Posted in News by AGavin on September 10th, 2007
WHEN fighting erupted at the end of August between the Congolese army and a renegade general, Laurent Nkunda, who proclaims himself the saviour of Congo’s Tutsi minority, alarm bells began to ring all over the region: not least because neighbouring Rwanda, which is comparatively tiny but has become confident, muscular and assertive, was once again implicated. Unless governments of all the region’s countries co-operate to dampen the flames—with help from the UN, whose 17,000 troops in Congo are the body’s biggest peacekeeping force in the world—the conflict could reignite, and spread.
Congolese history has had a tragic way of repeating itself. In the east of that huge and ramshackle country, the continuing presence of Hutu rebels—originally from across the border in Rwanda—has twice served as a justification for Rwandan government troops to invade north-eastern Congo. They accuse the rebels of masterminding the genocide of 1994, when some 800,000 Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, were killed in a few months by their Hutu compatriots. Three years after that horror, it was Rwandan government soldiers who brought a Congolese guerrilla leader, Laurent Kabila, to power in Congo, toppling Mobutu Sese Seko, who had pillaged the country for more than 30 years, and massacring tens of thousands of fleeing Hutus along the way. A second similar intervention a year later helped ignite another even worse bout of war that lasted another five years, drawing in forces from eight countries and leaving some 4m people dead.
Last year things seemed at last to be improving. After Laurent Kabila’s son Joseph won an election, Congo’s first proper one for more than 40 years, he promised as a priority to bring peace to Congo’s troubled east. In January this year, in an apparent breakthrough in regional diplomacy, Rwanda’s government helped him broker a deal to make everyone happy.
Thousands of fighters loyal to General Nkunda were inducted into special mixed brigades as a first step towards ending the rogue general’s three-year insurgency. The special force was to pursue the Rwandan Hutu rebels who still remained in Congo and whose disarmament and repatriation were a previous condition for Rwanda’s troops to withdraw. But Mr Kabila’s government in Kinshasa, far away to the west, has failed to meet it.
“When they struck this deal, the insurgency was only in a little corner of the province,” says Léon Barienga, head of North Kivu’s provincial assembly. “But then Nkunda was able to enlarge his territory, and the killings and rapes, this whole nightmare, started.” Mixed-brigade operations against Hutu rebels deteriorated into a campaign of terror against civilians that has so far forced more than 200,000 Congolese in the area to flee from their homes.
A few weeks ago the Congolese army suspended operations by the hybrid force and said it would be replaced by regular army brigades. But it was already too late. General Nkunda has emerged stronger than before. He has used government money for salaries to replenish his supplies. He has deployed his forces throughout the province in strategic places that he had not controlled before, including supply routes on the border with Rwanda. The UN has promised to help Congo’s pretty ineffective army with logistics, but will not fight on its side.
In an effort to stem the slide towards war, Rwanda’s foreign minister, Charles Murigande, flew to Kinshasa, the first such visit in three years. But the two countries are still far from seeing eye to eye on security along their common border. Their governments agreed to ask the UN to increase its peacekeepers’ patrols there. But the Congolese did so for fear that Rwandan troops are already crossing over into Congo. And as a quid pro quo, the Rwandans once more got the Congolese to promise to hunt down and round up the Rwandan Hutu rebels.
The talks failed to address General Nkunda at all. At present there is no framework for negotiating with him. Congo’s government evidently wants to bludgeon him into submission. Will the Rwandans let that happen? “He has friends in Rwanda,” says Pastor Mwendapole, his chief ideologue. “If things blow up here, do you really believe that Rwanda is going to stand there with its arms crossed? They’ll come.” If he is right, it is grim news for Congo—and for all its eastern peoples.
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