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Whither the UN’s War in Congo?
President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo is expected to extend his presidential mandate in December by delaying elections required by the country’s constitution to be held that month.
The delay will likely pose a challenge for both UN troops operating in the country and the central African nation’s opposition. The UN first established its presence in Congo between 1960 and 1964 and then returned in 1999. There are currently 20,000 peacekeepers in the country. In March 2013, the UN Security Council authorized the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a 3,000-soldier force consisting of soldiers from Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa. This is the first and only UN fighting force in the world. Operating in conjunction with the Congolese military, FARDC, the FIB successfully defeated the M23 rebel movement in Goma the same month it was created, and since has helped quell rebel activity throughout eastern Congo.
In recent years, UN officials claim they have faced resistance and even attacks from Congolese troops believed to be working with rebel groups, while Congolese soldiers accused of war crimes have also hindered the UN mission. The expulsion of human rights rapporteur Scott Campbell in 2014—over a disputed report about police abuses in Kinshasa—did little to help UN-Congo relations. While Congolese officials have made repeated claims that attacks in the eastern part of the country were conducted by Al- Shabaab and even Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, repeatedly claiming the rebel groups are more like “mafias” than terrorists.
UN officials don’t like to talk in black and white terms of winning and losing against the rebel groups. “You could have complete victory over the armed groups,” said UN political adviser Ray Torres in late 2014, “but in two or three years, you would be in the same place again.” Accusations that Congolese troops may be helping rebel groups have hurt the joint Congolese-UN mission. “The UN doesn’t want the conflict to end,” said a Goma-based private security contractor in late 2014, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If they say they’ve won, they have to leave.” “The problem is, the military and the rebels are the same,” he said. “They switch sides, then call each other on the phone to warn that someone’s coming.” Responding to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s suggestion that 1,700 peacekeepers leave the country by the end of 2016, the Congolese government said it wanted at least 10,000 to depart.
A UN departure could cause more than just trouble in terms of quelling rebels. The 20,000 peacekeepers are now a backbone of the nation’s struggling economy — in Goma, where the majority are now headquartered, the real estate market is heavily dependent on UN renters, for instance. And there’s the psychological effect of the end of such a long-standing presence to consider, too: “If the UN leaves, we’ll tear each other apart in the streets,” said one Kinshasa resident, who asked not to be named because he had a job working for the government.
The Congolese opposition, not to mention meddling from influential lobbyists in Washington, may cause further problems for the UN force. In Kinshasa, opposition lawmakers are seeking to introduce a law that would allow Kabila to hold a position of senator-for-life after his mandate ends, and to grant his ministers immunity from prosecution, according to Eve Bazaiba, a federal deputy and secretary-general of the opposition party Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC. “Exile is not an option,” Bazaiba said. “We are preparing a law for all future presidents.” Historically in Congo, government employees have left few instructions for their successors, Bazaiba said. So ministers who have served under Kabila can still be useful, she said, as they have “knowledge” of state secrets. “They can contribute.”
The granting of impunity to Congolese leaders would set a precedent, one whose effects cannot be predicted. There are indications that at least some Congo observers in Washington, however, would be amenable to such a deal. Herman Cohen, a former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs turned-lobbyist who represented Kabila’s father during the early days of his presidency as well as the governments of Angola and Zimbabwe, met with Bazaiba and other opposition leaders in Washington in March 2015 to discuss their plans. Cohen maintained in an interview that Kabila’s best option would be “to observe the constitution and not run.”
If or when an election is held, it’s unclear who would run on behalf of the opposition, however. “The Congolese opposition has not yet organized itself well enough to form a united front against Kabila,” says Belgium-based Congo analyst Jean-Jaques Wondo. “The opposition’s problem is the absence of an authority on the ground who is capable of bringing everyone together—no leadership or leader.”
Indeed, Congo’s opposition remains divided—in part because of Kabila’s 2015 invitation of several opponents into his “government of unity,” a move which further increased opposition tensions. It’s impossible to tell who would be the face of a united opposition. In late July, 82-year-old Etienne Tshisekedi, a former prime minister who is founder and president of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, or UDPS, returned to Kinshasa from Belgium where he had been undergoing medical treatment since August 2014. Supporters took to the streets to celebrate his arrival.
Jean-Bertrand Ewanga, the National Congolese Union opposition party’s secretary-general, recently served a one-year sentence for defaming the president; Vital Kamerhe, president of the same party, is facing charges for alleging fraud in the 2011 elections. If convicted by the Supreme Court— he could be barred from running for president.
The cult of personality surrounding Moise Katumbi, the governor of mineral-rich Katanga province who supported Kabila in 2006 and 2011, is particularly strong. Katumbi has alluded to his opposition to Kabila in speeches since a three-month trip to Europe last year to treat an illness. Katumbi hasn’t launched an official campaign to oppose Kabila or run for president, but has alluded to his opposition to Kabila in speeches since 2015. Katumbi’s family made its fortune working for decades as subcontractors for Congo’s state-owned miner Gecamines before the company was almost ruined after years of mismanagement and the civil wars of the 1990s. Katumbi, according to a narrative popular among opposition members in Kinshasa, rejected his parents’ money and worked his way up the ladder, starting as a fisherman and gradually building his own businesses. Katumbi is also the owner of TP Mazembe, one of Africa’s top soccer clubs.
Analysts like Wondo say that Kabila and Katumbi are engaged in a power struggle, in part because the central government is failing to comply with a law that requires 40 percent of all provincial revenue to be returned to the provinces. Wondo says this failure on Kinshasa’s part is curbing development in Katanga. “This situation makes Kabila nervous and Kabila doesn’t have many political solutions,” Wondo says. “He will certainly use force or military means to punish and reprimand the population and supporters of Katumbi.”
Katanga briefly seceded from Congo in the 1960s before UN troops re-established state authority. “Katanga could secede again,” warns Gerard Prunier, a Paris-based historian and expert on Africa’s Great Lakes region who has focused on Congo since the 1970s,
Such an eventuality would pose obvious difficulties for a UN peacekeeping force already facing the insurmountable task of policing a country that is 2.3 million square kilometers in size, with a population of 67 million. The UN humanitarian division, OCHA, has complained of a lack of emergency resources—it has one helicopter to deliver aid or assess crises from the air, maximum three tons of food and other basic necessities, according to UN officials. Humanitarian funding has plunged in the past five years, from $932 million annually to roughly $700 million, according to director of humanitarian affairs Joseph Inganji. Inganji said that by late 2015 funding has completely dried up for “protection” programs—three-pronged strategies consisting of troop patrols, psychological assistance for victims of rape, and trauma recovery units—set up to help survivors and the displaced. There are an estimated 2.7 million displaced people throughout Congo.
Coordination between the humanitarian division and the UN and Congolese military officials is strong, however, Inganji insisted. “The military listens to us,” he said. “We tell them our concerns so they can take them into consideration when doing their planning.”
Since 2009, the U.S. has provided more than $2.1 billion in contributions to the UN mission in Congo, but only three military personnel are assigned to the mission. The U.S. military has a base in northeastern Congolese city of Dungu, where soldiers offer training to their local counterparts involved in the effort to dismantle the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which is still considered a serious threat to stability in the region.
The UN, given its public presence in the country, has taken the brunt of public criticism. Human Rights Watch has condemned peacekeepers for failing to prevent violent attacks and even massacres near their stations, while Congolese rebels in the East continue to regularly manipulate the population by making claims of accidental shootings of innocent civilians that have been proven false by subsequent UN investigations. A lack of understanding among the general population of the UN’s mandated role in the country has not helped its image, according to civil society groups in eastern Congo; allegations of sexual abuse against peacekeepers—some of them confirmed by UN investigations—have made serious dents in the international body’s reputation.
The UN may have to deal with the issue of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the 54-year-old head of the MLC party, who was sentenced in June to 18 years for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the The Hague. In an April op-ed published online, Cohen called for Bemba’s return to Congo. “Since it is clear that Bemba himself did not order his fighters to commit atrocities, and that he condemned these actions, and that he comported himself in a civilized way during his time as transitional Vice President of the Congo, I strongly believe that his punishment should be limited to the eight years that he has been in custody, and he should now be released.” Cohen wrote. “His ‘crime’ was very far from the atrocities and other horrors ordered and condoned by other African leaders such as Charles Taylor in Liberia who is now in prison for a deserved long period.”
Referring to the possibility of Bemba returning to Congo if charges were to be dropped in the Hague, Bazaiba said Bemba would not seek to “settle accounts” with his opponents. “We will convince foreigners, those who have invested here, that they shouldn’t be afraid,” Bazaiba said.
Bemba’s reputation for stirring up trouble precedes him, and even supporters are wary. “We don’t need another Che Guevara here in Congo,” said 32-year-old opposition member and Bemba supporter Guylain Bataringe, a Kinshasa resident. In 1965, Che Guevara came to Congo to lead a guerrilla movement in the eastern part of the country, allying with then-rebel Laurent Kabila’s troops—but after 8 months, dismissed them as “undisciplined” when his efforts failed.
Congo has never had a free and fair election. It was mired in a volatile crisis in the early 1960s and then two civil wars beginning in the 1990s, as it gradually moved on from Belgian rule and sought to establish its own political system. After years of leading an insurgency against President Mobutu Sese Seko, Laurent Kabila took power in a 1997 coup. In 2001, he was assassinated, and Joseph Kabila took office. Congo’s second war officially ended in 2003. Joseph Kabila won contested elections in 2006 and 2011; both votes were denounced as fraudulent by the international community and opposition members.
Kabila has yet to state outright that he won’t try to change the constitution. And there is no legal possibility of Kabila creating a Vladimir Putin-like scenario without changing the constitution, according to Jason Stearns, a former member of the United Nations Group of Experts who now specializes on Congo; Kabila is unlikely to demote himself to the position of prime minister and then run again for president five years later, as the constitution specifies that the presidential mandate is renewable only once. Kabila could still choose to leave Congo and seek asylum elsewhere, as some African leaders have done in the past. But Prunier, the historian, says the likelihood of foreign investors who have supported him during his presidency helping him after 2016 is slim. “In today's world, you have all kinds of busybodies and human rights activists who make it their business to disturb the lives of former dictators,” Prunier says. “To survive you need a resolute and insolent protector. I am afraid Joseph Kabila would be hard-put to obtain such protection. Rich people can often be ungrateful.”
Prunier says there is a chance the president may still try to change the constitution. “Kabila’s main problem today is how to rape the constitution and make it look like a love match,” he says.
Bazaiba insisted the opposition will prove it is capable of unifying, and that both the Congolese people and investors would benefit. “We need to have synergy,” she said. “It’s what the population wants. It’s how we’ll win.”
It’s unclear whether UN forces will be able to handle the fallout if the opposite occurs.