In September, the presidents of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda took their allegations against each other over the resurgence of conflict in the eastern Congo to the United Nations General Assembly. I recall vividly similar claims and counterclaims from more than a decade ago when I was serving as the special representative of the secretary-general in the Congo from late 2008 to 2010.
Then, as now, the clash centered on what the current Congolese president, Félix Tshisekedi, claims is “Rwanda’s involvement and responsibility in the tragedy that my country and compatriots, in the areas occupied by the Rwandan army and its M23 allies, are experiencing.”
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame countered, reiterating a familiar riposte. “We must find the political will to finally address the root causes of instability in eastern DRC,” he said, referring to the Congo. “The blame game does not solve problems,” he added, alleging that the Congolese army was in league with the Hutu militias that fled into the DRC after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The crisis has now deepened with the recent expulsion by the two governments of each other’s envoys.
Behind this war of words is a real war that is costing the lives of civilians who are caught every day in the deadly conflict that plagues the eastern Congo. Civilians, in particular women and girls, are the main victims of this appalling violence, instigated by militias, armed groups (some of them with links to neighboring countries) and, at times, government security forces.
UN peacekeepers have been deployed in the DRC for more than two decades. Since 2008, their primary job is to help protect civilians from the kind of violence that is wracking communities in the eastern part of the country. It has proved to be an uphill struggle.
The name M23 derives from the date of an agreement negotiated by former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania to end an earlier rebellion by government soldiers from the Tutsi community, staged under the banner of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). The agreement was signed on March 23, 2009, in Goma, the capital of the eastern province of North Kivu.
I was at the signing. The UN and the African Union applauded the accord. However, as we left the ceremony, Obasanjo privately expressed to me his worry that the agreement was only a temporary reprieve. He was right. Within a couple of years, elements of the CNDP rebellion resurfaced as M23, seizing Goma before being repulsed.
The dynamics of the violence in the eastern Congo are complex: ethnic contention over the control of natural resources; competition among elites (politicians, officials and the military) and armed groups for political power and the wealth of the political economy; abusive behavior of the Congolese security forces; and the interventions of neighboring countries pursuing strategic and commercial interests. Foreign powers and companies have also long intervened in the Congo for political and material gain, including access to strategic minerals.
Numerous outsiders have attempted to end the endemic violence that is devastating the region. A revolving cast of UN envoys and special representatives (more than a dozen), along with numerous special representatives of individual countries and organizations have tried to find solutions. Frameworks, agreements, action plans and road maps have been devised by the UN, the African Union, the International Conference of the Great Lakes, the Southern African Development Community and, more recently, the East African Community. These interventions have produced brief periods of relative calm but have not ended the violence.
The recent resurgence of M23 and the continued attacks of other armed groups — notably the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which originated in Uganda — have again raised questions about the usefulness of the UN peace operation. In July, angry demonstrations erupted, violently protesting Monusco’s seeming inability to protect civilians against armed groups.
I experienced similar protests. We were even accused of aiding the CNDP rebellion (the forerunner of M23) to keep ourselves in a job! I had to explain to skeptical and sometimes hostile audiences the limits of our mandate and means. Those explanations never went down well.
Since I left the Congo, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and its successor, the Department of Peace Operations, have invested much time and thought in seeking better ways to protect civilians. Obviously, that is still a challenge. So I agree that enhanced community engagement (and support for local peace-building work) can make a difference and improve protection outcomes.
This does not mean, however, that UN peacekeeping in the Congo has been operating in vain. UN envoys and the peacekeeping missions facilitated the withdrawal of foreign troops and the reunification of the country after a horrendous civil war. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been protected by UN peacekeepers across the country. Peace has returned in much of the Congo beyond the hot spots in the east.
Nonetheless, after more than two decades in the the Central African country, there is growing pressure in the Security Council to end the peacekeeping mission. Some downsizing is underway. Such a move has ignited understandable concerns that Monusco’s departure, albeit gradual, will worsen the protection crisis.
To allay this concern, the Council has approved a joint strategy, elaborated in collaboration with the Congolese government, for the phased drawdown of the peacekeeping mission. In addition, Monusco has developed a transition plan to guide its exit. Regionally, the UN has devised a strategy for peace consolidation, conflict prevention and conflict resolution in the Great Lakes area.
But how realistic are these plans? They depend on two key elements: national reforms and regional cooperation. Neither can be taken for granted.
First, almost all the transition strategies and plans require the firm commitment of the Congolese authorities (national, provincial and legislative) to reforms, which, to be frank, is a questionable proposition.
In 2013, the Congo and regional partners negotiated a Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework. The UN secretary-general at the time, Ban Ki-moon, signed it as a guarantor. The framework required the Congolese government to “continue, and deepen security sector reform, particularly with respect to the Army and Police”; to “consolidate State authority, particularly in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo”; and to “further structural reform of Government institutions.” The agreement also called the Congolese government to “further the agenda of reconciliation, tolerance and democratization.”
Under the previous government, led by Joseph Kabila, none of these commitments were met. The Tshisekedi presidency has made progress but nothing on the scale that the framework envisaged. The resurgence of violence and resulting declaration in March of martial law in three eastern provinces, along with the appointment of military governors, is unlikely to boost the cause of democratization and reconciliation.
A second reason for skepticism lies in the regional context. Eleven countries in the area committed, among other things, “not to interfere in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries.” They pledged to “neither tolerate nor provide assistance or support of any kind to armed groups.” Regrettably, that obligation has been flouted by some of the Congo’s eastern neighbors.
Hence the Catch-22 that Monusco faces: the mission is committed to an exit strategy defined by benchmarks beyond its control or even influence.
There is no easy or risk-free answer to this dilemma. However, the December 2023 presidential election in the Congo presents a pivotal moment to clarify this ambiguity. Before the election, the Security Council should reaffirm the drawdown timetable so that a new president, or President Tshisekedi if he is re-elected, knows that he (no women candidates are on the horizon) must accept full responsibility for protection of civilians within a reasonable but defined timetable. The timing should not be conditioned by the accomplishment of open-ended benchmarks (national or regional) over which the UN has no control.
This approach may seem draconian. It will provoke alarm and raise humanitarian concerns that the UN is abandoning the people of the eastern Congo to an uncertain, perilous fate. But the reality is that Monusco cannot resolve the protection crisis in the eastern Congo, and its continuing presence is unwittingly shielding the national authorities from their own responsibility to protect their people.
To ensure against the risk that the Monusco departure could precipitate an armed challenge to the integrity of the state, a reinforced intervention brigade, under East African community auspices, could be kept in place for a limited period; the first elements of such a force have already been deployed by Kenya. However, the brigade would not act as a civilian protection force because that would muddy the state’s responsibility to protect its own citizens.
At base, the crisis of protection in the Congo is a crisis of politics.
The outcome of the 2023 election must be generally recognized as legitimate, unlike the previous one, which was deeply compromised by electoral malpractice. This will equip the winner with a popular mandate to push governance reforms that will enable the central government to extend its authority in the undergoverned areas of eastern Congo, where national and outside players operate and intervene with impunity.
That authority cannot be achieved by military means alone, or imposed by administrative fiat. It can only be built from the bottom up with the full engagement, commitment and support of local communities. This is the change that can provide the long-term protection that is desperately needed to ensure the well-being and safety of the people of the eastern Congo.
This is an opinion essay.
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Alan Doss is the chair of the advisory board of the Oxford Global Society and former president of the Kofi Annan Foundation. He is the author of “A Peacekeeper in Africa: Learning From UN Interventions in Other People’s Wars.”