Monday, November 10, 2008

War, again

"The Democratic Republic of Congo is once again burning."
--The Weekly Observer, Kampala.

Has war resumed in the DRC? Or is this just a temporary uptick in the ongoing violence that has persisted in the region despite the formal close of war in 2003? The AP's Michelle Faul reports that UN officials have spotted Angolan soldiers among Congolese forces battling Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. And Africa Intelligence says that Ugandan troops have joined Rwandan soldiers fighting on behalf of Nkunda. (Shown in picture on right.) Both accounts are uncomfirmed, but it seems increasingly likely that we're seeing a resumption of the hostilities that beset the Congo earlier this decade, when as many as seven African national armies clashed during Africa's "first world war." (That war lasted from 1998 to 2003, and should, more accurately, have been called Africa's first continental war.)

A recap: Despite hosting the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, and despite innumerable diplomatic initiatives, peace agreements, and political developments--including, most notably, the successful holding of a nationwide presidential election in 2006--eastern Congo remains a cauldron of instability. Observers disagree on where to put the emphasis, but several problems stand out:
1) Local conflicts over land issues between neighboring ethnic groups, such as the one between the Lendu and the Hema near Bunia. That conflict resulted in a brief but successful French-led peace-enforcement operation in 2003, but other conflicts have simmered on. (See "The Trouble with Congo", by Severine Autesserre.)
2) Long-standing tensions between various groups of Rwandan settlers in eastern Congo, on the one hand, and indigenous Congolese--the so-called autochtones--on the other. These tensions predate the Rwandan genocide, and were manipulated at various times for short-term political advantage both by the colonial authorities and by Mobutu. (For a quick review of how Rwandan immigrant communities came to be seen as ineluctably alien, see "The Troubled East" by Gerard Prunier.)
3) The utter incapacity of the DRC government to police and control the eastern third of the country. In particular, its inability or unwillingness to detain the ex-Hutu genocidaires who found refuge in Congo after 1994. Their continuing presence has provided Rwanda with the rationale--pretextual or genuine, depending on your sympathies--to intervene repeatedly in the DRC.
4) The easy availability of mineral wealth, providing the motive and means for every village bully to establish a private fiefdom exploiting the gold, tin, or coltan underfoot. (See, for example, this report by Global Witness.) The lure of easy wealth--and the absence of any controlling authority--has drawn in neighboring regimes, led to the multiplication of militias, corrupted virtually every party to the conflict, and resulted in bewildering arrays of short-term opportunistic alliances between the parties.
5) The contempt of Rwandan elites for Congolese, and the reciprocal, untempered anger of the Congolese toward Rwanda.
6) The contest between British and French humanitarian ambitions, reminiscent of the battle over interpretations of the Biafra conflict some forty years ago, with the U.S. again straddling the division. (See this entertaining video of former English development minister Claire Short denouncing current French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.)

A good summary of current developments is Stephanie Hanson's "Eastern Congo on the Brink," from the Council on Foreign Relations. An excellent briefing that reviews the relevant history and provides recommendations for policy makers, published just before the current eruption of violence, is Anthony Gambino's optimistically titled Securing Peace, Sustaining Progress.

The predictable people are suffering, but to an extent that makes this war unique. It is, first of all, the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. According to detailed population surveys by the International Rescue Committee, some 5.4 million people died in the DRC from 1998 through 2007, most as an indirect result of the violence. As of January 2008, some 45,000 people were dying every month--a number that has surely increased with the recent rise in violence. Second, the war is unique in the level of violence it has occasioned against women. See this report by Human Rights Watch, or the HBO film, The Greatest Silence, among the many thousands of reports and testimonials on the subject.

So exactly what is the situation today? Who are the antagonists, and what are their motivations? What are the roots of the conflict and how can they be addressed? Who can help bring peace, and how? In this blog, I will attempt to provide a rolling commentary on the Congo, with a specific focus on resource exploitation, in the hope that what must surely be the most damaged country on earth will someday know peace.

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