Rebels wreak havoc in eastern DRC

An internally displaced Congolese woman rests in a church used as a temporary shelter near the provincial capital Goma, which could soon fall to the rebels.(Siegfried Modola, Reuters)

An internally displaced Congolese woman rests in a church used as a temporary shelter near the provincial capital Goma, which could soon fall to the rebels.(Siegfried Modola, Reuters)

There is an upbeat narrative about Africa – a growing middle class, a thriving arts and digital culture, “Africa rising” on the cover of The Economist – that is gaining currency. Such correctives to Afro-pessimism invariably meet their nemesis, however, in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The deadly militias are back. A mutiny led by war-crimes suspect Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda has been slicing through the region with apparent ease, terrorising and displacing hundreds of thousands of people and shattering two years of relative peace.

It is a tragedy that stems from ethnic and political wounds ­dating back to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which sent a million Hutu refugees fleeing into what was then Zaire.
Later invasions of Congo by Rwandan forces and Rwanda’s backing of Congolese rebels fuelled two successive wars that sucked in multiple nations and killed several million people.

Nearly 18 years after the genocide, Congo and Rwanda remain locked in a deadly embrace, even though a glance at a map shows why they have been compared to an elephant and a mouse. Yet tiny Rwanda is the mouse that roared.

In a rare success for the United Nations, its Group of Experts recently came out with allegations of Rwandan meddling in the current “M23” mutiny against the Congolese government. Research by Human Rights Watch also found that the Rwandan military provided hundreds of fighters and weapons across the border. Rwanda vehemently denies the claims.

Why now? The Congo’s president was re-elected late last year. With that out of the way, it appears he felt it was time to assert his authority on the east, nearly 1600km from his seat of power, Kinshasa. In particular, he would seek to rein in the former fighters of General Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People rebel group, which in theory has been incorporated into the Congolese army through a peace deal, but in practice has retained much of its own structure. Two chains of command were no longer tolerable.

International backers
The fact that Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court, meaning that his arrest would score points for Kabila among his international backers, may not have done any harm.

But Kabila’s push for greater stability has backfired horribly. His army, underpaid and badly treated, appears to lack the stomach for the fight and has instead dropped weapons and rolled over, or even defected to rebel ranks. Town after town has fallen and now the mutineers almost have the gates of the provincial capital, Goma, in their sights, just as Nkunda did in 2008.

It is hugely embarrassing for the elephant, again. Goma is also the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission, the biggest in the world. Could the town fall?

Anneke van Woudenberg, senior researcher for the Congo in Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, said: “My head says no, but in the past few days the mutineers have taken areas that the UN and Congolese army had considered ‘red lines’ that they would do everything necessary to defend. So we cannot say Goma is definitely not under threat.”

Such an outcome would surely force Kabila to the negotiating table, but with whom? He would face a Hobson’s choice between a group of war-crimes suspects with no democratic mandate and a neighbouring state that denies the first premise of its own complicity.

Diplomatic relations between Kinshasa and Kigali are better than they were, but it is thought that some key Rwandan individuals have a big stake in eastern Congo, not least its lucrative mines.

Meanwhile, there seems little prospect of international action against Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, a darling of the West. Africa is rising for sure, but not here. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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