsewhere. However, they  undermine an internal search for an enduring solution to the problems of  the country.

M23  and the myriad militias and rebel groups are not a cause but a  consequence of the crisis of the state in DRC even though they tend to  accentuate it. The real cause is the deeper malaise that has eaten the  social fabric of the Congolese state. This is largely manifested in the  inability of the state to exercise effective control over its vast  territory. The absence of even rudimentary infrastructure for  administrative and security functions over most of the country is what  has prompted the emergence of ethnic-based militias. In fact, these  militias fill the vacuum of an absentee state by providing basic  administration and security even though imperfectly.

It  may be politically convenient for elites in Kinshasa to bury their  heads in the sand and blame their country’s woes on meddlesome  neighbors. It is also appealing for human rights groups and mass media  to present the problem of Congo as one of external interference. But  seeking external scapegoats is not a formula for success. For those  interested in helping Congo out of its crisis, the first objective  should be to help Kinshasa build a functional state; a state that can  perform basic tasks like ensuring law and order and the protection of  individual life and property. In this endeavor, Congo would need the  help of Uganda, Rwanda and its other neighbours.

Without  rebuilding the capabilities of the Congolese state, there is very  little diplomatic engineering and political blame-game that can stop  widespread atrocities against innocent civilians. Indeed, the main cause  of atrocities in most of Congo is the lack of discipline among the  armed forces. This is partly because the army in Congo is a collection  of many militias. The central government often negotiates a truce with a  militia controlling a given territory and integrates them into its  army. But such agreements (as the one with the M23) have proved tenuous  because Kinshasa often fails to keep its part of the bargain. And in  mineral rich regions, the militias may do better retaining territorial  control than ceding power to Kinshasa. Thus, these alliances keep  changing, thereby causing uncertainty and violence.

The  mistake of international actors involved in Congo has been to choose a  side and support an entrenched yet morally indefensible position i.e.  treating the government as innocent and the rebels as murderous. M23  occupies a small territory that is not even one hundredth of the  territory of that large country. A casual observer may be misled to  think that most of DRC is stable and that atrocities are happening only  in the country’s eastern region. Yet across the entire nation of Congo,  atrocities abound –and life reechoes the words of Thomas Hobbes as being  miserable, nasty, brutish and short.

The  Congolese army is a poorly trained, poorly paid and undisciplined. It  lives off robbing, pillaging, terrorising and raping its own citizens.  This partly explains why ethnic militias are preferred by local  communities for, they to provide security where the national army  promotes insecurity. When Kampala deployed its army in the eastern DRC  town of Dungu in 2008, Congolese citizens were happy to have Ugandan  troops protect them against their own army. In spite of this local need,  the political representatives in Kinshasa were denouncing UPDF presence  in the area. This is a clear sign that politicians, even when elected,  may possess and even pursue interests at odds with the needs and demands  of their own constituents. That is why the focus on M23 as the cause of  atrocities is unwise and unhelpful.

To  resolve the problems of Congo needs a much more skilled politician – a  leader who will understand that the problems of his country are largely  domestically generated and the solution is not human rights advocacy. He  will have to examine the internal sources of tension and place the  search for internal political accommodation above the need to please  poorly informed, albeit genuinely motivated outsiders. In doing this,  that leader will need to draw lessons from Rwanda, Uganda, Mozambique  and South Africa.

After  the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Paul Kagame recognised that healing the  country’s wounds; stabilising its political dispensation and seeking  social reconciliation would require working with individuals and groups  with whom he disagreed. This meant accommodating individuals accused of  complicity in the genocide but whose political collaboration was  necessary to achieve a modicum of political accommodation. This is also  the approach employed by Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1994. He  avoided seeking to prosecute people for the crimes of apartheid but  instead involve them in a process of political reconciliation. Uganda  and Mozambique have implemented similar variants of this strategy to  achieve political consolidation and stability.

Of  course Kabila has tried it before with success. And the times when he  did the above and signed agreements with his adversaries, Kabila brought  considerable peace and stability to his country. Denouncing M23 and  other militias as terrorists and criminals when his army is not strong  enough to defend the institutional integrity of the state is not a  formula for success. It may win him sympathy and support from many  outsiders with an eye on his country’s minerals or an axe to grind with  Rwanda or Uganda. But it will not give him a durable solution for his  country.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Andrew Mwenda is a Ugandan journalist, founder and owner of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affair’s news magazine. He attended Busoga College Mwiri in eastern Uganda before attending Makerere University.

This  article originally appeared at

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