Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Bringing Peace to the Kivus

If no sustainable solution can be found, the region will always remain Congo’s Achilles’ heel.
By Eugène Bakama
It has been five years since the official end of the Second Congo War, but in North Kivu province the fighting continues. Peace agreements have been violated time and again, and as always it is civilians who are the main victims.

Recent violent clashes between the rebel troops of Laurent Nkunda and Congo’s army have displaced more than 100,000 people since late August when the fighting resumed. The ICRC and aid agencies are warning of a growing humanitarian disaster as resident flee their homes and fields.

Residents of the Kivu provinces on Congo’s eastern border with Rwanda are undoubtedly asking themselves, “Why is it always the Kivus?”

There is a long history of conflict in the region, which since the beginning of the Mobutu Sese Seko era has been one of the least stable parts of Congo.

At the root of the instability during the Mobutu years were the citizenship problems of the Banyarwanda population, people of Rwandan descent, some of whom settled in the Kivus generations ago.

Though the Banyarwanda are the majority in some districts, the decree granting them citizenship in 1972 was revoked in 1981, rendering them effectively stateless. Disputes over land with other ethnic groups in North and South Kivu only added to the tension.

Such conflicts meant the Kivu provinces were the main source of the opposition to the Mobutu regime. The result was the 1996-1997 conflict, called the First Congo War, that ousted Mobutu.

Various theories exist about the origins of the so-called War of Liberation, but what is clear is that at the beginning of the Nineties, a wave of democratisation had reached Africa and compelled Mobutu to put an end to the single party system in then-Zaire. That transformation was launched officially with an unforgettable speech by Mobutu on April 24, 1990.

Four years later, another momentous event, the Rwandan genocide, triggered the exodus of some two million Rwandan refugees, mostly Hutus.

Among the refugees were interahamwe militia members, accused of participating in the genocide. They settled in militia camps in the Congo, launching attacks across the border against the Rwandan government of Paul Kagame. They also targeted the region’s Banyamulenge, Tutsis found mainly in South Kivu.

When Mobutu failed to protect them, the Banyamulenge rallied Mobutu’s opponents and helped form the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques Pour la Libération du Zaïre, AFDL.

Led by Laurent Désiré Kabila, and supported by Rwanda and Uganda, the AFDL eventually expelled Mobutu in May 1997.

It should be noted that the War of Liberation did not unfold without war crimes and violations of human rights including massacres, sexual violence, plunder and the settling of scores. The Kisangani, Bukavu and Kenge battles; women buried alive in Makobola; and the massacres of Mwenga will not be forgotten.

Kabila was faced with many challenges after his accession to power, including reconstruction of the economy; the organisation of elections; consolidation of the rule of law; nationality issues; and a huge foreign debt.

He soon fell out with his former backers, announcing in a press release read on television on July 27, 1998 the end of military cooperation with Rwanda and the departure of foreign troops from Congo. Congolese erupted in joyful celebrations, while Rwanda beefed up its military presence in the Kivus.

In the war that followed, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad, Libya and Sudan lined up with Kabila to help fight rebel factions backed by the president’s former supports Uganda and Rwanda. The fighting that lasted from 1998-2003 led to the death of some five million Congolese, the systematic plundering of natural resources and the massive transfers of the civilian population.

Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and replaced by his son Joseph, the current president. A peace deal was at last agreed in Pretoria, South Africa, putting an end to the war and setting up a transitional government with a president and four vice-presidents.

But trouble continued in the Kivu provinces.

In 2004, troops under rebel Laurent Nkunda fought with the Congolese army in Bukavu. There, they allegedly committed war crimes under the pretext of preventing genocide against the Tutsis of the region.

Also in 2004, Nkunda was named a general in the Congolese army. He was supposed to report to Kinshasa for “brassage” – the name given to the integration of former rebel movements into the army but refused.

To avoid more fighting, a deal was worked out for a more limited integration called “mixage”. Under that plan, Nkunda’s troops and army soldiers formed five brigades that were set up and deployed only in North Kivu.

But mixage failed and fighting in Nkunda’s North Kivu strongholds escalated throughout 2007. Nkunda fought the army but also the FDLR which control certain areas of North Kivu. The FDLR exploit natural resources, deduct taxes on trade and extort populations. Enemies of Nkunda, the Congolese government is suspected of supporting the FDLR in the past.

The failure of the Congolese army’s offensive in Mushake eventually forced Kinshasa to the negotiating table and a peace deal was signed in Goma last January between the government and armed groups.

This agreement was meant to end the fighting and lead to a withdrawal of all armed groups. That hasn’t been done yet, quite the opposite, with fighting again breaking out in North Kivu in late August.

There are three reasons for the current crisis: the incapacity of the state to protect its citizens; the determination of armed groups to control parts of the territory and to exploit the natural resources; and the nearly total immunity granted to perpetrators of crimes.

As eastern Congo again degenerates into violence, it is civilians who are most affected. Many have been living in daily fear for several years, fleeing the fighting into neighbouring cities or taking refuge on the other side of the border.

On September 6, Nkunda’s forces violated once again the Goma agreement by taking Nyazale, before withdrawing thanks to the mediation of the United Nations Mission in the DRC, MONUC. This led the Congolese to ask MONUC to attack Nkunda. The UN charter allows MONUC to take all action necessary to protect its soldiers or citizens under threat.

This demonstrates the powerlessness of the Congolese government to protect its own citizens. It also gives the impression that Congo didn’t learn the lessons of its failure with the military approach, since the government now wants to resort to force to achieve peace.

This approach is not shared by MONUC and the international community.

The essential question is how to save the peace process when many are still in the mindset of war? If we want to achieve a lasting peace and leave the vicious circle of violence, all parties involved must stick to the mindset of peace, which hasn’t been the case so far.

Crucial in this is the international community, which has an important role to play in encouraging the various parties to stick to their commitments and disengage all the armed groups.

An international intervention force like the Artemis force in Ituri could be set up to support MONUC’s efforts in the Kivus and to enable the establishment of a separation plan for forces on the ground. Artemis was a European Union-led mission in Ituri brought in to protect civilians following an upsurge in fighting in 2003.

The Congolese government will also have to invest in giving new impetus to the Amani programme, the name given to the peace process.

If no sustainable solution can be found for the Kivus, the region will always remain Congo’s Achilles’ heel.

Civilians will continue to fall victim to violence committed by those who want to use the Congolese people’s blood as a running board to power.

We can go to bat for peace in the Kivus if the international community shows its determination to end the acts of violence endured by the population and if the warring parties remain in the mindset of peace.

Eugène Bakama Bope is president of Friends of the Law in Congo.