Saturday, December 13, 2008
THE Great Lakes region of Africa is once again on the brink of war. In the last week of October, the forces of the rebel warlord, Laurent Nkunda, breaking a short-lived truce, routed government troops in eastern Congo. General Nkunda’s forces were at the gates of the city of Goma at the end of the month.
Laurent Nkunda listens to the anthem of the National Congress for the Defence of the People at the stadium in the town of Rutshuru on November 22.
The resulting chaos, for which both the government troops and the rebels are responsible, left in its wake more than 250,000 refugees. Some humanitarian agencies put the figure at two million. Thousands of people have already died in the fighting. A report from the conflict zone said that the rebels were using corpses to put up roadblocks. Women and children have been the worst hit. Horrific instances of looting and rape have been documented. Hunger stalks the land. The presence of United Nations peacekeepers on the ground proved ineffectual. The international community is of the opinion that the U.N. is in need of a clearer mandate in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The U.N. has estimated that 100,000 refugees are beyond the reach of humanitarian agencies. On November 20, the U.N. Security Council belatedly took a decision to send 3,000 more troops in addition to the 17,000 peacekeepers on the ground. Indian and Pakistani troops are among the biggest contingents.No details have been given about the countries that are willing to dispatch troops to the volatile region, but the U.N. has indicated that the force assembled will be one with more offensive capability. The United States and European countries, already bogged down in Afghanistan and in other parts of the world, have so far been reluctant to send troops to the region. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has been named as the U.N.’s special envoy to Congo. In the second week of November, he flew to eastern Congo to meet with Nkunda. He also held talks with Congolese President Joseph Kabila.Nkunda has spoken out against the increase of U.N. military presence in eastern Congo. He has warned that such a move would result in an escalation in the fighting. Nkunda is known to have close ties with Paul Kagame, President of neighbouring Rwanda. According to U.N. reports, Rwandan troops were fighting alongside Nkunda’s Tutsi militia. U.N. observers have also said that artillery fire from Rwandan forces into Congo helped the Tutsi militias advance.
Nkunda was Kagame’s comrade-in-arms to reinstate Tutsi domination in Rwanda. The majority Hutus there have not yet come to terms with the changed realities on the ground. Remnants of the defeated Rwandan army, dominated by Hutus, had fled across the border to Congo. Hutus and Tutsis have been living across the border for generations now. But the aftermath of the civil wars in Rwanda and Burundi have polarised the communities in Congo too. Both the ethnic groups formed their own militias in the chaos that followed the collapse of the old regime.The Hutu militia, strengthened by the influx of their compatriots from Rwanda, stick to the sectarian agenda responsible for the deaths of more than a million people in the Rwandan genocide of the early 1990s. Hutu militias, such as the Mai-Mai inside Congo, have sided with the central government of Kabila. The ethnic Congolese Tutsi militia led by Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People gets support from the Rwandan government. Nkunda has claimed that his latest military assault was a preventive measure to stop Hutu insurgents in Congo from destabilising the government in Rwanda. The Congolese and Rwandan Presidents met in Nairobi after the crisis in eastern Congo erupted. Kagame said that he would do his best to restore normalcy in the region. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, also visited Kigali, the Rwandan capital, to persuade Kagame to lend a helping hand to stabilise the situation in Congo. Rwanda is one of the closest political and military allies of the U.S. on the African continent.In the third week of November, Nkunda’s forces started withdrawing from the areas they captured. The media-friendly warlord is ambivalent about his goals. He says “negotiations are the only way to stop the conflict” but at the same time reiterates that the government of Kabila is corrupt and ineffectual and deserves to be overthrown.
In early November, he threatened to march all the way to the capital, Kinshasa, and topple the government. Though most commentators characterised the threat as fanciful, it was a Tutsi-led invasion force that toppled the government of Mobutu Sese Seko and installed Laurent Kabila, the father of the current President, in power in 1997.
Nkunda has so far refused to recognise Joseph Kabila as the legitimate President of the Republic despite his electoral victory two years ago. International observers certified that the elections of 2006 were generally free and fair. Kabila won in a run-off. Nkunda now wants to muzzle his way to power by using military force. Despite persistent demands, Kabila has refused to enter into direct talks with the rebel warlord. A face-to-face meeting will only give political credibility to Nkunda’s cause.
In 2004, Nkunda fought a bloody battle to capture the town of Bukavu in the east. An international warrant for war crimes was issued against him. But President Kabila, in a bid to heal old wounds, has tried to close the book on that civil war. He has said that the warrant has expired.
In the third week of November, Rose Kabuye, a close aide of Kagame, was arrested while on an official trip with the President to Germany. The German authorities were acting on a French arrest warrant. Kabuye has been accused of complicity in the shooting down of the plane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi in April 1994. That incident triggered the holocaust in Rwanda. Its impact is still being felt in eastern Congo where the Tutsi and Hutu militias are carrying out a proxy war.
Nkunda, like Kabuye, is surely on a wanted list somewhere. There are reports that his militia is forcibly inducting child soldiers.
Kabila has other options despite the dismal performance of his army in eastern Congo. His political and military allies Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia have indicated that their armies would step in again if the Tutsi militia does not lift its siege and revert to a ceasefire. There are reports that the Angolan and Zimbabwean troops are already deployed inside Congo. The influential Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Congo is a member, has given its strong backing to the beleaguered government in Kinshasa.
In the last round of bloodletting, which began in 1998 and lasted for over six years, more than six million people were killed. That round of fighting, which has been described as the “First World War of Africa”, drew outside powers to the region. It was the intervention of forces from Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia which prevented the DRC from disintegrating and its riches falling into the hands of warlords. Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda had sided with the rebels. Rwanda and Uganda later fell out during the mad scramble for the control of the mineral riches of the country.