Once again, a toxic mix of factors is exploding into violence and rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last time this happened – and it wasn’t so long ago – the resulting conflict left millions dead and destabilised an entire continent. Will it happen again? So far, the signs aren’t good.
Ah, the Congo (the Democratic Republic version). Here we go again. In the east of this vast and beautiful country, a small force of well-organised and supported rebels have sent government troops scurrying for safety and forced United Nations peacekeepers to huddle behind their armoured personnel carriers as they steadily grabbed more and more territory, culminating last week in the capture of the big prize: Goma, capital of North Kivu province.
In the annals of military history, this deserves to go down alongside other great victories against all odds: think Rourke’s Drift or the Battle of Marathon. Just 2,500 fighters from the M23 movement – the latest iteration of a dangerous, unscrupulous militia that has been active in the region for more than a decade – proved too much for the 30,000 Congolese soldiers in North Kivu and the 17,000-strong United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DR Congo (Monusco).
The details of how the battle was won have not yet been fully reported, but it must have been quite a fight – or not, if the Congolese troops lived up to their reputation as bribe-eager but battle-shy. (And who can blame them? Would you risk your life when you haven’t been paid for months?)
Among the hapless peacekeepers, who have again been on the receiving end of some stinging criticism for failing to live up to that lofty job description, is a battalion of the South African National Defence Force’s finest. Although the army would not confirm exact numbers, there are about 1,000 South African soldiers currently in the eastern DRC. “No SANDF contingent has been involved in the fighting between the M23 and government forces,” said spokesman Xolani Mubanga, who rather confusingly also confirmed that two South African soldiers have been injured – in fighting between M23 and government forces. The pair were protecting civilians who had fled to a South African base for safety; they are in good condition, and did not require evacuation.
As the dust settles in Goma, three central questions (among many) have emerged: how did it come to this? Why does no one seem to care? And what’s next?
As to the causes of the long-running conflict, well, that’s an article – more like a book – in itself. For an in-depth explanation, read Jason Stearns on the rise of M23. For the basics, suffice to say (it doesn’t, of course) that North Kivu province is at the intersection of all kinds of political, economic and historical currents: the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the genocidaires who fled in its aftermath, the current power struggles within the Rwandan state, the serial ineptitude and grand corruption of the Congolese government, ethnic and tribal divisions, massive mineral wealth in gold, diamonds and coltan, international aid dependency, entrenched poverty and lack of education, and non-existent infrastructure. It’s a toxic mix, and a fatal one.
The situation is arguably exacerbated by the relative lack of any kind of attention given to the area, both now and historically. The DRC doesn’t sell newspapers, nor does it drive online traffic (just ask the editor where this story will rank in Daily Maverick’s list of the day’s top reads). Unlike, for example, the Israel-Palestine conflict, which despite affecting a fraction of the people affected in the Congo, receives exponentially more coverage. This is a point that Ian Birrell made eloquently in the Guardian: “Meanwhile, 2,300 miles further south [from Gaza], events took a sharp turn for the worse in another interminable regional war. This one also involves survivors of genocide ruthlessly focused on securing their future at any cost. But the resulting conflict is far bloodier, far more brutal, far more devastating, far more destructive – yet it gains scarcely a glance from the rest of the world.”
The Congo, it seems, is too far away from everywhere else for anyone to care.
The big, burning question though is about what happens next. The African Union and the International Conference of the Great Lakes, a regional grouping, have boldly issued an ultimatum to the rebels: get out of Goma, or else. What form this threat will take remains unclear. The rebels, meanwhile, are full of bravado. They say they plan to march on the capital, Kinshasa, next, even though it is 1,500km away.
Looming over all this fighting talk is the shadow of the last time this toxic mix of factors exploded, with devastating consequences.
“Hopefully, the taking of Goma will expose some of the mystery surrounding the leadership of the Great Lakes, in particular the intentions in Kigali, Kinshasa and Kampala,” wrote David Zounmenou and Naomi Kok for the Institute for Security Studies. “Or it could well bring DRC back to the 1998 scenario in which Laurent Desire Kabila, with the support of Uganda, Rwanda and others, took his rebellion to Kinshasa.”
In that scenario, North Kivu became the epicenter of the Second Congo War (1998-2003), also known as the Great African War; the devastating, five-year-long conflagration which lured in 10 African countries and left 10 million people dead.
It doesn’t have to come to that. Right now, there’s intense shuttle diplomacy between the various countries involved (specifically Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC), and some international pressure is being put on Rwanda to halt its long-denied but all too obvious support for the M23 rebels. Not nearly enough, though; Britain recently resumed financial support to Rwanda, rescinding a previous decision to halt aid.
A stronger stance from other African countries could also go a long way to tempering the belligerence of the belligerents, especially the state actors. So far, the African Union and key players like South Africa have been quick to condemn the rebels and their local allies, but deafeningly quiet on Rwandan or Ugandan involvement – and, for that matter, on atrocities committed by Congolese forces.
There’s a time for silence in diplomacy, sure. But this isn’t it. We’re meant to learn from history, and when that history is less than a decade old, no one has any excuse for repeating the same mistakes. And has there been a bigger mistake in Africa’s history than the Second Congolese War?