Eleven central African leaders met in Uganda a fortnight ago to discuss strategies at halting the advance of rebel soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The rebels, believed to have the support of Uganda and Rwanda, had seized Goma, the minerals-rich city on the eastern flank of the Congo. A communique at the end of the meeting demanded the rebels withdraw from the city or face forceful eviction. The dispatch with which the 'International Conference on the Great Lakes Region' was undertaken underscores potential of the episode to snowball into a region-wide conflict, and the need to avoid it developing into a new war. It is instructive that the rebels have since withdrawn from Goma and retreated to the forest where they came from.
The rebel's earlier advance has worsened the volatile situation of the DRC, and further compounded the dire humanitarian conditions of some 100,000 displaced persons. Leaders of both Rwanda and Uganda have been blamed for fomenting disaffection among ethnic communities in the Congo in order to divert attention from illegal mining of minerals in the region that they turn a blind eye to, accusation that authorities in the two countries have dismissed. Many donor countries have threatened to withhold aid money if they continued with their policies of destabilizing the Congo.
DRC's vast natural resources have been stolen by a string of successive leaders since Mobutu Sese Seko, whose wealth at death after over three decades of dictatorship, was estimated to be above the country's net worth.
With Laurent Kabila, Joseph Kabila's father, in power in 2001, a much hoped-for stability and transformation did not materialize, thereby driving many people to desperation and disaffection. Under the younger Kabila, who took over after his father's assassination, and became the first freely elected president of the Congo in 2006, the same deplorable conditions, characterized by restiveness and lawlessness, have continued to prevail, and sometimes are the trigger for armed conflicts such as the Goma incident. It is this unending crisis situation that the DRC's neighbours are now being accused of exploiting through destabilization and weakening of the country in order to have access to its mineral resources.
On account of this, the DRC authorities make no effort to hide their mistrust of the mediation by members of the Conference of the Great Lakes Region, because of the destabilising roles that Uganda and Rwanda are seen to be playing in the DRC's latest circumstances, preferring instead the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to intervene and takeover the mediation effort. There is merit in the preference for the SADC as mediators because none of its members are known to be involved in supporting anti-government elements in the DRC. Indeed both Angola and Tanzania at one time provided military assistance to defeat armed insurrection. Moreover, mediation by the SADC would not only command respect but the outcome of the mediation could be subject to being enforced rigorously, because its members may not have any ulterior interests other than the stability of the DRC.
One reason given by the renegade soldiers who overran Goma was that Kabila's government was weak and corrupt, and had made no impact on far-flung provinces like Goma and North Kivu. The United Nations, whose troops are in the DRC to protect displaced people and aid agencies, and other countries should urge the government to eschew corruption and intensify effort in bringing the whole of the DRC under its ambit through the provision of infrastructure and facilities to all parts of the DRC, particularly Goma and the eastern province. The disaffected soldiers now up in arms should realize that as a democratic country, power in the DRC can be got only through the ballot box, and that seizing power through force of arms is not a sustainable option and would not be accepted by the international community.
On their part, Uganda and Rwanda should play a more unifying role because their continuing encouragement of dissidents across the border in the DRC runs counter to the AU's aspiration for peace and development on the continent.