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Kinshasa’s military operations: to what use?


On 5 January of this year the first phase of a military operation was launched against the FDLR (Front Démocratique pour la Libéralisation du Rwanda) in North Kivu. After six months of fighting the result in terms of defeated FDLR rebels is very poor whereas the humanitarian cost is very high. If there is one positive element to remember concerning the whole operation, it is the new cooperation the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda, which offers an important opportunity for sustainable regional stabilization and genuine peace building in Eastern Congo.

The joint military operation Umoja Wetu in North Kivu started at the end of January and ended the 25 of February. Such a military cooperation between Kinshasa and Kigali may be seen as remarkable given the recent past of the two countries, which was characterized by animosity and violent clashes (mostly indirectly through proxies). The key moment of change came with the publication of a report of the UN, in which it accused Rwanda of actively supporting the rebel group Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) of Laurent Nkunda, something Kagame always denied. In a reaction on the report, Sweden and the Netherlands suspended their direct budget support for Rwanda.

When Rwanda’s most important development donor, the UK was considering to take the same measure, Kagame decided to sacrifice Nkunda. One may not forget that Rwanda is extremely dependent on development aid – good for 60 % of the state’s budget. Moreover, Nkunda had become a burden. The former leader of the CNDP started to act too independently from Kigali, transforming in October 2008 its previous local situated rebellion in North Kivu into a national liberation movement, which, according to him, would end in Kinshasa.

Furthermore, he questioned the economic contracts that Kabila had signed with China, a call that clearly illustrated his attempt to expand his support base beyond Kagame’s Congolese allies (the Tutsi and Banyarwanda). Fearing to lose control over its puppet and the situation and to assure the highly needed development aid of Western states, Kigali quickly reached a deal with Kinshasa. Briefly summarized the deal consists in that Kigali removed Nkunda and installed Bosco Ntagana, a more compliant person given the fact that there is an ICC arrest warrant against him, as leader of the CNDP and Kinshasa agreed to negotiate with the CNDP’s new political leadership and, more importantly, to set up a joint military operation with the Rwandese army against the FDLR. In fact, Kabila had little option but to negotiate with the CNDP, facing the severe shortcomings of his Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) in dealing military with the CNDP and the protection of civilians1. At the same time he silenced international critics of not negotiating with the CNDP and their complaints of bad functioning of state institutions and the FARDC.

The outcome of Umoja Wetu was in military terms very disappointing and a disaster in humanitarian terms. It was limited to North Kivu although there is an important FDLR presence in South Kivu. Instead of neutralizing, it pushed the FDLR into the forests. Likewise former Congolese government military operations, Umoja Wetu caused a new wave of violence and population moves, deteriorating further the already dreadful humanitarian regions situation. UNHCR reported at the beginning of March that since January 2009 160,000 additional IDP’s were registered, who had barely food and shelter. As both the FARDC as the FDLR looted, raped, extorted and killed civilians, the civilian population was attacked from all sides. As soon as the Rwandan troops passed the border, FDLR combatants returned and reoccupied their former positions while carrying out violent retaliation attacks on civilians. Kinshasa reacted by starting another military operation in collaboration with MONUC: Kimia II. The Rwandese were this time not invited to help. Likewise Umoja Wetu, the FARDC described Kimia II as a great success whereas the facts on the field reflect a whole different reality. Even with logistical (combat helicopters) and intelligence support of MONUC, the FARDC lacked the capacities to fulfil its mission. There was no supply, many soldiers were under the influence of drugs and alcohol, didn’t know the area as well as FDLR combatants and suffered under or non-payment, what undermined the moral and led to an increase of abuses among the civilian population (FARDC soldiers would be responsible for more than the half of Kivu’s rape cases).

Resuming: the military operations conducted by the Congolese government in Eastern Congo since January didn’t achieve their aims and were catastrophic for Kivu’s civilians. Since January rape cases are doubled or tripled2 and 800,0003 people are internally displaced in the Kivu.

The military operations also questioned further the role of MONUC in the DRC. Alan Doss, head of the UN peacekeeping mission, sound the alarm in April in the Security Council, fearing an exodus of the peacekeeping force4. India, the greatest supplier of troops, would withdraw its 4,400 soldiers and the list of contributing countries is very short. Frustrated with the lack of progress and the non-reaction of member states on the demands for more help, Doss described the UN as a beggar. In a reaction, some UN representatives made a very hard, but sharp analyse of MONUC. The mission is severely overstretched in its capacities to fulfil its original mandate of protecting the Congolese population. During the two military operations this defect emerged forward for the umpteenth time. Another element came as well forward: Kabila uses MONUC as he pleases. During the planning process of Umoja Wetu MONUC was excluded and when it became clear that the FDLR regained its positions, he turned to MONUC to assure the vital logistical support for setting up Kimia II. By being deeply involved in Kimia II, the MONUC risks to become complicit in abuses of the FARDC. Human Right Watch already pointed at the peacekeeping force for not exerting adequate pressure on the Congolese army to stop the brutal abuses. This only deteriorates its credibility and increases the feelings of resentment among the Congolese towards MONUC.

The greatest problem for the DRC is still the weakness of its state and its inability to maintain the monopoly of violence. The militarization of the exploitation and trade in natural resources and the survival of armed movements are reflections of that weakness. Hence, a strengthening of the DRC’s state structures and institutions is a necessary condition for stability and peace in the country and in particular in the Kivus. A lot of Western countries are already involved in the training of the FARDC. Recently the United States and the DRC agreed on the creation and training of a fast intervention team. The report ‘Trading conflict for development’5 builds further on this idea, defining the militarization of Congo’s natural resources as a symptom of conflict rather than its cause and perceives the minerals trade as a means of development. By such, it goes against the arguing for the application of mineral boycotts, targeted sanctions and a mandatory assurance system. The authors of the report are convinced that a formalisation of a large percentage of the minerals trade would contribute to the achievement of long-term security because it generates more revenues for the Congolese state and it reduces and eventually eliminates the revenues that non-state armed actors generate from the mineral sector. The CNDP and the FDLR earn respectively 15 and 75 % of their incomes from the mineral trade. Moreover, nowadays, according to a report on the economy in eastern DRC commissioned by DFID, USAID and COMESA, at least 50 % of DRC’s exports is not recorded by government officials in the way they should be6. Nevertheless the size of the informal trade in Eastern Kivu, the authors of the mentioned report say that such a formalisation is possible because a lot of groups involved in the mineral exploitation and trade are in favour: artisanal miners, petty traders, larger regional traders, etc.

More revenues for the Congolese state can be used– if they are administrated in an appropriate way – to strengthen the state institutions and to build up a more effective and functioning national army, leading to a better protection of Congo’s civilians and a better governance of the economic resources. In other words: a 100 % win-win situation. Nevertheless this discourse, which is deeply followed by the international community, has certainly a great value, it puts too much focus on the building up of the FARDC’s capacities and the mineral exploitation and trade, neglecting another huge problem, which affects directly millions of Congolese in their surviving: the importance at one hand and the very poor status at the other hand of Congo’s agricultural sector. Eighty percent of the Congolese is involved in the agriculture, but the sector receives only three percent of the DRC’s budget. Besides the total negligence, the violence of the last twenty years has ruined the agriculture in Eastern Congo. The livestock – the most important form of capital for farmers – is killed or looted and the great insecurity problem makes any normal maintenance of crops and the starting up of a processing agricultural industry impossible. Although it is true that the Congo’s natural resources have the potential to form the state’s development engine, there are some buts. The commodity sector is very vulnerable to external shocks, it doesn’t employ that much people (in comparison with the agriculture sector), it doesn’t create sustainable employment, the made profits are not re-invested and it causes huge environmental problems. The vulnerability of the DRC’s commodity sector is again demonstrated by the actual economic crisis. Last year the prices of copper and cobalt on the international market peaked at respectively 9,000 $ and 10,000 $, today the prices dropped to respectively 3,600 $ and 3,500 $ a ton. The expected export revenues are dropped from 6.7 billion $ in September to less than 3 billion $ today. In Katanga, the DRC’s most important economic province and centre of its commodity sector, 80 % of the mine activities ceased, BHP Billiton pulled out and many Chinese entrepreneurs disappeared eastwards, causing massive unemployment among the creuseurs (artisanal mineworkers) – 300,000 in Katanga alone – which in turn leads to an increase of criminality and social unrest. It becomes even more alarming if we keep in mind that the mineral sector is responsible for 70 % of the DRC’s foreign currency and 40 % of its budget.

Like the financial and economic crisis in the West is an opportunity for a stronger, more competitive and greener Western economy, the economic and financial problems in the DRC are an opportunity for Western countries to regain some of its lost influence in the country. Last years Kinshasa saw a growing interest on the side of China in the DRC, leading to the closing of billion dollar contracts in which China would finance big infrastructure projects in exchange for access to Congo’s natural resources. Those contracts empowered Kabila’s position towards the West, playing off Western states against Beijing.

Now it seems to be that Chinese contracts didn’t lead to the hoped rapid reconstruction of the country and the financing of necessary import goods is thwarted due to the lack of foreign currency, the West can reposition itself in Congo through the IMF – the only institution that grants emergency credits -, binding again Kinshasa closer to its interests. That this is not necessary a good evolution for Congo and its population is demonstrated by 135 years of recent history.

1.- International Crisis Group (11/052009): “Congo: five priorities for a peacebuilding strategy”, Africa Report n°150.
2.- Human Rights Watch (02/072009):  “DR Congo: Massive increase in attacks on civilians”.
3.- OCHA (17/06/2009): “Additional US $38 million urgently needed to assist war-affected civilians in North and South Kivu”.
4.- Brusselmans, Bram (10/04/2009): “Leegloop bij MONUC”, MO,
5.- Garret, N. and Mitchell, H. (2009): “Trading conflict for development”, Resource Consulting Service.
6.- Custers, R., Cuvelier, J. and Verbruggen, D. (13/05/2009): “Culprits or scapegoats?”, IPIS.

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