Edward B. Rackley
Once again, Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe made headlines today by issuing a new billion dollar note to keep up with the currency’s free-fall devaluation. The ICC war crimes indictment against Sudan president Omar al Bashir was also widely covered, as was the killing of Rwandan peacekeepers in Darfur last week. No one can accuse the international media of ignoring the human cost of these despots.
And yet, Darfur cannot count a death toll higher than a few hundred thousand. Mugabe would rather kill than feed his people, but how many have actually perished? Very few. Does either context represent a regional security threat? Chinese and Russian vetoes of proposed Security Council resolutions against these two regimes may seem duplicitous and self-interested, but their argument that neither crisis is sufficiently lethal or destabilizing to its neighbors is accurate. Best to let the fire burn out, wait for a coup d’etat or pray for popular intefadah.
Congo’s war is different in every way. Over four million people have died here, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since WWII. It hosts the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force; at one point seven different national armies were fighting on Congolese territory. Neighboring countries continue to support various rebel groups here, and yet regional stability depends heavily on a pacified Congo. After years of foreign-funded peace talks and a tenuous transitional government, in 2006 the international community again forked out over $400 million for presidential elections. While these were generally free and fair, nothing has changed in the country.
President Kabila’s promises of massive reconstruction and reconciliation upon election have proven hollow. Instead he’s obsessed with consolidating and centralizing power, undermining planned provincial elections as his now-defamed party would lose across the board. So it’s déjà vu all over again as he drags the country back thirty years to Mobutu-style autocracy. All this and more, yet Congo’s problems are virtually unknown to the outside world.
Pyromaniac for president
Unfortunately, autocracy does not mean control for Kabila, who is weak and easily manipulated where Mobutu was steely and merciless. So Kabila watches as conflict burns here in the country’s eastern provinces. Twenty different armed groups continue to thrust and parry, murdering, raping, pillaging and displacing the civilians in whose name they claim to fight. Here in North Kivu alone, the number of displaced is estimated at 850,000, with a hundred thousand newly displaced in the last six months. The national army (FARDC) is ragtag, untrained, ill-equipped and must extort local populations to feed itself. Civilians flee areas of FARDC deployment, claiming they are better treated by rebel groups—whose leaders are wanted by the ICC. Talk about desperation.
After several humiliating defeats at the hands of these eastern rebels, most recently last December, Kabila called the US Embassy and asked for help. He agreed to negotiate with the strongest rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, and international facilitation was brought in to moderate the talks. By end January, concessions were made, amnesty extended, and a political settlement was on the table. The FARDC would absorb rebel troops, whose leaders would be given senior posts in the national army. There would be no ‘surrender’ by rebels, or justice for victims, only ‘integration’ of the forces negatives. Peace on the cheap, African style.
Since then, Kabila has begun to regret the decision. Hardliners who have Kabila’s ear appeal to his national pride, cannot abide negotiating with rebels, and despite repeated humiliations on the battle field, continue to fantasize over a military victory. Over 200 ceasefire violations have been documented since January.
One international body for whom Congo is not forgotten is the ICC. Former Ituri warlord Thomas Lubanga is in The Hague right now pending trial. Kabila’s opposant in the national elections, Senator Jean-Pierre Bemba, was recently apprehended by ICC officials while fleeing exile in Portugal for the US. Why the US? Because it doesn’t recognize the ICC, and Bemba thought he could escape extradition once on US soil.
Rebels who had agreed to the negotiated integration plan now smell a rat. The four most powerful groups have pulled out of the process. Everyone is now re-arming, recruiting, and training. So Plan B, the military option—aka the ‘best alternative to a negotiated agreement’, or BATNA—is back on the front burner. Rebels know they can win any contest, and Kabila cannot stand to lose. The Angolan army, staunch Kabila supporters, is supposedly on call to assist.
Meanwhile, donors are putting together expensive programs to professionalize the national army and police, and to facilitate the integration of rebel forces. Ironically, the best way to kill the military option would be to let Kabila’s army decay to the point where accommodating the rebels is the only way out. More irony: reinforcing state security with massive international funding is exactly how the West propped up African dictators throughout the Cold War.
So while eastern Congo is not quite Somalia in terms of daily carnage and utter intractability, it could very well become Somalia as donors tire of funding false-start negotiations and aid agencies realize they have no access to targeted populations because of ongoing insecurity. If we all got out of here and let the cards fall where they may, anti-interventionists and their Chomskyite variants would have their day. But we would surely have another Somalia in humanitarian terms, and a possible regional war.