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As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares to visit Goma next week, François Grignon, Africa Programme Director for the International Crisis Group, says it is time for a comprehensive approach to disarm the rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Over the last six months, two major military campaigns have been conducted to dismantle the Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), a brutal Rwandan Hutu rebel group operating in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). On July 27, Rwandan President Paul Kagame publicly stated his readiness to initiate a third campaign if his DRC counterpart, President Joseph Kabila, should ask for it.
Military action alone cannot achieve the stated objective of disarming the rebels and alleviating civilian suffering – despite enthusiastic statements by Congolese, Rwandan and some UN officials. A new multifaceted approach is needed.
In January-February 2009, the Rwandan and DRC armies jointly conducted operation ‘Umoja Wetu’ in the province of North Kivu to uproot the 6,000-plus strong FDLR, which includes some perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The UN peacekeeping force in DRC, MONUC, was mostly left in the dark regarding how this operation was carried out. The resulting disarmament of fewer than 400 combatants – compensated in part by recruitment in the DRC and in refugee camps in Uganda and Tanzania – has only marginally weakened the rebels.
Since March 2009, the Congolese army and MONUC have extended anti-FDLR military actions in North and South Kivu under the banner of operation ‘Kimia II’. Despite a massive deployment of troops and a subsequent increase in human rights violations, this operation managed to disarm and repatriate to Rwanda a monthly average of only 80-90 FDLR combatants – less than MONUC was doing in the summer of 2008 without any military campaign.
Three clear lessons can be learnt from Umoja Wetu and Kimia II: military force alone will not dismantle the FDLR, poorly planned actions trigger massive retaliation by foreign combatants against the Congolese population, and an untrained Congolese army often becomes a major human rights violator when left to its own devices.
MONUC’s presence is increasingly questioned by regional leaders, despite providing essential – albeit insufficient – protection to the population and humanitarian workers. The UN mission needs new ideas and additional support to show results.
The FDLR can be largely dismantled if Rwanda and the DRC, along with MONUC, focus less on forced disarmament and instead implement a long-term integrated strategy. This strategy should aim at breaking the link between the leadership of the FDLR and its rank-and-file by isolating the most radical leaders, while offering peaceful disarmament options to the combatants.
The elements of such a strategy should include:
- legal actions against FDLR radicals, including those residing in Europe, North America, and other African countries;
- political initiatives to encourage the return to Rwanda or the resettlement in a third country of FDLR commanders who did not participate in the Rwandan genocide;
- military action targeting the FDLR’s leadership and command/control structure;
- new incentives for the voluntary disarmament of combatants, and
- cross-border development projects to benefit the local populations.
These elements have been discussed and well received in the past, but never implemented adequately because of a lack of political will, inadequate resources and limited strategic vision.
Since late last year, however, Kabila and Kagame have formed a joint front against the FDLR and have worked together to defuse the threat posed by a Tutsi-led Congolese rebel group formerly headed by Laurent Nkunda (who is now under house arrest in Kigali). In addition, several key international actors, including some European countries and the US, are reviewing their policies in the wake of the disappointing results of the latest military campaigns. These new conditions have created an opportunity to agree on a better approach to dismantle the FDLR once and for all.
Taking advantage of this opportunity will require additional tough political decisions from Kinshasa and Kigali. It will also demand greater high-level involvement by key countries in North America and Europe to help design the new strategy, whilst also keeping both Kigali and Kinshasa on board during its implementation.
There is no time to lose. Army integration of Nkunda’s men and other Congolese armed groups is already facing problems because of mismanagement, which risks undermining FDLR disarmament efforts. As Rwanda and DRC approach presidential elections in 2010 and 2011 respectively, the current dynamics are likely to change and the circumstances to become less opportune.
Kabila and Kagame brokered a historic deal, but this alone will not put an end to instability in eastern DRC. If the FDLR is not disarmed, the militarisation of the Kivus, the absence of state control, and the extensive violations of human rights will not only perpetuate civilian suffering but will also put at risk the promising DRC-Rwanda entente. Instead of political posturing and military bravado from Kabila and Kagame, the Congolese people deserve the right strategy and the appropriate international support and pressure to have it implemented it successfully.
François Grignon is the Africa Programme Director for the International Crisis Group
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