Background to the crisis in North Kivu

Recent turbulence in the financial market is a reminder that economic stability is heavily reliant on collective perceptions and ‘market confidence’. So it is with security, and nowhere is this more evident than in a so-called fragile state like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is plummeting into a different kind of recession.

The seemingly endless crisis in North Kivu is making a rare foray into the international news agenda. (Recent reports: New York Times, Reuters, BBC.) It’s more complicated than this, but here’s some of the recent background:

Not so long ago, North Kivu was controlled by the Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma, a legacy of the 1998-2004 conflict which came to be known as ‘Africa’s First World War’ because so many people died and because so many neighbouring countries sent troops to fight and plunder as the alliance of convenience that had helped Laurent Kabila topple Mobutu in 1997 fell apart.

As part of the power-sharing agreement that ended the war (but certainly not insecurity in the east), the RCD was given nearly a fifth of the seats in the National Assembly, but it was deeply unpopular, representing Rwandan interests and dominance of the Tutsi minority. When the Congolese people finally had a chance to vote for their representatives in 2006, the RCD held onto only 15 seats out of 500.

President Joseph Kabila owed a large part of his success in those elections to his overwhelming support in the war-ravaged eastern provinces, where he took credit for the UN-managed, internationally-financed elections and convinced the population that he would bring peace and security by ending the plague of foreign armed groups and local militias.

Unfortunately, the latter task fell to cautious, over-stretched UN forces and a corrupt, inept national army that was composed of former warring factions. With the huge country split into myriad, inaccessible local enclaves, it was never going to be easy to resolve all the problems of corruption, mismanagement and inter-ethnic power struggles. But the immediate post-election period offered a real window of opportunity for the new government to unite the country behind a clear vision and (with UN support) determined backing for the rule of law. They blew it.

Through costly trial and error in militia-infested Ituri (bordering Uganda), some evidence emerged that the formula of newly trained Congolese brigades backed by (Pakistani, South African, Guatemalan and at one stage European) peacekeepers ready and able to project and use force could produce results.

But the army was rotten, and those who called for senior officers (including untrained former militia leaders) to be vetted for war crimes and prevented from pocketing all the pay were repeatedly told that such niceties would have to wait until later. Ordinary soldiers were left to fend for themselves, in the fine tradition established by Mobutu in his decline, with predictable effects on their morale and reputation.

When the Congolese army was sent to oust Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP rebels from their strongholds in the hills of North Kivu late last year, they relied on overwhelming numbers, lots of new weapons, and dangerous alliances with local and foreign Hutu militia groups (I saw both in Masisi when researching for Human Rights Watch). UN support was limited to logistics and medical evacuations, partly for fear of becoming complicit in war crimes. As the CNDP ceded ground, the army bombarded empty hilltops and proclaimed great victories. In a dramatic turnaround, the army was routed as soon as the rebels counterattacked, abandoning their uniforms and looting as they fled.

Diplomats scrambled to salvage the situation. A ceasefire was agreed, followed by a dubious peace deal that contained the conflict while acknowledging and cementing the status quo. Clashes and human rights violations continued even as the deal was being negotiated, so the local population and civil society remained deeply skeptical of the intentions of the signatories.

Referring the Congolese army’s alliance with the FDLR (a Rwandan Hutu rebel group led by former genocidaires) and frequent ceasefire violations, the CNDP announced its withdrawal from the peace process. On 2 October, media-savvy Nkunda told the BBC he was ready to expand his operations to ‘liberate the people of the Congo’. That statement must have earned him a lot of people’s undivided attention.

Now the CNDP have once again humiliated the Congolese army by forcing them to flee strategic positions across North Kivu, tellingly beginning with the stretch of Virunga National Park which offers a supply line from Rwanda. (The CNDP certainly recruits from Congolese Tutsi refugees in Rwanda, and there are frequent allegations that they have covert support from the Rwandan army as well.)

UN troops tried to block the advance, stationing APCs to block the roads into Rutshuru, north of Goma. But the CNDP works in small, mobile groups, so they simply bypassed the barricades and overran the town, sabotaging the mobile phone network as they did so.

Large numbers have already fled Goma. Now the remaining population, including tens of thousands of displaced people who have nowhere left to go, is huddled and waiting to see what happens next. They are bitterly disappointed by their own government and have no faith left in the UN. The years of conflict have furnished them with numerous nasty memories from which to compose worst-case scenarios. They heard gunfire all night, but cannot tell who’s doing the shooting: rebels, soldiers on a looting spree, or just firing in the air?

International relief workers and UN staff are gathered in two fortified compounds in Goma, sleeping on the floor, eating rations and trying to keep up with the news to see if they will be evacuated.

Nkunda declared a ceasefire last night. Is his plan to leave the CNDP as de facto authority of a big chunk of fertile, mineral-rich North Kivu, or do his ambitions really extend even further? Aware of the regional implications, the UN Security Council is anxiously pondering its options, including the rapid deployment of a UN-mandated European force.