The effectiveness of the United Nations peacekeeping mission (MONUC) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has again come under the spotlight. This is against the background of reports that the joint operations of MONUC and the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) have made far less progress in containing the illegal operations of various rebel movements and militias in the east of the country - the very groups whose operations MONUC is mandated to curtail - than was expected.
A report of the UN panel of experts on the DRC helps to confirm previous reports that MONUC has been providing logistical support to the DRC army, which has also been benefitting Rwandan FDLR rebels. One such collaboration occurred when MONUC helped a joint offensive by the FDLR and FARDC to repulse rebels allied to Laurent Nkunda's Congrès National pour la Defense du Peuple (CNDP) from advancing into Masisi late last year.
The UN panel of experts report documents that neighbouring countries continue to illegally involve themselves in the affairs of the DRC. For instance the report states that while Ugandan officials facilitate an illegal trade in gold mined from eastern Congolese sites controlled and taxed by the FDLR - including recruiting combatants for FDLR from Rwandan refugee camps in Uganda - Tanzania is linked to delivery of weapons and ammunition via Lake Tanganyika to the FDLR. This is also the case with Burundi, where some senior government officials are said to have close links with the FDLR. Without an assured chain of supply for arms, any rebel movement would find it impossible to exist.
The latest revelations are a step backwards in the regional efforts to deal with the effects of the FDLR, an armed group composed largely of remnants of perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. There have been several bilateral and regional efforts to repulse FDLR elements out of the DRC, but with little success. One such effort was Operation Umoja Wetu (Our Unity), a joint Rwandan-Congolese military operation meant to compel FDLR into voluntary surrender and return to Rwanda. Although the effectiveness of operations such as Umoja Wetu remains questionable, the doubt over the impartiality of MONUC in a conflict whose magnitude goes beyond the borders of the country of its mandate, may reverse the little gains achieved so far.
These developments further dampen the commitments by the Tripartite Plus Joint Commission Heads of State Meeting made during one of their unprecedented meetings in Addis Ababa in 2007, facilitated by the United States. Among the discussions on a range of issues of mutual concern in achieving lasting peace and security in the Great Lakes Region was the affirmation by member states to the all-important question of eliminating the threat to regional peace and security posed by negative forces, as well as the need to strengthen regional security mechanisms. This includes the resumption of full diplomatic relations among the four member states of Burundi, the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.
Also watered down are the commitments laid down in the Nairobi Communiqué signed between the governments of the DRC and the Rwanda, which spells out a common approach to ending the threat posed to both Rwanda and the DRC by the FDLR, and recognizes the additional threat posed by other armed groups in the eastern DRC. One then wonders how these processes could move forward under the current circumstances.
The fact that the results of the 35-day offensive early this year, in which the Rwandan army moved through North Kivu province with the aim of purging the rebel militia from its main strongholds were quite dismal, points to the fact that the FDLR's strength may be underestimated, and that the chain of weapons supply to their base is assured. After Operation Umoja Wetu the FDLR regrouped and began to retaliate against civilians, necessitating a new military campaign by the Congolese army and MONUC under codename Kimia II (Silence II) to be initiated in protection of the population.
As has always been the case in the past, Congo's tribulations have never been limited just to the African continent. The plundered wealth has in many cases ended up in western markets through a complex of intermediaries, many of whom are also arms brokers. The report of the panel of experts faults governments of France and Germany for allowing leaders of FDLR to operate from their territories, and Spanish charitable organisations for funding this armed group. For instance the FDLR leader Ignance Murwanashyaka was based in Germany until his recent arrest.
It is discernible that the protracted lack of co-operation both at the regional and international levels in finding a lasting solution to the long-standing problems in the DRC continues to cause the Congolese people enormous suffering and loss of life and property. At a regional level, the Great Lakes Region continues to suffer political instability and retarded economic development due to this endemic conflict as chains of agreements continue to be signed bilaterally, regionally and globally without serious commitments by stakeholders.
Against the background of all these convolutions is the need for a renewed momentum in the search for a comprehensive strategy that would not only focus on diminishing the effects of negative forces in the DRC, but also one that envisages neutralising all armed groups in the country. Such a strategy should also incorporate international legal initiatives in third countries aimed at preventing FDLR leaders outside Congo from getting support of any kind that would further their destructive activities in the Congo. This requires the involvement of national, regional and international actors.
MONUC should include in its priorities the protection of civilians and their property while the UN, in conjunction with the Congolese government and the Tripartite Plus Joint Commission reform the disarmament approach in order to incorporate voluntary and psychosocial elements aimed at making the process more adaptable especially to civilians affiliated to FDLR armed group. Such a process should include an option for resettlement in a third country and logistical support to families.
The Congo-Rwanda entente remains at risk until all stakeholders in the Congolese conflict truly commit themselves to the pursuit of long-term peace in the country. If this is not attained soon, the US $1 billion a year that is spent on MONUC's presence in the Congo will even increase without much tangible outcome, and at the expense of the suffering of the common Congolese population; displaced, poor, hungry and predisposed to all vagrancies.
Written by: Nelson Alusala, Senior Researcher, Arms Management Programme, ISS Pretoria Office