18 Nov 2013

Almost 50 years on, UN still struggles in Congo

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 283: Almost 50 years on, UN still struggles in Congo / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
18 November 2013

The UN often appears to be ticking administrative boxes rather than building sustainable peace, writes Adekeye Adebajo

"No more Congos!" The forlorn cry rang out unmistakably across Africa in 1964. The United Nations (UN) was struggling with one of its earliest peacekeeping challenges in the former Belgian Congo. It was expressing its deep frustration at a four-year intervention: it had lost its Swedish secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, in a mysterious aircraft crash; the charismatic Congolese premier, Patrice Lumumba, had been killed under its nose; and it became bogged down in a protracted civil war in the shadow of an ideological Cold War in an emerging Africa. The UN's credibility in Africa was badly damaged by its intervention in this civil war. Five decades later, the UN is struggling to keep peace in another protracted civil war in the same country, which is a symbol of the difficulties the UN has experienced in its peacekeeping efforts in Africa.

Three decades of bad governance under the western-backed Mobutu Sese Seko dictatorship eventually resulted in a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996, with the autocrat ousted a year later. During peace negotiations, various factions have often failed to demonstrate genuine commitment to implementing peace agreements they have signed, and used their access to economic resources to fund military campaigns. Regional "spoilers" such as Rwanda and Uganda have also been accused by the UN of providing military support to various rebel groups. In 1998, Congolese leader Laurent Kabila's (whose son, Joseph, has been president since his father's assassination in 2001) former allies, Uganda and Rwanda, invaded the country in support of rebels. In response, a pro-Kabila alliance of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, and Chad sent troops to the Congo to prop up his regime. Foreign armies in Congo sought financial rewards from the country's mineral wealth, and backed assorted rebels. A UN mission, with about 1,400 South Africans, was deployed to the country in 2000 and has struggled to keep peace. Energetic South African and Angolan diplomacy eventually produced some results by 2002, with Rwanda and Uganda withdrawing most of their troops from the Congo.

By 2007, the UN was operating alongside the Congolese army in North Kivu, South Kivu and Orientale, as the peacekeepers started paradoxically waging war to keep peace. The danger of such close co-operation with the Congolese army was that the UN's reputation was sometimes tarnished by the human rights abuses perpetrated by elements of the Congo's often ill-trained, ill-disciplined, and irregularly paid army. Regional rivalries also complicated the resolution of the conflict, with Rwanda and Uganda fighting each other in the Congo over the spoils of war; with the Congo accusing Uganda and Rwanda of continuing to support rebels; and with the Congo and Angola expelling each other's citizens in a long-running border dispute.

The 3,000-strong intervention brigade from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi that joined the UN mission in August has contributed to the Congolese army's recent routing of the M23 rebels. But this is likely to remain a protracted and risky mission. An unspoken complication of peacemaking is the absence of an African UN mediator. Uganda which can scarcely be considered impartial, has instead led peacemaking efforts, with mixed results.

The Congo has thus witnessed the pretence of peace building. The UN has talked of "restoring state authority"; "stabilising eastern Congo"; and "integrated planning", technical jargon that cannot mask the fact that the UN lacks the power to influence events and has mostly observed the slaughter for nearly 15 years. Its $1.5bn budget is used mainly to pay its own staff and to support its 20,000-strong mission rather than building effective institutions; promoting security sector reform; and providing opportunities to disarm soldiers. The UN often appears to be ticking administrative boxes rather than building sustainable peace.

Putting the Congolese Humpty Dumpty back together again will be an enormous task. The international community has not yet invested the requisite financial resources and political will to match the country's huge challenges. More than 3-million people have died, another 3-million displaced, and thousands of women raped in this conflict, which has never enjoyed the high profile of Zimbabwe and Kenya. Even despite the recent defeat of the M23, more than a dozen rebel groups remain in the Congo's "wild east", opposing governments in Kinshasa, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. The world must finally recognise that it cannot succeed in Congo unless it provides huge and sustained peacebuilding support, and continues to adopt a regional approach to this conflict that prioritises democratic governance in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, as well as the Congo. Only then can the troubled waters of the Great Lakes be calmed.

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and author of UN Peacekeeping in Africa.

This article is part of a series of fortnightly columns written by Adekeye Adebajo for Business Day every other Monday.

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