Kabila's painful balancing act

Members of a Congolese family walking after their village was occupied by the National Congress for the Defence of the People. (Marc Hofer, AP)

Members of a Congolese family walking after their village was occupied by the National Congress for the Defence of the People. (Marc Hofer, AP)

Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, must be wondering just when he is finally going to shake the recurring nightmare that he has not finished his history homework. The only thing worse than the nightmare itself is waking up and realising that it is not his homework he has neglected, but a festering conflict in eastern DRC.

Not that he has not been busy: 1500km to the west, in the capital Kinshasa, Kabila has spent the first four-and-a-half months of his controversial second mandate keeping the country in suspense about the composition of his new government.
Will it include key opposition figures critical of the elections? Will the new prime minister be chosen from the ranks of compromise candidates, or will he be a Kabila stalwart from the president’s own party? All these decisions will be interpreted against the backdrop of the November 2011 presidential and legislative elections won by Kabila and his political alliance, which have been heavily contested and divided the country.

The international diplomatic community gravely acknowledged the election observer reports by respected missions such as the Carter Centre and the European Union, which pointed out serious flaws in the electoral process and concluded that the election lacked credibility. But by December 20, when Kabila was inaugurated, decisions had already been made and ambassadors from Asia, Africa, Europe and North America solemnly attended Kabila’s inauguration in Kinshasa, openly recognising him as the victor of the fraudulent elections.

Behind the scenes, various countries were pushing for a political opening that could heal the rift caused by the election and counter the impression that the country’s second free election in decades had set the DRC on the path for less, rather than more, democracy. But the stage-managed political consultations initiated by the Kabila camp stopped far short of the negotiations demanded by the political opposition, which wants a wholesale review of the election. In the end, they amounted to little more than a window-dressing exercise aimed at co-opting willing opposition parties.

Competent technocrat
When the government was finally formed on April 28, it included one opposition member – but he has already been expelled from his own party for joining the Kabila government. Meanwhile, the head of government, Prime Minister Matata Ponyo Mapon, a former minister of finance, has been hailed by many as a competent technocrat. He is generally appreciated by the international financial community, but is also from Kabila’s political party base.

Throughout this, the international community has been relatively silent and in late March it became apparent why. Instead of using its leverage to lobby for a robust political dialogue, the international community appears to have changed focus and has been pressuring Kabila to arrest Bosco Ntaganda. Ntaganda, a former rebel leader-turned-army general, is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of recruiting child soldiers during his time as the military commander of an ethnic militia in northeastern DRC.

The court’s recent guilty verdict against Thomas Lubanga, Ntaganda’s former boss, on the same charges levelled against Ntaganda, appears to have renewed the international community’s zeal for his arrest. The question now is at what cost to the country.

For the past few years Ntaganda has been living happily and freely in and around the North Kivu capital of Goma. The court’s arrest warrant against him was revealed in 2008 and the Congolese authorities could easily have executed it at that point. However, by then Ntaganda was part of a new Rwandan-backed rebellion, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a predominantly Tutsi armed group led by Laurent Nkunda.

Nkunda’s CNDP was a significant threat to the east, a region that had helped to carry Kabila to his first electoral victory in 2006. As the CNDP stood poised to capture the strategically important city of Goma in late 2008, Kabila struck a deal with Rwanda: arrest Nkunda, neutralise the CNDP by integrating its units into the Congolese army and allow it a seat at the political table in Kinshasa. In return, Rwandan troops would pursue the militia responsible for the 1994 genocide. Despite the existence of the arrest warrant, Ntaganda became Nkunda’s successor and was ultimately given the post of general in the Congolese army, commanding military operations in the east.

The deal was little more than a quick fix: Ntaganda has been able to amass considerable wealth and influence because it is clear that he still has command over several thousand CNDP troops who were integrated into the army, but remain essentially intact and deployed in that part of the country they previously controlled.

They also maintain parallel command structures and their loyalties are clearly not to the Congolese army.

But Kabila never made good on his promise to include the CNDP in government, a fact many of its Tutsi fighters strongly resent. Because of this delicate power balance, Kabila has consistently dismissed calls to arrest Ntaganda, saying peace and stability are more important than justice.

Over the past six weeks this has changed. Kabila seems to have calculated that arresting Ntaganda is a much smaller price to pay for international recognition than creating an inclusive political environment and sharing power with the political opposition.

It is unclear whether he or the international community fully understood the implications: as news filtered out that Ntaganda’s arrest could be imminent, hundreds of CNDP soldiers deserted their positions and regrouped in their strongholds.
A wave of desertions
In the midst of the first wave of desertions, Kabila flew to Goma and announced publically for the first time that he was ready to arrest Ntaganda, but that he would be tried by a Congolese jurisdiction, not the International Criminal Court. In the days that followed the announcement, the Congolese government sent 1000 CNDP troops to a new base several thousands of kilometres to the west, but this simply created a vacuum that has already been filled by other armed groups operating in the region.

After a brief period of calm, the situation has escalated and the Congolese army is now clashing regularly with deserting CNDP units that have managed to capture significant territory in North Kivu. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and sought refuge in overcrowded camps close to Goma, and the international community has warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in a region of the country in which two million people are already displaced.

Ntaganda said he had nothing to do with the desertions and was until last week holed up on a farm north of Goma. He has since fled the advancing Congolese army and his whereabouts are unknown.

Whether this situation degenerates into a drawn-out rebellion will depend to a great extent on Rwanda. Even if Ntaganda is arrested, the CNDP could survive, but it would need the support of its former backer, Rwanda. Rwandan and Congolese military officials have been meeting in the past week to map a way forward, but it is unclear what this means.

Perhaps a new deal will be made that will allow Rwandan troops into the eastern DRC yet again. Ntaganda’s freedom is a blot on the court’s record and the international community seems willing to sacrifice a lot to make its flagship court look good.

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