Is DR Congo's cycle of chaos unbreakable?

M23 rebels patrolling Goma, in eastern DR Congo, on 20 November 2012

It is conflict with genocide in its rear-view mirror; a conflict of bewildering complexity, deeply rooted in issues of identity and land, aggressively manipulated by external forces, and haunted by a lingering sense that eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's status quo - violent, unpredictable, and locked in a cynical and seemingly unbreakable cycle of chaos - is much more convenient to those with armies to flex than some sullen, restrictive peace.

Is it too much to suggest that the war-infested hills of eastern DR Congo have, after almost two decades of unbroken misery, become Africa's version of the Arab-Israeli crisis?

The comparison inevitably buckles under closer scrutiny - Rwanda and Israel are hardly twins for starters - but the larger point is that, like the Middle East, the spectacular green hills and volcanoes of eastern DR Congo have become trapped in a spiral of instability that harms the entire region.

Who are the M23 rebels?

M23 rebel in North Kivu town of Rubare near Rutshuru. 5 Aug 2012
  • Named after the 23 March 2009 peace accord which they accuse the government of violating
  • This deal saw them join the army before they took up arms once more in April 2012
  • Also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army
  • Mostly from minority Tutsi ethnic group
  • Deny being backed by Rwanda and Uganda
  • Believed to have 1,200 to 6,000 fighters
  • International Criminal Court indicted top commander Bosco "Terminator" Ntaganda in 2006 for allegedly recruiting child soldiers
  • The UN and US imposed a travel ban and asset freeze earlier this month on the group's leader, Sultani Makenga

So far, nobody has come out of the latest twist in this drama - the unexpected fall of Goma to the M23 rebels - with a shred of credibility.

The rebels have again shown staggering cynicism in launching an offensive and displacing tens of thousands of civilians simply to improve their negotiating position.

Tiny Rwanda - repeatedly identified by UN experts as the puppet-master behind this and previous rebellions - can surely no longer hide behind its familiar denials of involvement.

But what price will it pay?

Kigali must be gambling that the economic and security benefits of its latest intervention/annexation will outweigh the damage of international condemnation.

History suggests it may be right.

The international community has taken its eye off eastern DR Congo for the past six years or so.

The giant UN peacekeeping force has been meandering, rudderless, in a political vacuum.

Having quietly given Rwanda the benefit of the doubt, will the US, the UK and the EU finally use their collective muscle - and aid budgets - to force Kigali, and to a marginally lesser extent, Kampala, to stop their military adventures in DR Congo?

Last but by no means least, there is President Kabila and the DR Congo government. Some argue that the 2009 deal with former rebels that bought - at a high price - a measure of peace to the Kivus was destined to fail. But surely it could have been better managed.

The more substantial point is that as long the rule of law remains absent in eastern DR Congo, the vacuum is going to be filled by the likes of M23 and Rwanda.

Internally displaced people walk through Mugunga camp, near Goma on 21 November 2012 Tens of thousands have fled their homes since April's mutiny

Last but by no means least, there is President Joseph Kabila and the government of DR Congo.

What prompted him to undermine the fragile peace deal of 2009 and start reshuffling former rebel leaders who had been brought into the Congolese army, triggering the current crisis?

As long as the rule of law remains absent in eastern DR Congo, the vacuum is going to be filled by the likes of M23 and Rwanda.

Humiliated generals

As for what happens next… The rebels' talk of a march on Kinshasa seems far-fetched.

A coup there is only marginally more likely.

Unless serious negotiations begin with M23, there is a danger that the rebellion will move south to Bukavu, with more deaths and many more civilians inevitably displaced in the name of improving a bargaining position.

But to take Bukavu, Rwanda would have to cast off all pretence that its military is not running the show.

Perhaps the most immediate concern is the possibility that the DR Congo's humiliated army generals will try to organise a hasty, doomed counter-offensive against the M23.

Beyond that, it will probably be business as usual.

Corrupt soldiers and politicians will continue to plunder the region.

The outside world will try to nudge things back towards negotiations and reconciliation - but not hard enough.

And the civilians of eastern DR Congo will continue to wonder just what they have done to deserve such poor leadership.

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    "Corrupt soldiers & politicians will continue to plunder the region."

    "Plunder" is not a good enough word. We all have Congo's coltan in our pockets in our mobile phones.

    When you say "cynical" apply it to the global corps who trade in Congo's 'plundered' resources & to Cameron who is fretting on behalf of those corporations.

    Future generations will lionise Kagame as Africa's Caesar.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Liberian author Bai T. Moore wrote "Seesaw Down the Congo" to describe the UN failure in 1960. Today is no different. Neither US, Europe nor China would want a strong, unified DRC. Such a country will exert sovereignty over its resources. Hence a weak regime as Kabila's facilitates instability and is more willing to sign away any concession for UN protection.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Since 1998, @ 3M people have died from combat, disease & hunger - 1.6M homeless.
    Dr Congo is one of world’s least developed countries despite a WEALTH of cobalt, copper, coltan, diamonds & gold. If the US is disinterested, China is not; it has seriously upped its aid program & has called for talks between related parties to solve the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo).

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Chinese imports from Congo expanded from merely US$1 million in 2000 to US$1.6 billion in 2008 and its aid new package of 1.5 million USD in military aid to Congo will worsen the situation. In 2008, the Security Council adopted a resolution that abolished the arms embargo but China has to a large extent neglected this resolution. In future i see this china backing for personnel interest as danger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Andrew, you are probably away about what Mr. Cameron told Kagame about the M23, and at the same time they backed the election of Rwanda into the UN council. Don’t you see that the UK is not helping at all? we don't want western and americans lessons. we will wait untill you will farsake KAGAME AND MUSEVENI

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Is the army of the DRC the most miserable raggedy-arse shower ever to disgrace a battlefield or does history have other contenders for that honour?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    It's pretty easy to blame african dictators for all of this and they have large amounts of blood on their hands. But Chinese, Yank and European companies / politicians are all sponsering these murderers; keeping them fueled with the required cash and weaponary to keep them in power and maintain cheap raw material flows. China is in bed with both Rwanda and the DRC

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The cycle is unbreakable IF the West stops propping up the tribalist clique in Kinshasa; IF the BBC and others can be honest and admit that the Tutsis are an oppressed people in DRC like the Berbers, Kosovars, Kurds, Tuaregs and Rohingas; IF the only significant country in the Region can play big power role instead of big business role; and IF the UN realized that Kabila and his gang are worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    a company of army rangers could solve this 'problem'. but, i guess we're too busy preparing for syria and iran to worry about central africa.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    A hundred years ago Joseph Conrad wrote 'Heart of Darkness'.

    Nothing has changed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Andrew, the heading of your article should be 'is AFRICA'S cyle of chaos unbreakable?' - Congo will never have peace, and Africa will always be corrupt and chaotic. The first world needs to wash their hands of africa and let her learn all the hard lessons - africa is about 800 years behind the rest of the world when it comes to politics and leadership.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    "Beyond that, it will probably be business as usual.

    Corrupt soldiers and politicians will continue to plunder the region."

    And of course, international mining companies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    "It is conflict with genocide in its rear-view mirror..." Mr. Hardin, are you perhaps unaware of the UN Mapping report released in 2010 accusing Kagame of possible genocide against members of the Hutu ethnic group in the Dr. Congo? Mentioning this monumental report would have helped diversify the perspective of your audience. Thanks!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    #11 Operation Palliser created the situation for a ceasefire (courtesy of the Royal Marines)
    Operation Barras
    sorted out the "west side boys" which shows nicely how you can decapitate these groups in a couple of hours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    #9 the Rebels in Sierra Leone had plenty of support from Charles Taylor in Liberia. He's looking at 50 years in jail now.

    You're correct though. Few will back such a move. Actually doing it would be straight forward

    #7 Its jungle and grassland. Like Burma or Malaya or Belize or many other places the British army have fought. If 'M32' can fight there so can we (helicopters help)

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Comment to : 4. Peter_Sym

    It was Nigerian troops that ultimately fought and ended the war in Sierra Leone, the British assisting in providing logistics and material support but they did not end the war. The African did it themselves. As they have done in Liberia , Sudan and now Somalia. DRC is a UN failure, they should have held Rwanda to account.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Fifty-one years ago, my father was serving in the first ever UN Peace-Keeping mission in DRC when I was born in his absence in Nigeria. Today I am serving as a surgeon with MSF in South Sudan. I expect to be deployed to DRC soon if the conflict escalates any higher. Obviously, one of my children is destined to serve in DRC or in another troubled African country soon. Which way is up, Africa?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    the problem with the region is more than geography, the locals do not see "government" and "rebels" they see the tribes. Therefore trying to eliminate the rebels would be seen as siding with one tribe and by default put others against you. M23 are known to have external support and may not be that easy to take out, especially if they run into Rwanda. I still cant see anyone here backing it either

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    #6 Its still looking good in Sierra Leone.

    As you say the violence is often along tribal lines so as with Yugoslavia the least crummy option is probably to break the country up along tribal lines. Congo is bigger than Western Europe and an artificial nation created by a mad Belgian king. The borders on the map mean nothing to the locals anyway.


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