How can three countries with such a history of cross-border conflict suddenly become fast friends? I’m not necessarily objecting to the easing of tensions and growing rapprochement between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda–just about any move with the potential to bring peace to Congo is a good thing in my book–but I do have some questions about why it’s happening. Like the journalist that I am, I seldom take pronouncements by public officials at face value. And like the chess player that I also am, I try to look a few moves ahead.
Antagonism between the three countries is the historical norm, so the recent change in the tenor of their relationship is puzzling. Uganda and Rwanda both invaded Congo twice in the last 15 years or so. They both directly participated in the overthrow of two of the last three governments, including that of Laurent Kabila, father of current DRC President Joseph Kabila. Why, then, would Kabila invite his two belligerent neighbors to send their armies into the DRC? I’ve offered some thoughts previously, but now I’d like to add another layer to my guesswork.
First, a little background about the two most recent military actions that prompt my speculation.
In mid-December, The Ugandans joined with the FARDC (the Congolese army) and the South Sudanese in an abortive attempt to kill or capture Joseph Kony, whose rebel group, the Lords Resistance Army, has been carrying on its fight against Yoweri Museveni’s government for the last several years from bases in Congo. The operation, which was mounted with logistical and strategic backing from U.S. military advisers, proved to be a debacle, with 900 Congolese civilians murdered, thousands more raped and kidnapped, and 85,000 driven from their homes by Kony’s gangsters in retribution. A handful of LRA officers have been captured and a few dozen soldiers killed, but the operation has been a grand failure otherwise.
The Ugandans promised to leave Congolese soil by the end of February, then didn’t. The latest announcement calls for a departure by the end of this month, even though Kony remains at large and his troops, though scattered, continue to terrorize the population.
In the meantime, Kabila met with Museveni to discuss improved relations between the two countries. Not revealed in the public announcements was any decision about how oil reserves on the border between the two countries are going to be divided. Oil has long been a bone of contention between the two nations. When I was in the region researching Heart of Diamonds in 2007, shots were fired over the development of those reserves.
The second part of the mystery was Kabila’s highly unpopular invitation to Paul Kagame to send Rwandan troops into North Kivu in pursuit of the FDLR, the Hutu Interahamwe rebels who have terrorized the region since fleeing there after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Strangely enough, the only significant accomplishment of that joint operation was the arrest of Tutsi rebel warlord Laurent Nkunda, who was detained as he traveled in Rwanda not long after it started. His troops, the CNDP, are being integrated into the Congolese army under the command of indicted war criminal Bosco Ntaganda.
The FDLR? They scattered into the same hills where they have operated with impunity for over a decade. The Rwandan army went home to enjoy their victory parade (unlike the Ugandans), but the FDLR returned and started raping and murdering civilians they accuse of co-operating with the Rwandans.
So what has been accomplished? For the civilians, not much. They are still hugely at risk in the conflict zones. Uganda strengthened its influence in the northern DRC while Rwanda did the same in the Kivus. The DRC got rid of Laurent Nkunda and co-opted the CNDP, at least on paper.
Joseph Kabila may have gained something else, though, and this is where my speculative instinct takes over. The next DRC Presidential election is to be held in 2011. My guess? Kabila is building personal ties with Uganda and Rwanda to back his candidacy when the time comes. In a truly dark scenario, he also my be laying the groundwork for their military intervention in the event that his re-election attempt fails.
As disturbing as such a scenario may be, let me add another layer. Kabila’s budding alliances with Uganda and Rwanda also open him to support from their biggest backer, the United States. The potential has already been seen in the American support for the Ugandan operation, with intelligence, strategic advice, communications gear, and a reported $1 million in fuel supplied by the U.S. While American involvement in the Rwandan campaign hasn’t been revealed, there is no secret about the U.S. use of Rwanda as a military staging area for humanitarian relief efforts (so far) for Darfur. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see an expansion of U.S. military involvement in the DRC.
Now let me offend more than a few people.
Putting aside the pros and cons of Joseph Kabila’s past and future performance as President and the possible influence these alliances might have on his re-election, it is conceivable that this may be the path to peace in the eastern DRC. It’s obvious the Congolese army isn’t capable of bringing calm to the region; the United Nations has proven to be much less than effective for numerous reasons; and other help from outside, particularly the EU and AU, just isn’t going to happen. If six million dead aren’t enough to bring the rest of the world to Congo’s aid, what is?
In other words, a regional solution backed by the United States might be the only viable alternative. The motives of ALL the players would be suspect, but the results might be worth it. IF peace can be brought to the country, the Congo’s economic and social development can take place. IF that happens with full transparency, truly competitive bidding, and carefully monitored performance contracts, the DRC can fully profit from its natural wealth and begin to achieve its full potential.
A stretch? Certainly, but it may be the only pragmatic solution.