Taking its head out of the sand? The international community and Congo’s notorious neighbours

Published: 23 Oct 2012
By: Lucy Hovil

Although it is relatively easy to start a war, it is much harder to sustain it – or at least to sustain it in any effective way. There is an assumption that what distinguishes war from anarchy is that people are fighting for something. Anarchy, on the other hand, is just that: anarchy. While what is going on right now in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kivu region might look fairly anarchic to the outsider – and, for sure, I doubt those caught up in its midst are quibbling over definitions right now – it is becoming increasingly obvious that what is taking place is being carefully orchestrated and resourced. The violence that people are living with and fleeing from every day is the result of order, not disorder. And, once more, the fingers are pointing at Rwanda and Uganda. 

Of course, many NGOs and individuals have for years been emphasising the international nature of a seemingly localised conflict. And it is certainly not news to those living with the brunt of this conflict that external forces are at play. But the fact that fighting has been geographically contained to a large but limited area of land all within one country, has meant that many of the external dynamics have been conveniently overlooked – particularly convenient to an international community that has been throwing extraordinary amounts of money at Congo’s neighbours. But now the international community, that monolithic and often irresponsible giant, is slowly beginning to wake up and acknowledge the rot.

A UN report has been leaked to the press that allegedly states that Rwanda’s defence minister is effectively commanding a rebellion in the Kivus – through its proxy, the M23 rebel group, which is fighting the Congolese army and everything else in its way. It states that Uganda is also offering its support, albeit in a more ‘subtle’ form, by allowing the rebel group’s political branch to operate from a Kampala base. I haven’t seen the report. I have only read about it on the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19973366).

Yet the truth is that all our research points to the veracity of what is being said, not least as it is part of the same logic that led to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, and has continued to play out in its aftermath. It is also evidenced by the forced displacement in the region: there are tens of thousands of Congolese refugees living in Rwanda who are scared to go home because they are associated with the war in eastern DRC (which, on the ground, is unequivocally blamed on Rwanda); there are tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees in Uganda who are scared to go back to Rwanda because they fear for their safety; and there are tens of thousands of Congolese refugees fleeing to Uganda to escape the current fighting – which, allegedly, is being partly engineered by Rwanda and Uganda.

Yes, and as I’ve said previously, the lust for eastern DRC’s wealth of natural resources is a strong driver for what is taking place right now. But ultimately, the lack of honest appraisal of what took place during and after the Rwandan genocide continues to haunt the region. In the case of eastern DRC, the mass influx of refugees and genocidaires left the area littered with militia groups some of which might include former genocidaires, but many of which have developed subsequently – but all of which are strongly susceptible to being used to fight proxy wars for the big and powerful in the region. And it has created an ongoing smokescreen for Rwanda’s involvement – ostensibly to flush out the remnants of genocidaires who need to be brought to justice and may threaten Rwanda’s security, yet deeply intertwined with Rwanda’s broader economic and political interests. In the case of Rwanda, the type of victor’s justice that has been promoted by the Rwandan government has left tens of thousands of Rwandans unable to return ‘home’.

So yes, recognition of the internationalised nature of the war in eastern DRC is crucial. But it’s not enough. It needs to lead to action, to a robust and unflinching process that would finally lead to an honest evaluation of the multi-faceted injustices that have been going on in the region and the part played by those in positions of power. If this doesn’t happen, it’s not hard to see where things are heading.

Regions: Great Lakes Region, Democratic Republic of Congo
Type: IRRI Blog