Why are we fighting?

2013-09-06 00:00

FIVE months after the deaths of 15 South African soldiers in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui, our military is again in the front line, this time as part of the United Nations-backed Monusco and its intervention brigade in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Already, several South African soldiers have been injured in engagements with M23 rebels near Goma.

This operational area was the focal point of what has been described as the great war of Africa, which cost at least four million lives between 1996 and 2003. Its origins lay in the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and the subsequent flight of Hutu Interahamwe over the border into the DRC. Rwanda then became the regional aggressor, backing Laurent Kabila to overthrow the shambolic state ruled by Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. But Kabila fell out with the Tutsi regime in Rwanda, which invaded the DRC in 1998. The first war was about regional security; the second about economic spheres of influence. Conflict has continued virtually unabated throughout eastern DRC ever since.

The DRC is a non-functioning nation in which weak state and civil-society institutions have been replaced by elite politics based on ethnicity. Economists describe the DRC as a country of growth without development, with particularly poor governance of natural resources. Indeed, state weakness is encouraged as a means to acquire power; force is an option of early resort, and war has become an economic and political institution.

Jason Stearns, an American expert on the DRC, describes its recent history as an “ancient Greek epic”. Although ostensibly a parochial Congolese conflict, this is above all a regional war.

The main protagonists are M23 (Mouvement du 23 Mars) rebels, mainly Tutsis from the DRC army who deserted in May 2012. But there are up to two dozen armed groups operating in north and south Kivu, ranging from Ugandan-led Islamists and Mai Mai groups to Rwandan Hutu forces (Forces Démocratique pour la Libération du Rwanda, FDLR) and their opponents Rai Mutomboki. In the words of Oxfam, they “prey on people”, raping, killing and abducting, looting villages, taxing access to roads and fields, and seizing mineral resources. This is an agriculturally and pastorally fertile area rich in minerals (gold, tin and coltan) with a complex population mix aggravated by waves of refugees. The Kivus are 1 500 kilometres from the DRC capital Kinshasa, and are linguistically and economically linked to East Africa. War has become business and continued instability is in the interests of many, although not the victims of a humanitarian and civil-rights disaster, of whom 800 000 have been displaced. Systematic and widespread rape has been used as a weapon of war by all armed groups, including the DRC army (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo or FARDC).

National elections were held in November 2011, but have not been followed by provincial polls. These are not a priority for Kabila, who focuses on Kinshasa, especially since elected provincial governments would have a constitutional right to claim 40% of national tax revenue, thus undermining his power.

His M23 opponents are sponsored by Rwanda and Uganda. FARDC is so badly led and equipped that M23 could possibly take Kinshasa as Kabila’s father’s forces did. For Rwanda and Uganda, a state of instability in the eastern DRC is in their interests, as long as Kinshasa’s remit is weak in the Kivus. Kabila wants to stay in power; Rwanda wants regional control. These are not incompatible objectives, but the resultant insecurity has become a sub-continental problem.

And the country as a whole is in increasing danger of imploding. Renewed prospects of Katanga secession bring back memories of UN intervention in the early sixties. Infighting between competing groups reduces the chances of a breakaway, although 300 000 people have been displaced, and in March the centre of the capital Lubumbashi was attacked by Mai Mai fighters. The UN has observers on the Zambian border.

South Africa’s links with the DRC are long-standing. Thabo Mbeki’s peace initiatives facilitated the 2006 elections, for which South Africa printed the ballot papers. It endorsed enthusiastically Joseph Kabila’s two electoral victories despite international doubts. Relations have subsequently grown in the areas of education, trade, protected investment and the training of military personnel and public servants. The private interests of the Zuma family, the so-called Kabila-Zuma axis, also form part of the equation: Khulubuse Zuma is said to have links with oil companies in the Albert Basin.

Monusco’s mandate has been expanded this year, giving it wide powers to attack and disarm militant groups, known in United Nations jargon as negative forces. In March, there were moves towards a deal with M23 after it split. The reintegration of Sultani Makenga’s faction into FARDC in the Kivus would have allowed it to continue mineral smuggling into Rwanda, but Makenga rejected the peace deal over a lack of consultation. Jean-Bosco Ntaganda’s minority faction is now housed in camps near Gisenyi in Rwanda and the warlord and smuggler has been transferred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, where he faces charges of war crimes in the earlier DRC war. His testimony could fill in many of the missing details of M23’s short history, especially the role of Rwanda.

The DRC is central to Africa in more ways than simply geographic. It is currently in a state of transition, awaiting implementation of Chinese-style special-economic areas, the development of intensive farming, and an increased output of copper, cobalt and diamonds. Repair of the Benguela railway will reconnect Katanga province to Angola.

Above all, the Inga III dam (4 800 MW of electricity, with about half going to South Africa) will soon go ahead, part of the Grand Inga project that is planned to generate 39 000 MW. Access to cheap, relatively clean electricity is a main driver of South African foreign policy towards the DRC, although doubt has been cast on this mega project because of climate change.

Unlike the CAR intervention, there is little doubt why 1 300 South Africans are part of Monusco’s 3 000-strong contingent in the Kivus. The humanitarian responsibilities are overwhelming and the need for regional stability is critical. But there are national economic interests to protect, highlighted by Defence Minister Nosivive Mapisa-Nqakula’s recent pronouncement that South African troops would be babysitting until the DRC improved its governance systems. This was reportedly, and not unsurprisingly, not well-received in the DRC. There is an echo here of neocolonial relationships with the eastern DRC, possibly seen by South Africa’s foreign-policy makers as, in Patrick Bond’s words, “Pretoria’s back yard”? The burnishing of South Africa’s peacekeeping credentials can do no harm to its search for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But the chances of stabilising the eastern DRC and defusing the militias without serious South African casualties are remote. And further instability looms in Katanga.

• letters@witness.co.za

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