This week the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) stood anew temporarily – before turning again into a forgotten region – in the centre of the international community and press attention. Maybe the most remarkable of all, was the positive trend in the press and governmental releases. The reason is the signed peace agreement of 23 January between representatives of the Congolese government, the Mai Mai (local armed self-protecting militias) and the rebel group under the command of a dissident Tutsi colonel of the Congolese national army (FARDC), Laurent Nkunda. Renewed clashes around Goma between the FARDC and the rebels at the beginning of December, had leaded to the displacement of another 60,000 persons and, according to the UNHCR, the worst humanitarian situation in the region since the end of the civil war (1996-2003).
After 17 days of intense negotiations among nearly 1,300 participants, the peace conference in North Kivu’s capital, Goma, – an initiative of Congo’s president Joseph Kabila -, knew a successful conclusion with the signing of ‘actes d’engagement’. Supervised by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and the African Union, the text stipulates the establishment of an immediately cease-fire, the creation of a buffer zone in North Kivu – the scene of heavy fighting between the rebels and the Congolese army – between Nkunda’s rebels and the government forces patrolled by the MONUC, the setting up of a governmental technical commission which will oversee the disarmament of the rebels and Mai Mai fighters and their integration into the Congolese army or demobilization. Further it grants immunity to the rebels and Mai-Mai militias for rebellion and committed war acts but not for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Although Washington, Belgium and some NGO’s reacted very positive, Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch described even the deal as a milestone; Alan Doss, chief of the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, MONUC, approaches a more realistic attitude when he recommends to be very cautious. There is no doubt about it that the most difficult phase has yet to come, namely the implementation of the agreement. Similar previous integration processes and cease-fires between Kinshasa and rebels didn’t persist long due to the failure to address the political complexity of the situation. Moreover, besides the fact that most of the details of the buffer zone and other agreements have been left to the technical commission, there are some elements in the text which remain unclear. Nkunda’s own future is not defined and analysts already predicted that the rebel leader will not receive amnesty. Further there is the issue of the Rwandan Hutu rebel group Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). This rebel group compromises so-called ‘genocidaires’, former members of the Interahamwe militias and regular forces of the Rwandan Hutu regime. They were not invited to the Goma peace conference, but their presence alone in the region can setback the whole peace process.
Trying to legitimate his rebellion and to find support, Nkunda presented himself successfully as the defender of the Tutsi community in eastern Congo. Aware that they form a minority, afraid of being targeted in revenge for crimes committed by the Rwandan government and its proxy ally in Congo, the Rasseblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), during the Congolese civil war (1996-2003) and fear of losing their during the war made economic assets, many of North Kivu’s Tutsi’s saw Nkunda as the ultimate guarantor of their safety in case of renewed inter-communal fighting. For the Tutsi, the presence of 6,000 armed FDLR’s is a constant reminder of the Rwandan genocide. Hence to bring peace and stability to eastern Congo, the removal of the FDLR problem and the disarmament of other groups are essential. Concerning the FDLR, the implementation of the Nairobi agreement of 9 November 2007, signed between the Rwandan and Congolese governments, will be of substantial importance. It defines among other things the disarmament of the FDLR by the Congolese government and the possibility for its non-genocidaires members to return to Rwanda. Other hot items that are directly linked with the heavy tensioned situation in the Kivu and about which the text says nothing, are: the case of 45,000 Tutsi refugees who want to return, a genuine land redistribution process and the assurance of equitable access to economic opportunities for all communities of Kivu. Political provisions and security guarantees for all communities will be necessary to reduce the deep entrenched inter-communal distrust and to end the tendency of grabbing arms to settle disputes. A good initiative but certainly not enough, is Kabila’s promise to set up a reconciliation committee.
Before Congo again disappears of the international scene, it would be interesting to refer to a new survey (Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: an ongoing crisis.) released this week by the International Rescue Committee. It estimates that since 1998 more than 5.4 million people have died, at a space of 45,000 a month, surpassing any other conflict since World War II. The vast majority died from non-violent causes such as malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition. Nearly half of the dead were children. Alarming is that despite the greatest and most expensive peacekeeping force (MONUC), the official end of the civil war in 2003 and the billions of dollars in international aid; the national mortality rate (2.2 deaths per 1,000 per month), which is 57 % higher than the sub-Saharan average, remained unchanged since 2004 due to its increase in some parts of central Congo. If the survey demonstrates one thing, it is the depth and the complexity of Congo’s continuing crisis and the need of international engagement and commitment for years to come.