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As the Presidential Election Approaches, Expect Worse Relations Between the Congo and the UN


United Nations peacekeepers patrolling Butembo, North Kivu Province, the Congo. The country is holding a presidential election in December. Its prospects portend continued fraught relations with the peacekeeping mission in the country, the essayist writes. MARTINE PERRET/UN PHOTO

Mark Twain once said: “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” Twain’s aphorism certainly applies to the United Nations’ relations with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which have been characterized by periodic episodes of contention and crisis.

Those relations are again in disrepair echoing crises from the past. As presidential elections approach in December, the prospects portend more fraught dynamics with the country and the UN.

On Sept. 1, Congolese Deputy Prime Minister Christophe Lutundula Apala wrote at length to the rotating president of the UN Security Council, Ferit Hoxha of Albania, castigating the UN peacekeeping mission (Monusco) in his country. While noting that responsibility for security lies with the national authorities, Lutundula still denounced the peacekeepers for failing to protect civilians from predatory armed groups (including the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels). The letter, sent just days after troops from Congo’s elite Republican Guard massacred dozens of civilians in Goma, the capital of the conflict-ravaged North Kivu Province, in the east, mirrored previous disputes between the Congo and the UN over the role and responsibility of UN peacekeepers.

More than 60 years ago, the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, called on UN forces to deal with the rebellions and mutinies that erupted immediately after the country’s independence. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold sent Ralph Bunche, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who invented UN peacekeeping, to the country to help manage the crisis. But as Bunche’s confidant Brian Urquhart later recounted, Bunche’s relations with Lumumba became increasingly fractious partly because of the UN’s unwillingness to back a military campaign against certain ethnic groups.

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Conor Cruise O’Brien, the UN representative in the breakaway Congolese province of Katanga, summed up that quandary succinctly, when he wrote that “the definition and limitation of what UN military assistance meant seems, when it was understood, to have come as a painful surprise to a Central Government, which had supposed that the assistance in question would be entirely at its disposition.”

Such incompatible expectations have persisted down the decades and not only in the Congo. Governments have sometimes expected UN forces to act like the Wagner Group — soldiers for hire to do their bidding. They do not always value other dimensions of UN mandates, such as security reform, the promotion of human rights and strengthening the rule of law.

In 2008 and 2010, the Congolese government of Joseph Kabila heaped scorn on UN peacekeepers for not ending a rebellion by the so-called National Congress for the People (the forerunner of M23) and other armed groups. Violent demonstrations against the UN erupted, some incited by local politicians and military commanders.

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I know from my own experience in the country that our efforts to protect civilians were not effective enough. There was a problem of capacity but equally of mindset that had to better anticipate and prevent violence. We needed to engage and listen to local people more. Above all, we lacked an integrated political/security strategy to deal with the underlying causes of the violence.

However, while the demonstrations undoubtedly reflected local discontent with the UN, they also served a political purpose. Then, as now, an unpopular regime faced growing disaffection. The UN peacekeeping operation provided a scapegoat to divert attention from the government’s own failings.

As I have written previously in PassBlue, the continuing presence of UN peacekeepers has unintentionally helped to absolve the government of its accountability toward the Congolese people. Nevertheless, the hasty expulsion of UN peacekeepers, or their replacement by another force as the Congolese government has contemplated, will not address the lack of a national strategy for protection backed up by effective governance.

An Important Election Ahead

In December, the Congo will hold a presidential election. The last one, in 2018, was blatantly fraudulent. Nevertheless, the results were allowed to stand because they ensured that the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, left office without violence. However, Kabila’s successor, Félix Tshisekedi, has been unable to carry out the profound reforms, especially in the security sector, that the country urgently needs to safeguard stability.

The prospects for a credible election are not promising. The warning signs are flashing orange. The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) does not inspire or enjoy much confidence. Some of the criticisms of the commission are politically motivated. Yet there are still valid concerns about the CENI’s impartiality and competence.

The killing in July of an opposition leader, Chérubin Okende, is a particularly worrying development that portends more electoral violence. Earlier this year, at a consultation arranged by the Kofi Annan Foundation, representatives of Congolese civil society groups and the Catholic and Protestant churches in the Congo warned that “the current electoral process is proving to be a succession of failures and a perfect recipe for political and security disaster.”

This is why the international community, led by the African Union, in cooperation with the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and in concert with other global partners, must forcefully and urgently engage with the Congolese leadership and civil society to forestall a repetition of the 2018 electoral farce. This means not only protecting the polling booths on Election Day, but also compiling a credible voter register together with independent oversight of ballot tabulation and ensuring the safety of presidential candidates.

For its part, the UN should be careful not to be drawn into providing technical and logistical assistance to an electoral exercise that may be deeply flawed. A sound election, largely accepted by the Congolese people, will arm the winner with the legitimacy necessary to take on the arduous task of change and reform that was prescribed by the UN-endorsed regional Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework, adopted in 2013 but never carried out.

Protecting Civilians: The Government’s Job

Since the publication of the seminal Brahimi report in 2000, the protection of civilians has become a central feature of all major peacekeeping operations. However, as we have learned in the Congo, protection cannot be divorced from national politics. Governments must take the lead. The 2015 report of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) recommended that “the Security Council and other international partners should seek to include this responsibility of the host government clearly in a UN compact between the Secretariat and the host government.”

This has not happened. Given the experience in the Congo (and elsewhere), the Security Council must re-examine and reshape the UN’s approach to civilian protection. Future peacekeeping mandates — if they surface — must be crafted in realistic terms that do not imply more than they can deliver. In doing so, it would be helpful for the Council and the UN Secretariat (and planners of the Council-endorsed Kenya-led police mission to Haiti) to define parameters for objectively measuring progress (or lack of) on protection.

Above all, future protection mandates must insist on — not substitute — for national responsibility and accountability for the protection of civilians. Otherwise, as Twain intimated, the past will again become a prelude for the future.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on peacekeeping dynamics in Congo?

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.”

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As the Presidential Election Approaches, Expect Worse Relations Between the Congo and the UN
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Dr KK Sharma
Dr KK Sharma
7 months ago

The First Congo Mission (ONUC) faced innumerable challenges from the global powers of the 1960s. Patrice Lumumba was assassinated at the behest of some of these powers. Rich mineral resources became and continue to be the bane of DRC, instead of bringing economic prosperity for its people. Where is all the wealth of Mobutu? Lying in some rich nations’ coffers! The world knows that the miseries of Eastern Congo stem from the self-interests of its neighbors in the East – Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda…from where all the major factions operate and thrive including the M-23. The UN is a helpless spectator, leaving the dirty job of controlling or eliminating these factions to the UN Forces or FIBs like ill-planned measures. Europeans or the US will not put their soldiers on the ground but like to plan and dictate to the global South to continue fighting in such an insurgency-infested environment. All international laws and protection mandates specify that the protection of civilians is the exclusive responsibility of the DRC president and his government. Why is the UN and international community not holding the DRC government to question? The same mineral resources come in the way while discussing sanctions or action – in the UN Security Council. The UN force stop doing the dirty work on behalf of the DRC government and must withdraw asap.

Major General AK Bardalai, Veteran
Major General AK Bardalai, Veteran
7 months ago

An excellent insight!

When it was recommended earlier during the time of the author as the SRSG in DRC that the mission had to be closed, the wish of the UN technical experts prevailed, and the mission continued with ups and downs. It probably indicated to the DRC government, which is incapable of protecting its population, that the UN is keener to stay back no matter how much the mission is criticized just to divert the attention of the vote bank from the rampant corruption anarchy using it as an election gimmick.

As the election is approaching it is happening again. I am curious how the government is going to protect its citizens from the armed gangs and also from its state forces once MONUSCO exits. Would an East African Force take the security sector role? It is time to call DRC’s bluff. 

8 months ago

Having served for six and a half years in DRC, I could state that MONUSCO faced various challenges, be it security reform or eradicating rebels across the country. UN Peacekeepers composed of various African and Asian military. Despite the fact that they are professional Military, their hands were tied by their governments driven by the strategic and resource interest in DRC. Majority of the mission personnel were dedicated to PeaceKeeping, whilst few of the top leaders were corrupt, egoistic self-serving individuals. This remains a widespread cancer across the UN and demoralise dedicated staff resulting in a toxic workplace.
On the other hand, during Kabila’s rule MONUSCO protected all the opposition figures including Felix Tshekedi, who once in power turned against UN. He did not implement any significant reforms in the country since taking charge.
If UN does not reform diligently and now, it’s likely that PeaceKeeping missions will be forced to close down and be replaced by private military contractors like Blackwater and Wagner. It’s starting with Mali, CAR, DRC, South Sudan and Libya in years to come.

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