Last week, M23 rebels matched into the eastern Congolese town of Goma with very little resistance. The Congolese army simply dropped their weapons and ran. International television footage showed them leaving the town in haste, driving Armored Personnel Carriers and tanks at full speed. Meanwhile the rebels, armed largely with light infantry weapons, marched on foot and some on civilian trucks into the town. How can a mechanised army give up a strategic town to a light infantry force so easily?
Most people I have met trust the UN `experts’ and international media when they claim that Rwanda and, most recently, Uganda, are the ones supplying arms, ammunition and soldiers to the rebel movement. Yet UN `experts’ are often ignorant, sometimes naïve, on occasion gullible but mostly self-interested. They depend too heavily on Congolese government intelligence for their `facts’. Sadly in DRC, political discourse is clouded with wild rumors, a factor that makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction. These `experts’ also have interests to advance or protect and therefore come to the job with a predetermined agenda.
Their claims of heavy weapons shipments from Rwanda are naive. If Rwanda moved weapons across the border, even amidst the darkest night, American satellites in space would get clear pictures of it. Rwanda knows this already given that when it tried to deny involvement in Congo in 1996, the US just brought out pictures showing their troop and weapons movements. Kigali owned up. Unless the Barack Obama administration is in cahoots with Kigali, evidence of Rwandese arms supply to M23 and their details would be in the press by now.
The fall of Goma combined with the aforementioned manner in which it happened presents the international community with a challenge in dealing with Africa. How can a well-equipped army tasked with the sacred obligation to defend a town and protect the population run away without a pitched fight in the face of a rag tag rebel force? Does a state that presides over such a corrupt, cowardly and incompetent army deserve international support? What incentives will make ruling elites in Kinshasa build a viable army?
Historically, the recognition of a state’s claim over a given territory by other states was predicated upon it demonstrating effective military and administrative control over it. If you failed in this, other effective states could take the territory from you. For instance, if Prussia failed to project power along the Rhine frontier, Austria could take it away. If Bunyoro exhibited weakness, Buganda could lay claims on Mubende. This forced states to constantly improve their capabilities. To preserve themselves, smaller states built alliances with other weaker or powerful neighbours. The American colonies united largely out of fear of Britain. Cooperation is the most powerful instrument of competition.
The history of Europe illustrates this process best. European monarchs had to fight wars abroad in order to ensure security at home. So the classical state was a war-making machine; war made states and states made war. The threat of losing territory forced states to build capabilities to control every inch they possessed. And such capabilities needed money. States could raise money from loot and booty. But this was unreliable. Sometimes, wars could be long and costly. So loot alone could not sustain an army in the field for years. Unpaid troops could munity and match back on their capital. Monarchs learnt that they needed to continually grow their economies to provide them a reliable source of income, taxation or public borrowing.
And this is what gave states a stake in the prosperity of their people. If your citizens are very rich, your tax returns from them or your ability to borrow from them would be higher. If the wealth is held in a fixed asset like land that cannot be hidden, you can be rude and still collect most of the taxes on it. If the asset is fluid and easy to hide like capital, you need the cooperation of the taxpayer to maximize your tax returns. Otherwise they can take evasive action and hide their wealth. Or those who possess it can withhold their productive effort and deny you revenues.
Thus, where tax revenues come largely from movable assets that can be hidden, you need the consent and cooperation of asset-holders to maximize your returns. So rulers devised means – like parliaments – as institutions to negotiate with asset owners for revenues. This gave propertied citizens power to decide the tax rate, the level of borrowing and public expenditure. The American war of independence from the British crown was fought with the battle cry: “No taxation without representation”. This incentive structure worked well to facilitate the evolution of effective states by punishing weakness and rewarding strength. It also gave birth to democratic representation.
In many ways, post independence ruling elites in Africa have really enjoyed a free ride. Their claims to sovereignty and territorial integrity need no longer have to be defended by strength – economic, military or otherwise. They are protected by international law through the UN. Elites in Kinshasa can ignore, neglect or disregard their sacred duty to build state infrastructure to serve their citizens in the east. The international community will subsidise these failures with international aid and protect their borders from other more promising claimants. The presence of a kind, sympathetic and generous international community has been one of the major sources of state weakness in Africa.
And so it was that immediately M23 exposed what a fiction the Congolese army is, the UN Security Council immediately did its usual double standard and condemned the rebels, and issued a tough resolution asking them to leave the town. Indeed, the same UN Security Council members are supplying similar rebels in Syria with weapons. On the day they condemned M23, the British foreign secretary, William Haig, went on television to announce that Great Britain was following the US and France in recognising the Syrian rebels as the “legitimate representatives of the people of Syria”. Never mind that the Syrian government, in spite of its authoritarian ways, has not reached the level of barbaric savagery of the Congolese state.
At a summit in Kampala, Presidents Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame, perhaps bullied and pressured by the UN, surrendered to its unrealistic demands. In a meeting with DRC’s President Joseph Kabila, they also joined the choir of those calling on M23 rebels to pull out of Goma. Perhaps one gives them credit for also making Kabila accept to meet and negotiate with the rebels over their legitimate grievances. Museveni, Kagame and Kabila all came to power through armed struggle. Would they have been happy, when victory looked certain, for the UN or neighbors to threaten action unless they halted their struggle?
The Congolese state is more a fiction than a reality. There is little semblance of a state in most of the country. What the international community recognizes and accepts for a state is a greedy cabal of elites in Kinshasa involved in a spree of anarchical grabbing of their national resources, which they steal and invest abroad. Whatever exists of their army goes unpaid for months. So it lives by scavenging on the citizenry from whom it loots to pay itself. Many Congolese citizens are protected by their own ethnic militias from the national army, whose major preoccupation, whenever it gets into contact with them, it to loot, rape and pillage.
This is the state of affairs that the international community, in its ignorance, naivety and sometimes self-interest is defending against the legitimate cries of victims who have taken up arms to challenge this injustice. Although international media are focused on the M23 because they share a common ethnicity with some in the leadership of Rwanda, there are over 20 ethnic militias in eastern DRC fighting Kinshasa. Rwanda would need super-human ability to organise such large-scale insurrection. In fact, it is self evident that a combination of an absentee state, mountainous terrain, thick forests and rich minerals is enough incentive for rebel groups to form in eastern Congo. They would not need Rwanda’s encouragement – or anyone else’s for that matter.
As I write this article, Congolese state elites in Kinshasa are on radio, television, and newspapers making open calls for genocide against their own Tutsi citizens on radio, television and newspapers. Meanwhile, the international community either looks the other way or sometimes acts as an accomplice in this scandal. Never in my life did I imagine that the UN, after the horrors of the Nazis and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda would side with a government calling for genocide against its own people. Now the UN calls victims of state terror perpetrators of that terror while calling architects of terror in Syria liberators.
There is one nation that was saved from the “salvation” of the UN and the international community – Rwanda. In 1994, Tutsis in that country stared mass extermination in the eye. In the face of widespread massacres, the UN did what it does best – it withdrew its troops. One million people were slaughtered in 100 days. For moral reasons, everyone I have read or listened to has condemned the UN for that withdrawal – including the RPF leadership. I have always celebrated that single, inhuman act of the UN. It saved Rwanda. It created room for that country’s internal actors to solve the problem decisively even though at high human cost.
The UN was trying to impose a textbook solution on an extremely complex and volatile situation in Rwanda in 1994. It wanted a ceasefire between government troops and rebels i.e. between genociders and their victims. After the ceasefire, it wanted a government “of national unity” (national destruction would be better used) between killer and victim. And this was in circumstances where each side felt strong and was confident of victory. International pressure would have created the most conflict-ridden coalition government in history. This is because the belligerents did not see mutual accommodation as a better alternative to further combat. Hence such a government would have been characterized by low intensity but widespread violence over many years, making it difficult to reconstruct the Rwandan state.
Precisely because the UN withdrew, the Rwandese had to fight their way out of their own mess. That taught them a lesson – that there is no fifth cavalry of the international community to save them. The decisive victory by RPF destroyed its opponent’s organisational infrastructure – thus allowing the victor to mount relatively unified action to reconstruct the state, rebuild the economy and begin reconciling the people. Today, Rwanda has the most effective state in Africa. International intervention in Rwanda in 1994 would at best have achieved short-term humanitarian objectives and saved lives. But this would most likely have been at the price of crippling the growth of a more durable solution for the country over the long term.
The international community can blackmail neighbours with cutting aid and other sanctions to force them to pressure rebels to stop their offensive. However, that will no solve the inherent crisis of governance in Congo. The solution for Congo’s deficiencies in managing itself will come from that country’s elites. And this will happen when they are left to pay the price of their political folly. Congolese elites indulge in political practices that undermine the evolution of a robust state and enrich a few at the expense of the many. Their politics is detrimental to the strengthening of their national institutions and the growth of their economy. Until they face – not just a strategic threat – but existential threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity over their vast country, the ruling elites in Kinshasa will not change their ways.
In many ways, Congo’s crisis shows the dangers of foreign aid to poor countries – whether that aid is financial, technical, military or humanitarian. Our governments are subsidized with foreign financial aid, a factor that has disarticulated them from their citizens. For every fiscal shortage, they look to Washington, London, Paris or Brussels for aid rather than ways to improve the productivity of their own firms and farms. Humanitarian aid has disarticulated our people from the political struggles that are shaping their destiny. Thus, rather than join political and armed movements fighting for control of their nations, our civilians retreat to refugee camps where the international community gives them food, shelter and medicine as they vegetate as passive spectators of the struggle.
Baby-sitting Congo and scapegoating Rwanda and Uganda as the source of trouble will not solve the deeply entrenched problems of governance in that country. The international community’s everlasting attempts to prop the smoldering edifice of the Congolese state is the problem, not the solution for that country. It has blinded Congolese elites from seeking internal social integration and from building a much more viable state.
The best the world can do for Congo is to sit on its laurels and let it burn. From the ashes of such catastrophe, lies a glimmer of hope that a more durable solution has a better chance to emerge. The country will either break-up or remain unified by the emergence of a political and military movement that will impose order. Left on their own, the Congolese people will triumph. Sustained on the drip of the international humanitarian community, Congo will remain the mess that we see today – with an army that cuts and runs at the sound of the first shot.