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Taming conflicts in the DRC: Prioritise regional efforts

Starting by diagnosing the causes of conflict rather than immediately imagining a solution based on standard templates, would provide a firm foundation for arriving at fitting strategies for ending the perennial upheavals and bloodletting and the misery they cause and perpetuate

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has been to the Great Lakes region, said what he came to say, made the demands he wanted to make, gave the lectures he wanted to give about the sort of behaviour the US expects from our leaders and governments, emphasised the importance of American values (not ours) and left for home.  In Rwanda and the DRC, he outlined those principles which he and his government would like to see applied to addressing the challenge of rebel groups M23 and FDLR and related insecurity in the Kivu region.

The principles, outlined as if to squabbling youngsters, are that neither the Government of Rwanda nor that of the DRC should provide support to rebel groups, and that both groups should disarm. He offered no guidance on how either should be pursued and achieved. He was not interested in weighing one rebel group against the other or comparing them. What mattered to him and presumably his government is that both are armed groups and that both are causing the suffering of many people. He, therefore, had no interest in examining the root causes of the crisis. And, of course, for whatever reason, the other 128 or so rebel groups were of no interest. They did not feature in his speech.

This is the second time that M23, founded in April 2012, takes up arms against the DRC government. Unlike the FDLR with its genocidal intentions and its terrorising of civilians, especially Tutsi communities in the DRC, for which the US government has officially designated it as a terrorist group, M23 does not seek the extermination of any population group in Congo. Also, analysts agree for the most part that ordinarily it does not count among rebel groups which are known for committing atrocities against local communities. The first time it took up arms, much effort was spent by outsiders, among them the Americans, to ‘find a solution’ to the crisis. Then as now, their ‘solution’ was simple: accusing Rwanda of supporting the insurgents and the Rwandan army of fighting alongside them, and then lean on Rwanda to cease its alleged support.

The US and other Western actors, applauded by the Government of the DRC at the time, Western NGOs and sections of Western academia, believed that diplomatic pressure on Rwanda would in the end lead to the collapse of M23 and, de facto, the end of ‘the problem’. Presumably, they believed that even the grievances that drove the rebellion then and even before would simply disappear. They did not. Eventually, however, M23 came under military pressure from a UN intervention force on the one hand and political pressure from Rwanda and Uganda on the other, to cease fighting. Among the DRC’s immediate neighbours, only Rwanda and Uganda have come out openly to urge the DRC government to address the grievances driving the M23 insurgency.

This political pressure came with promises that the DRC government would be pressed to address their grievance. The current crisis proves that neither pressure on Rwanda, nor the use of force and scattering of M23, nor even the DRC government’s decision to renege on the promises made to M23, achieved long-term peace. It would seem, however, that Western governments drew important lessons from this, and that the lessons explain their more cautious approach this time round. The assertive posturing of the US has not been loudly embraced or supported by any other Western power.

Arguably the biggest mistake they made was when they chose to focus exclusively on M23 while ignoring FDLR, the very generator of the insecurity that forced entire Tutsi communities out of the DRC into Rwanda as refugees. As long as the FDLR continued to pursue their genocidal agenda inside Congo and to threaten Rwanda’s security, as long as MONUSCO continued to turn a blind eye to its activities while pretending to keep the peace, as long as the Congolese army or elements of it continued to fraternise with FDLR, it was a matter of time before war would flare up again. It might not be M23 rising up again. It could as well have been another insurgent group. However, the actors would remain the same: the children of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese who have been driven out of their country because they are Tutsi or associated with Rwanda and therefore labelled by some Congolese as ‘Rwandans’. One expects that this lesson too has been learnt, and that it explains why there have so far been no calls for another Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) to use force to suppress the rebellion.

Although at the time it was touted as having routed M23, the FIB had minimal contact with the insurgents before they dispersed in order to wait out the political solution they had been promised, or to fight another day. Listening to Anthony Blinken argue that the insurgents should not be weighed against each other, one gets the feeling that there is as yet no appetite for getting to the root of the crisis. These details tend to become necessary after fighting escalates and more lives are lost. The idea that all the insurgents should be treated uniformly or even-handedly is another exercise in futility. M23 and FDLR are different, driven by radically different agendas. Approaches to removing them from the scene must not avoid examining what each one of them is out to achieve, and whether its ambitions are realistic, feasible, and justified.

One consequence of foreign actors wading into this crisis with ready-made solutions or with approaches to conflict resolution that de facto seek to portray the image of even handedness, is that it opens up space for the DRC government to make excuses for its own failures and to seek to hold outsiders, Rwanda especially, responsible for the insecurity and instability in the Kivu region. This, however, does not provide clarity regarding who is responsible for insecurity and instability elsewhere, and what should be done about it. Since M23 rose up again recently, the DRC army, the FARDC, has been most successful at showing its incompetence, incoherence, internal mismanagement, and abject lack of discipline. These have combined to render it ineffectual as a fighting force.

The cry “it is Rwanda that is attacking us”, readily believed by many local and foreign commentators, begs the question: what is the DRC army, one of the largest in Africa, doing to defend the country’s territorial integrity, whether against foreign or internal insurgents, or supposed aggression by Rwanda. By listening to the DRC government’s excuses and amplifying them, its sympathisers and supporters are contributing to condemning the country to eternal conflict and instability. That some Congolese have taken to anti-Tutsi incitement and, in some cases, killing and cannibalisation of those whom they have killed, and that they do this with impunity, only serves to guarantee that war will remain part of the DRC geographical landscape for years to come.

The other mistake made has always been to allow MONUSCO to get away not only with turning a blind eye to the activities of FDLR, but also to the group’s fraternisation with elements of the FARDC in the Kivus. There are credible reports that, whenever pressed by the Government of Rwanda on these issues, MONUSCO has usually invoked the presence of women and children in FDLR camps for not attacking them, disarming the insurgents, and arresting them. This dilly-dallying has had only one effect: it has allowed the FDLR to carry on with its activities which ultimately lie at the root of the recurring tensions between the DRC, a country which MONUSCO ought to pacify, and Rwanda which would be served well by that pacification if it happened, for it would remove the one DRC-based threat to its national security. Continued obsession with M23 by external actors and their focus on pressing Rwanda to help the DRC government to defeat it distracts attention from the real cause of insecurity in the Kivu region.

Anthony Blinken’s visit, therefore, hasn’t moved the region even an inch closer to the solution. We are yet again able to see that reaching out to foreign, non-regional actors to provide solutions to protracted conflicts only opens the way for them to lecture and offer answers – such as peace-keeping missions and mediation – that are costly in financial terms, take ultimate responsibility out of the hands of the affected governments, lack context and worsen the situation. There is only one way of sorting out the situation: get the countries that generate insurgents, that therefore have a major stake in the DRC’s stability and internal security, to sit down together and come up with a collective approach. Additionally, outsiders farther afield, such as the US and its usual allies, should refrain from getting involved in the search for a solution until they have been asked for help by the protagonists. A smart way to proceed would be to prioritise efforts to diagnose the immediate and underlying causes of conflicts that involve the major rebel groups before venturing to prescribe a cure.

This direct engagement with, rather than avoidance of, the drivers of conflict, offers great opportunities. First, it promises to highlight the pivotal role of Ugandan, Burundian and Rwandan insurgents, the DRC’s predatory military, and long-festering grievances in the DRC especially, in provoking local communities into taking up arms to fill the vacuum left by the at best dysfunctional, at worst absent, government. These are important issues the Tshisekedi government, and those who seek to beef up its military capacity or to neutralise M23 as a priority, conveniently disregard. Starting by diagnosing the causes of conflict rather than immediately imagining a solution based on standard templates, would provide a firm foundation for arriving at fitting strategies for ending the perennial upheavals and bloodletting and the misery – hunger, poverty, ignorance, ill-health – they cause and perpetuate. If prioritised, it will, in the end, give real meaning to the usually rather hollow and easy-to-deploy slogan “African solutions to Africa’s problems”.


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