Kabila's big gamble

Laurent Nkunda may have been captured. But will Congo and its neighbours be able to trust each other enough to bring any lasting peace to the region?
February 28, 2009

For decades, it has seemed the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, would never end. The governments of these countries seemed unable—indeed unwilling—to work together reign in the various rebel groups rampaging across their borders. Deeply suspicious of each other's motives, they have preferred to fund, back, or turn a blind eye to the insurgencies. But this could be about to change.

Last November I was in Kiwanja, a small trading town near Goma in eastern Congo, standing among a group of rebel fighters. One of them passed by me and whispered in a hushed voice, "I've got to get out of this shit." The 25-year-old Tutsi, who called himself Pascal, said he was desperate to run away, fed up with life as a fighter. This life had begun for him at 13, when Tutsi fighters swept through his hometown of Goma and forced him to join them.

He had good reason to be fed up. A few days earlier, at least 150 people believed to be civilians were executed in Kiwanja, and Pascal said he had been forced to participate.

The next day Pascal called me to tell me he had escaped his battalion and was on the run. He eventually crossed the border into Uganda and reached the capital, Kampala, where, in late January, he and I shared a soda with a third man who said he had also recently escaped from another rebel group operating in Congo. Pascal and this man were old friends who had first met in the late 1990s when they fought together during the Congolese civil war. After the civil war ended in 2003, the various factions in Congo that had joined together to topple the dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, split. Pascal, a Tutsi, and his friend, a Hutu, found themselves in rival camps.

As both men can attest, alliances rarely last long in eastern Congo. Only two months after Pascal abandoned the rebels, their leader, the infamous Laurent Nkunda, was arrested by the Rwandan military. His capture was big news: Rwanda had backed Nkunda's rebellion against the Congolese government since it began in 2004, but, in a stunning reversal, Rwanda changed sides and helped arrest Nkunda in a joint operation with Congolese troops.

It's not entirely clear why Rwanda turned on Nkunda. Some suggest he'd grown too ambitious and that his considerable ego and his public declaration of intent to conquer the whole of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were making the Rwandan government in Kigali uneasy.

Or perhaps Paul Kagame, Rwanda's Tutsi president, gave up Nkunda in exchange for the chance to hunt down the Hutu militias hiding out in Congo, whose leaders are implicated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

It's also possible that the atrocities carried out by Nkunda's rebels, like the one Pascal was involved in, were becoming increasingly embarrassing for a Rwandan government that prides itself on being a responsible actor in the international community. As Tim Butcher wrote in Prospect in December, Rwanda is the "Israel" of central Africa: a country that is heavily subsidised by the west and relies on the goodwill it enjoys around the world. It could not afford to be seen to have blood on its hands.

Whatever Rwanda's motives, it seems that all the countries in the region, once bitter rivals, are finally, tentatively, willing to work together. Since December, Congolese president Joseph Kabila has allowed the armies of both Rwanda and Uganda into Congo to flush out the rebel groups that use the country as a base. His decision was something of a surprise given that both armies had been involved in the civil war in the Congo in the 1990s, but had massively overstayed their welcome, and only left in 2003 after helping themselves to the minerals, timber and other valuable resources eastern Congo has to offer. Relations between the countries have been strained ever since. The fact they have now been invited back seems to be an admission by Kabila that Congo's problems are too great for Congo to deal with alone; the fact that they have agreed shows they now realise that it's in all their interests to cooperate.

There are early signs that the new approach might be working: the arrest of Nkunda has dealt a serious blow to the insurgency in eastern Congo and there are signs that other rebel groups have been weakened thanks to the joint Uganda-Congo offensive in the north of the country. But it is far too early to declare Kabila's gamble a success.

As soon as he announced the deals with Rwanda and Congo, Kabila's political opponents rounded on him, accusing him of endangering his people by welcoming back two armies whose alleged abuses against Congolese civilians are still fresh in their memories. Bowing to pressure, Kabila announced on 31st January that both armies must be out of Congo by the end of February.

The fact that Congo and its neighbours have agreed, albeit temporarily, to work together at all suggests a new willingness to break the endless cycle of violence, and provides glimmer of hope for a region that has been mired in conflict for decades—perhaps even a chance that the next generation of young men will not have to take up arms at 13, like Pascal did. But the situation remains deeply precarious. If at the end of the month rebel leaders remain at large, will Uganda willingly withdraw, or will it insist on remaining until the job is done? The same can be asked of Rwanda. And if these countries once again unilaterally decide to stay in Congo after the president had asked them to leave, the region could find itself even worse off than it was before.

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