Between a Bemba and a Kabila
The fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo last week has thrown South Africa into the midst of that country’s most serious crisis since the elections last year.
Amid heavy fighting between government troops and those loyal to former vice-president and presidential rival Jean-Pierre Bemba, Bemba last week sought refuge in the South African compound, which is close to his main residence in Kinshasa.
Fighting between the two camps erupted early on the day a government ultimatum for Bemba’s forces—estimated at between 600 and 1 000—to join the Congolese army was due to expire.
The government had issued the ultimatum three weeks earlier and the army appears to have been moving in to take forceable action, despite the fact that the two sides were in ongoing negotiations about the appropriate size of a personal guard for Bemba.
Taking a firm line, Congolese President Joseph Kabila said this week that his government would not tolerate personal militia and that Bemba could face charges of treason.
The Bemba camp says that an agreement signed by the two parties prior to the holding of the second round of elections in October last year is the basis for negotiations on the size of his protection team. According to that accord, the winner of the election must ensure the safety of the loser by providing him with a guard of an appropriate size.
However, late in February the Kabila government published a presidential decree, which stipulates that the government will put 12 policemen at the disposal of all four former transition government vice-presidents, including Bemba.
The Bemba camp feels that this is insufficient. Moise Musangana, Bemba’s spokesperson, told the Mail & Guardian that, given the history of violence between the two camps—this is their third major clash in eight months—Bemba feels he should be given a more sizeable guard. The two men were due to meet to discuss the matter in person on March 22, the day the fighting started.
“Bemba was willing to accept that his guards come from the Congolese army, but it could not just be any troops [given clashes in the past]. He expected the Kabila camp to make suggestions as to the size and composition of the force.”
One week after the events that are estimated to have killed between 200 to 500 people, many of them civilians, the leader of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), who is now an elected senator in the national assembly, remained in a residence belonging to the South African embassy.
Various international actors, led by the UN mission in the DRC (Monuc), and including South Africa, are attempting to mediate between him and Kabila.
The UN Security Council, which was briefed on the events on Tuesday, was awaiting the outcome of a specially convened SADC heads-of-state meeting to make a statement about a way forward.
On Tuesday South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aziz Pahad, said Bemba could stay in the embassy for as long as necessary and that the South African government was legally required to protect him.
South Africa’s stance is likely to strain relations between it and the DRC, because South Africa providing Bemba with a safe haven would be in defiance of the Congolese government’s desire to see him prosecuted for “treason”.
“This is a difficult situation. South Africa is working hard to prepare the ground to see if it can’t get Kabila to agree to restart talks. This is the best option. The other options—giving Bemba to the government, or Bemba going into exile, would both have negative repercussions,” said Henri Boshoff, a military analyst with the Institute for Security Studies.
South Africa hosted the Congolese peace talks in 2002 and has provided military and financial assistance to the DRC’s transition government. South African President Thabo Mbeki has hailed the electoral process a success.
Many South African businesses had been hoping to capitalise on this involvement to make lucrative deals in the mineral-rich country.
A disagreement over what to do with Bemba could threaten economic and diplomatic relations between the two countries, dealing a severe blow to South Africa’s desire to increase its influence in Africa.
Bene M’poko, the Congolese ambassador to South Africa, told the M&G this week that he would not speculate on what would happen if South Africa did not render Bemba to the Congolese authorities.
However, he rejected the idea of renewed negotiations with Bemba. “We have been negotiating with Bemba for five years [since the Sun City talks in 2002]. Every time we negotiate with him, he refusesâ€¦ We negotiated the status of the four vice-presidents; they agreed.”
Meanwhile, although the international community has condemned the violence of last week, no one has pointed the finger of blame at Bemba outright and there is some feeling that offensive actions by the Kabila camp triggered the violence.
This week the European Union said it deplored the “premature recourse to violence when all avenues of negotiation had not yet been exhausted”, adding that it had been negotiating with the two sides about the size of Bemba’s personal guard for 10 days prior to the outbreak of violence.
For now efforts are concentrated on trying to find a solution that would allow Bemba to leave the embassy and resume his duties as a senator. Observers realise that if a compromise cannot be found, a severe blow will have been dealt to the fledgling Congolese democracy.
The repeated incidents of violence between Bemba’s troops and Congolese army troops are to a great extent a legacy of the transition government’s failure to complete the disarmament and reintegration of all rebel forces into a unified national army. This issue dogged the transition and now threatens to weaken the country’s tenuous stability.
On guard in the Congo
Last week’s events in Kinshasa are to a great extent the result of incomplete integration of war-time forces into a unified Congolese army. The lack of political will to complete the integration has allowed the rival politicians to maintain their own “militia”.
At least an equally large number are in Katanga province, Kabila’s stronghold, while the rest are concentrated in cities around the country. Only a fraction of these have been through the military reintegration process.
This has long been a point of contention between the Kabila camp and his opponents, and is one of the key reasons why Bemba has been unwilling to surrender his personal guard.
Most of them have either fled or dispersed following last week’s fighting.
The UN mission in the DRC (Monuc) has provided shelter to 138 of them.