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Eastern Congo on the Brink

Author: Stephanie Hanson
November 10, 2008

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Six months ago, the Democratic Republic of Congo signed a $9 billion agreement with China to provide Beijing with copper and cobalt in exchange for thousands of miles of roads and railways (BBC). Optimists saw the deal as a sign that the Congolese government--voted to power in a historic 2006 election--was trying to turn its mineral wealth into an engine of economic development. Pessimists pointed to the ongoing lawlessness in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, fueled by illegal mineral extraction, as a sign of the government's weakness outside the capital of Kinshasa. Now, an escalation of violence in the east has raised concerns that the Congolese government could fall, with serious repercussions possible for countries throughout central Africa.

Despite the presence of the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world, known as MONUC, eastern Congo has been lawless for over a decade. Faced with rampaging rebel militias and the poorly trained Congolese army and police, hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled their homes. The UN agency for refugees reports that even its camps provide no guarantee of safety from militias. The best recent attempt at quelling violence, a peace agreement signed in January 2008, failed to prevent the latest round of fighting and is widely considered moribund. Numerous attempts to negotiate with the region's most prominent rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, have faltered. In a podcast with CFR.org, Rebecca Feeley, a field researcher with an advocacy group called the ENOUGH Project, says Nkunda has political aspirations. Some analysts believe his rebel group, CNDP, widely believed to be backed by Rwanda's government, has a shot at toppling (NYT) the government of President Joseph Kabila.

Diplomats including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Jendayi Frazer, the top U.S. official on the issue, anxiously shuttle around the region in an attempt to end the conflict. The stakes are high: the Democratic Republic of Congo borders nine African countries, and instability in the east could spill over into regional war, as it did in the mid-1990s, precipitating the greatest number of casualties of any conflict since World War II. The Congo also contains the second-largest rain forest in the world. Its "protection and sound management is crucial to mitigate adverse effects of climate change," writes Congolese analyst Decky Kipuka Kabongi in the Online Africa Policy Forum. The country's mineral wealth and its complete absence of governance also could attract terrorists and arms traffickers, suggests author and policy analyst Seth Kaplan.

Many analysts say that peace will not come to eastern Congo until two rebel groups--Nkunda's CNDP and the FDLR, a Rwandan rebel group--are disbanded. International will to send troops into the region appears weak, which leaves security in the hands of the UN peacekeeping force.  The United Nations has urged a bolstering of this force, with support from EU diplomats. MONUC  is the "only plausible force" to secure eastern Congo, says Anthony Gambino, former USAID mission director in the Congo. Eventually, the Congolese army should provide security, but training even one or two brigades will take years, Gambino says in a Council Special Report.

Some experts say international diplomatic efforts have actually exacerbated conflict in eastern Congo. Séverine Autesserre, assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, writes in Foreign Affairs that "local disputes over land and power" are the root causes of violence in the region. She argues that past national and regional diplomatic efforts have backfired and calls for a new international strategy that focuses on local issues. As Africa researcher Gerard Prunier writes, "International angels of mercy, regardless of their good intentions, stand poised to do more harm than good in dealing with the crisis from a purely international point of view."

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