African conflict

2008-11-07 00:00

Attention fixes on political events in the United States, while yet another humanitarian disaster unfolds in Africa. War has resumed in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, famously described as looking like heaven and feeling like hell. Over 20% of North Kivu’s six million people are displaced; and many have recently disappeared from refugee camps beyond the reach of aid agencies.

Genocides are the earthquakes of human history and this is a further aftershock. The Hutu Interahamwe responsible for the 1994 Rwanda massacres continue to operate in the eastern DRC and enjoy close relations with the national army, dividing trade and profitable mining operations. It is another, tragic African example of the interdependence of conflict and business opportunity.

The Rwandan government looks at this situation with justifiable suspicion. Laurent Nkunda’s rebel forces, who recently broke the ceasefire and claim to protect Tutsi (including local Banyamulenge) interests, are accused of acting for the Kigali government. Its desire for a zone of influence along the border given the failure of the DRC to control Hutu forces is logical.

Villains and victims dominate this endless human tragedy. Not only are militias responsible for rape and looting, but so too is the ramshackle DRC army. Shelter and food are in short supply and epidemic disease will surely follow. What is the price of another African humanitarian catastrophe in a continent in desperate need of socio-economic justice?

This is a war of regional dimensions, detached from the rest of the DRC by the lack of infrastructure. The country hosts the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world and almost all its personnel are in the east. Its helicopter gunships have been in action this week, but capability is limited. Conflict could again involve a number of neighbouring countries, further destabilising one of the resource heartlands of the continent.

European foreign ministers were in the region recently and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is taking a personal interest. But where is the African Union? The continent readily wages war, but needs to learn to make lasting peace. Future development, that of South Africa included, is at stake.

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