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Friday, March 24, 2023
Analysis by Lawrence Delevingne
NEW YORK, Nov 12 2007 (IPS) - Instability continues to loom large in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with President Joseph Kabila having demanded that renegade General Laurent Nkunda disarm and reintegrate his approximately 5,000 troops into the national army.
It is unclear whether the Tutsi guerrilla leader will do so, or whether the president will follow through on his promise to disarm the general’s followers if needs be.
Nkunda has wavered since Kabila’s threat of force in early October. But despite promises to co-operate, most of his soldiers remain in the thickly forested hills of North Kivu province.
The general promised to send 500 men to surrender as a gesture of good faith, but the United Nations – which has 17,000 peacekeepers in the DRC – has only confirmed the surrender of 200 troops. Claims by the Congolese army that 750 of Nkunda’s men have turned themselves in only served to make the situation murkier.
Furthermore, last week saw the worst clashes since Kabila’s call for disarmament erupt near Sake, a town close to the Rwandan border, this as Congolese soldiers traded fire with Nkunda’s men.
Nkunda has long been reluctant to join the national army. This is ostensibly because he wishes to protect Tutsis from armed groups, some of which comprise Hutus who participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Upwards of 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the genocide.
The Hutu groups in eastern DRC allegedly support Kabila; however, Kinshasa denies the link and has promised to disarm or drive out Hutu and other faction fighters from the region. On Sunday, foreign affairs ministers from the DRC and Rwanda also issued a joint statement reiterating the importance of disarming Hutu militias in the area.
Nonetheless, “In North Kivu there haven’t been many steps in the right direction, but rather the inflammation of fears,” said Séverine Autesserre, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University in New York, in reference to prospects for the integration of troops from various factions into the army.
“The large majority don’t want to disarm because they believe their land and communities are in danger.”
Sporadic fighting in the east has severely affected civilians. Skirmishes between the army, Nkunda and various militias have displaced some 370,000 people this year in North and South Kivu – the epicentre of the conflict, according to the United Nations.
Human rights abuses by all sides are common. Rape, in particular, has characterised the conflict – while the use of child soldiers is growing. “Further combat…is likely to generate more crimes against civilians,” noted an October report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch on conflict in the east. “What is clear is that unless political will is found to address these core issues, it will be the people of North Kivu who will suffer most.”
The mineral rich east has long been an area of conflict. But last year’s multi-party elections, the first in the DRC since 1965, brought renewed hope for calm to a population that has experienced near constant unrest since Mobutu Sese Seko’s ouster in 1997.
Between 1997 and 2003, two wars occurred in the vast Central African nation, leading to the death of an estimated four million people, mostly from disease and starvation. This death toll was unprecedented in any country since World War Two.
President-elect Kabila promised peace – sharing power with erstwhile rebel leaders, rooting out recalcitrant Hutu forces, and repairing relations with Rwanda and Uganda. These neighbouring countries and their proxies fought against Congolese troops during the recent conflicts.
Kabila’s forces have been unable – or perhaps unwilling – to root out certain factions that government backed during the war years, such as the Mai Mai and the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (Forces Démocratiques de Liberation de Rwanda, FDLR), which includes genocidaires. In late October, however, several dozen Mai Mai surrendered.
Nkunda previously fought for the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma – a leading rebel group – but after a ceasefire joined the transitional government that led the DRC ahead of polls. He broke with the state in 2004, also on the pretext of protecting Tutsis.
Despite being wanted by Kinshasa for war crimes, Nkunda was allowed to rejoin the Congolese army in late 2006 to hunt the Hutu militias. Using the cash and weapons he received from Kinshasa, Nkunda extended his power in the east, launching attacks on the militias and other persons – actions that sparked additional conflict in the region.
Kabila set an Oct. 15 deadline for Nkunda’s men to join the national army by surrendering at various U.N-supervised integration centers.
But Nkunda stalled, and under intense diplomatic pressure Kinshasa extended the deadline indefinitely. On Oct. 26 Kabila met U.S. President George Bush in Washington and asked for help securing the east. Three days later U.S. officials announced an agreement to train a Congolese army rapid reaction force to that end.
However, the Bush administration’s 2008 budget request for the DRC is less than for this year – approximately 80 million dollars – and is focused on humanitarian assistance, not the disarmament programmes which are key to preventing further conflict in eastern Congo.
“Efforts to resolve the conflict have not yet brought relief for the local population,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher on the DRC for Human Rights Watch, in a recent press release. “Politicians need to take action, right now, if Congolese citizens are to be protected and justice delivered for the crimes of the past.”
Congo Global Action, a recently formed international coalition based in Washington, is working to focus more attention on the DRC, this as activists and decision-makers grapple with events in several African hot spots – not least Darfur in western Sudan. The group is planning a U.S. conference and lobbying effort in the first months of 2008.
The latest tensions threaten to draw Rwanda back into conflict with the DRC, which it has previously entered to hunt Hutu genocidaires. However, President Paul Kagame denies his troops are preparing to cross the border, despite reports that he is backing Nkunda.
Burundi, which has experienced its own share of Hutu-Tutsi tensions, could also join the fighting if violence between the two ethnic groups spills across the border.
“Kabila is looking to a military solution, but the problem is that his fighters have a consistent record of failure in addition to being the greatest perpetrators of human rights abuses in the country,” said Herbert Weiss, a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, and a longtime observer of the DRC.
“It’s doubtful that (Kinshasa) has the resources and stomach to defeat Nkunda and/or the FDLR.”
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