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, Africa correspondent Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    #2 Which is why we do nothing.

    However I repeat: Blairs' intervention in Sierra Leone needed a couple of thousand Paras in action for a couple of weeks. It ended a 15 year civil war. This may well be imperialism (although we left as quickly as we went in) but its a damn site better than genocide.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    1,200-6,000 'fighters' are virtually nothing. A single British or French air-mobile brigade could erradicate them as a fighting force in a week (see Sierra Leonne) with minimal casualties (on our side at least.... ) The problem is purely political, not military as the west are highly unlikely to intervene in Congo.

  • 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 3.

    Why should the governments of the West support the UN if they are going to run away and expect the US and Europe to fix things, while the other countries the UN represents sit on the sidelines bitching? My friend is in Goma working for a charity and the other night he emailed telling us how the UN Peacekeepers had just disappeared without any warning or any attempt to defend the city.

  • 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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