Over the last so many months, the international community has been grappling with the crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Human rights groups and the United Nations “Panel of Experts” have presented the problem as one of a Tutsi-led rebel group, M23, wreaking havoc in that country. The mass media sings this chorus. The UN “experts” claim that M23 are a proxy of the government of Rwanda. In a second leaked report, the UN panel has added Uganda among the sponsors of M23.
Anyone following the news would easily be tempted to think that if M23 were crushed today, DRC would become a stable country. Yet M23 is not the only militia rebelling against Kinshasa. There are over 20 rebel movements against the government of President Joseph Kabila. These misrepresentations may have played to the political advantage of the governing elites in Kinshasa and their allies elsewhere. However, they undermine an internal search for an enduring solution to the problems of the country.
M23 and the myriad militias and rebel groups are not a cause but a consequence of the crisis of the state in DRC even though they tend to accentuate it. The real cause is the deeper malaise that has eaten the social fabric of the Congolese state. This is largely manifested in the inability of the state to exercise effective control over its vast territory. The absence of even rudimentary infrastructure for administrative and security functions over most of the country is what has prompted the emergence of ethnic-based militias. In fact, these militias fill the vacuum of an absentee state by providing basic administration and security even though imperfectly.
It may be politically convenient for elites in Kinshasa to bury their heads in the sand and blame their country’s woes on meddlesome neighbors. It is also appealing for human rights groups and mass media to present the problem of Congo as one of external interference. But seeking external scapegoats is not a formula for success. For those interested in helping Congo out of its crisis, the first objective should be to help Kinshasa build a functional state; a state that can perform basic tasks like ensuring law and order and the protection of individual life and property. In this endeavor, Congo would need the help of Uganda, Rwanda and its other neighbours.
Without rebuilding the capabilities of the Congolese state, there is very little diplomatic engineering and political blame-game that can stop widespread atrocities against innocent civilians. Indeed, the main cause of atrocities in most of Congo is the lack of discipline among the armed forces. This is partly because the army in Congo is a collection of many militias. The central government often negotiates a truce with a militia controlling a given territory and integrates them into its army. But such agreements (as the one with the M23) have proved tenuous because Kinshasa often fails to keep its part of the bargain. And in mineral rich regions, the militias may do better retaining territorial control than ceding power to Kinshasa. Thus, these alliances keep changing, thereby causing uncertainty and violence.
The mistake of international actors involved in Congo has been to choose a side and support an entrenched yet morally indefensible position i.e. treating the government as innocent and the rebels as murderous. M23 occupies a small territory that is not even one hundredth of the territory of that large country. A casual observer may be misled to think that most of DRC is stable and that atrocities are happening only in the country’s eastern region. Yet across the entire nation of Congo, atrocities abound –and life reechoes the words of Thomas Hobbes as being miserable, nasty, brutish and short.
The Congolese army is a poorly trained, poorly paid and undisciplined. It lives off robbing, pillaging, terrorising and raping its own citizens. This partly explains why ethnic militias are preferred by local communities for, they to provide security where the national army promotes insecurity. When Kampala deployed its army in the eastern DRC town of Dungu in 2008, Congolese citizens were happy to have Ugandan troops protect them against their own army. In spite of this local need, the political representatives in Kinshasa were denouncing UPDF presence in the area. This is a clear sign that politicians, even when elected, may possess and even pursue interests at odds with the needs and demands of their own constituents. That is why the focus on M23 as the cause of atrocities is unwise and unhelpful.
To resolve the problems of Congo needs a much more skilled politician – a leader who will understand that the problems of his country are largely domestically generated and the solution is not human rights advocacy. He will have to examine the internal sources of tension and place the search for internal political accommodation above the need to please poorly informed, albeit genuinely motivated outsiders. In doing this, that leader will need to draw lessons from Rwanda, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa.
After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Paul Kagame recognised that healing the country’s wounds; stabilising its political dispensation and seeking social reconciliation would require working with individuals and groups with whom he disagreed. This meant accommodating individuals accused of complicity in the genocide but whose political collaboration was necessary to achieve a modicum of political accommodation. This is also the approach employed by Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1994. He avoided seeking to prosecute people for the crimes of apartheid but instead involve them in a process of political reconciliation. Uganda and Mozambique have implemented similar variants of this strategy to achieve political consolidation and stability.
Of course Kabila has tried it before with success. And the times when he did the above and signed agreements with his adversaries, Kabila brought considerable peace and stability to his country. Denouncing M23 and other militias as terrorists and criminals when his army is not strong enough to defend the institutional integrity of the state is not a formula for success. It may win him sympathy and support from many outsiders with an eye on his country’s minerals or an axe to grind with Rwanda or Uganda. But it will not give him a durable solution for his country.