An end to Congo's fragile hopes?

March 20, 2009
Soldier leaving Congo: the end of the small glimmer of hope for the region?
Soldier leaving Congo: the end of the small glimmer of hope for the region?

In  a web exclusive for Prospect last month, I wrote that decades-long animosity between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda seemed to have abated, as Congolese president Joseph Kabila allowed the armies of his east African neighbours to tackle rebel groups using Congo as a base. This cooperation was unprecedented, and so it seemed possible there was a chance for real and permanent change in a region crippled by a seemingly endless sequence of rebel insurgencies.

That hope may now be fading. The Rwandan army retreated from DR Congo last month having achieved very little, with the important exception of the arrest of Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. The stated purpose of the mission was to deal with the Hutu rebels (the FDLR). Little is known about what actions the Rwandans took in Congo, but it appears they have had not succeeded in weakening the FDLR, who seem to have suffered few casualties. It is likely they remain well armed, in full control of numerous mineral rich mines, and a potential menace.

Meanwhile, Ugandan troops began withdrawing from the DR Congo on Sunday, and all 4,000 are expected to be gone by next week. They had been deployed to hunt down Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, and the army claims to have severely undermined the LRA's capacity to wage war. However, the group's leadership remains intact, with their commander and (indicted war criminal) Joseph Kony still at large.

What does all this mean for peace and stability in the region? DR Congo’s relations with Uganda and Rwanda may have warmed as a result of the joint operations, but many in Kinshasa's political circles did not support the joint operations, instead viewing the presence of foreign troops as occupying forces. In the end President Kabila did not have the political strength, or perhaps the political will, to allow Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers to remain until both jobs were complete.

Yet neither does he have enough military might at his disposal to take care of the various rebel groups himself. The Congolese army remains a rag-tag, poorly paid and poorly disciplined force, and so it is likely that rebel groups operating will continue to see eastern Congo as a safe haven.

This hardly justifies hope for a "new spirit of cooperation" in the region.