Wednesday, September 18, 2013

War without End in the Congo

It is a civil war (or rather a series of them) that has led to the deaths of 5.4 million people since 1998. More than 2.6 million people are displaced within the country, and after nearly two decades the conflict is heating up, not abating. Yet the Democratic Republic of the Congo captures few headlines and elicits only low-level diplomatic attention. In one of the world’s only failed states, more than 30 armed groups murder and rape thousands every year, including the March 23 Movement (M23) that is leading the largest offensive against the central government in Kinshasa and is widely believed to be funded and organized by the Rwandan government. The Congolese government itself knows it is involved in a shadow war with neighboring Rwanda, and the extreme levels of sexual violence and the exploitation of conflict minerals are its result.

As was pointed out by Jason Stearns in a recent Foreign Affairs article, outside observers have done little to address the conflict’s roots, instead fueling the fires by providing “over 40 percent of the budgets of Congo and Rwanda.” While conflicts in high-interest areas such as the Middle East (I am of course referring to Syria) are at least paid commensurate high-level diplomatic attention, the conflict in the DRC is swept under the rug and ignored to the degree possible by the international community. This isn’t the first time since 1998 that the rest of the world’s response – or rather lack thereof – has failed the DRC. It should thus come as no surprise to anyone that one of the world’s oldest civil wars has not been halted by multiple peace agreements and elections of 2006.

An M23 rebel displays his munitions. Reuters.

While the pathologies of local and regional governments have a hefty share of the blame for why violence and war continues in the DRC, foreign governments are also at fault. The main interest in Congo is and always has been the country’s mineral wealth. Beginning with the Belgian colonial state and its relentless and brutal pursuit of rubber, and continuing to the present day when conflict diamonds and coltan fund armed groups, the DRC is the worst case scenario for a so-called “resource curse.” Believed to have untapped resources worth up to $24 trillion, in reality conflict has kept the DRC one of the poorest countries on earth with a GDP per capita of just $368 per year. As long as the minerals keep flowing, there is little international uproar about ongoing abuses and external participation in an internal conflict. Outside governments acceded to the newly elected President Joseph Kabila’s request that they withdraw their political involvement in the DRC in 2006, but with the M23 Kivu rebellion growing since 2012, this is looking more and more like a diplomatic mistake. Aid has focused on propping up Kabila’s government and training his troops, which ended in disaster and political embarrassment in November 2012 when US-trained troops raped 135 women and girls in Minova.

What is needed is not more cash transfers, but sustained and meaningful political engagement in the new Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework signed in Ethiopia and the UN effort headed by former Irish President Mary Robinson. The agreement aims to increase regional participation in the peace process while condemning outside meddling (directed at Rwanda). The UN peacekeeping force contains African soldiers for the first time and stands a fair chance at actually keeping the peace, a goal not often achieved by this type of force. To move forward, donors must now tie their aid to the government to institutional reform, anti-corruption measures, and decentralization of powers. The last is crucial to allow long-neglected but resource rich regions like Kivu to retake control of their own territories.

While true government reforms, a lasting peace, and an end to Rwanda’s interference face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the incentive for foreign countries to push for all three comes down to the DRC’s historical curse: the vast untapped resources beneath the earth. Countries that promote peace should also promote investment and good governance to ensure that future resource wealth is not simply concentrated in Kabila and his cronies’ pockets. The profits external companies could make serve as a good enough reason to foster a better future for the Congo. As cold-hearted as it is, sometimes cold, hard cash is the only way to get the international community to care. If it leads to peace in the one of the world’s most war-torn country, I doubt the Congolese will complain.

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