Looters’ Truce

Stephen W. Smith

The Rwanda-backed M23 rebels – M23 for 23 March 2009, when a peace deal was signed with Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila – attacked the city of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), on 17 November, trouncing the Congolese army in less than three days. Twelve days later they withdrew. But they have not melted back into the hills of Northern Kivu from where they launched the assault. They have put a ring around Goma and are staying put until the power-sharing agreement for which they’re named is renegotiated in their favour. Meanwhile, Goma, a border town of one million people, resembles Berlin in the Cold War, an island linked to the west by an air bridge.

The pressure brought to bear on Rwanda by the international community, notably the UK’s decision to suspend £21 million in bilateral aid, has not turned DRC’s eastern border into a red line Rwanda will no longer cross. Yes, this is the first time any pressure has been put on Kigali; and yes, a chink has appeared in the armour of Rwanda’s post-genocide impunity, forged by the West’s guilty conscience. But General-President Paul Kagame has also proved once again that his tiny country – 12 million inhabitants, 26,000 km2 – lords it over its gigantic neighbour (75 million on 2,300,000 km2). You want peace in eastern Congo? Come to Kigali and negotiate a price.

This has been the rule since the end of Mobutu. When the former Congolese dictator had already lost most of his power to a chaotic democratisation process and terminal cancer, his eastern neighbours – mainly Uganda and Rwanda – organised his succession via a ‘rebellion’. In October 1996, an army equipped with Kalashnikovs, fatigues and gum boots sprang up in the east and began its long march across a country the size of Western Europe. Yet the figurehead it swept into power, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, proved unco-operative. He wouldn’t give his sponsors a free hand in the mineral rich borderlands where gold, tinstone, wolframite and coltan abound. Kabila Sr was assassinated in January 2001. His son Joseph succeeded him and, since then, ‘rebellions’ have risen in the east as predictably as the sun. Only the March 2009 agreement, which transformed eastern Congo into a condominium, brought relative peace, the looters’ truce – la paix des pillards – as it’s known locally.

The martyrdom of eastern Congo doesn’t turn Joseph Kabila and the political elite in Kinshasa into innocent victims of outside aggression. To begin with, most of them have taken turns at selling out their country to Kigali – currently, Vital Kamerhe, the leader of a party ironically called the Union for the Congolese Nation, is trying to piggyback on the M23 rebellion. Besides, corrupt leadership in Kinshasa has effectively broken up the DRC into three different countries: the Swahili-speaking east, a land of booty fought over with Rwanda and Uganda; the Lingala-speaking Congo, which extends along the river from Kisangani to the Atlantic via Kinshasa and remains the turf of various opposition parties; finally, Katanga, the rich southern province of cobalt and copper, where Kabila comes from and which he has parcelled out to Belgian, Canadian and, lately, Chinese mining groups, latter-day ‘concessionary companies’ as they used to be called under colonial rule.

Kabila runs a predatory dictatorship legitimated and funded by the international community. In 2001, Washington, Paris and Brussels rushed to affirm him as the dynastic successor of his slain father – a curious lesson in democracy. In 2003, the Sun City agreement negotiated in South Africa reformulated the power equation in Kinshasa as ‘1+4’, i.e. one self-proclaimed president flanked by four warlords recycled as his vice-presidents. In 2006, a billion-dollar election under UN supervision, which was heralded as a political overhaul after 46 years of dictatorial independence and a longer, more troubled colonial past, ended in a run-off won by Joseph Kabila. His challenger, Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of his vice-presidents, who got 42 per cent of the popular vote, was forced into exile and later indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his alleged ‘command responsibility’ in war crimes committed by his former rebel forces in the Central African Republic. Since May 2008, Bemba has remained in custody in The Hague; all requests for provisional release have been turned down. His supporters see ‘the’ international community as a tool in Kabila’s hands.

No sooner was Kabila proclaimed the ‘democratically elected’ head of state in 2006 than he changed his mobile phone and cut off direct contact with his Western sponsors, much to their surprise. For his re-election in November 2011, friendly foreplay was no longer in order. Under the eyes of the UN’s biggest peace mission – more than 17,000 blue helmets, 1500 police officers and 3000 civil servants dedicated to the cause of democracy and human rights, at a cost of $9 billion since 1999 (and rising) – the vote was blatantly rigged. The international response was a resounding silence. Hardly surprisingly that last month in Goma, 1500 UN peacekeeping troops, tasked with the protection of civilians, should have behaved like traffic policemen at a busy intersection, regulating the flow of looters and killers – underfed Congolese soldiers, defeated but then allowed back into the city, and the M23 rebels, victorious but eventually pressured to withdraw. In the interval, many people in Goma – no one knows exactly how many – have died.

The post-genocidal regime in Rwanda has time and again been able to raid and plunder its Congolese neighbour with no, or little, risk of punitive sanctions. Britain finally seems to have reservations about the validity of washing away a genocide with a torrent of crimes against humanity, and the UN Security Council has demanded an end to outside support for the M23 rebels, but the United States is still shielding Kagame from blame. Thanks to American support, Rwanda is about to take up a two-year seat as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch’s UN representative, has said:

It’s puzzling that the United States continues to remain silent while Rwanda is putting weapons in the hands of notorious M23 abusers, who are using them to kill civilians, rape and recruit children. It’s even more inexplicable since the M23 is attacking UN peacekeepers that the United States has supported and financed to protect civilians.

An estimated 700,000 Congolese have been driven from their homes during the last bout of fighting in the east. Tens of thousands of unarmed civilians have been killed by Rwandan forces in eastern Congo. An estimated five million have died as indirect victims of warfare, from hunger, displacement or disease. The combined charges against all the warlords so far indicted by the ICC, from the former Liberian president Charles Taylor to the M23 commander Bosco Ntaganda, a.k.a. ‘The Terminator’, fall short of the war crimes committed by President Kagame and documented by the UN. But the ICC doesn’t seem to know.

The latest turn of events: in the name of ‘African solutions for African crises’, the continent’s regional organisations are vying for peacekeeping duties in eastern Congo. On 8 December, at the behest of President Kabila, the powerful, 15 country strong Southern African Development Community (SADC) announced the deployment of 4000 peacekeepers in eastern Congo – a direct challenge not only to the UN and its 4700 blue helmets in Northern Kivu but also to the smaller International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), which is used by Rwanda and Uganda to pursue their interests in the Congo.

One question remains, always the same: who, finally, is going to defend ordinary Congolese?