Peace at last in the Congo – black Africa’s largest state ?

By Jonathan Power

It is not so long ago that Susan Rice, then the US’s Ambassador to the United Nations, was talking about the Congo as the site of “Africa’s First World War”. Has the UN at long last really pacified this country, the largest in black Africa, that has been continuously in a state of unrest since the Belgian colonisers, after effectively looting the country dry, fled in 1960, turning the country over to a hastily improvised African government led by Patrice Lumumba?

Reports coming in today indicate that the last rebel group, the M23, formally supported by Rwanda, has been defeated by Congolese and UN troops working together.

Perhaps yes, the fighting that has consumed the Congo is over. But, given the history of the most turbulent of all African countries, we should say, let’s wait and see. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to know that the UN’s largest peacekeeping operation ever has met with this degree of success. (One other plus: China sent peacekeepers to the UN force.)

This second UN intervention in the Congo appears to be more successful than the first, back in 1960 when, fearful of the US and the Soviet Union competing to gain a foothold in Africa, Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, pushed for UN intervention, as the country’s post-independence civil war appeared to spin out of control. The UN did pacify the country to some degree- at the cost of claiming Hammarskjold’s life in a supposed accident of his plane- but it left with its tail between its legs, handing the country over to 32 years of decadent and cruel rule by the masterful dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.

For once the UN presence has been adequately funded, with the US the major contributor. Not least, unlike the first time, it had a unanimous Security Council mandate behind it, involving Chapter 7 of the Charter, which bestows the right to use military force.

The results of this UN activism are impressive. Most of the country is quiet. The mining and agricultural sectors are recovering well. Hyperinflation has been tamed and the exchange rate remains stable. Mobile phone masts have been installed even where the roads have all but disappeared. Foreign investment is returning.

All in all this has not been an easy nor an inexpensive UN operation nor one that has always run smoothly, as the serious allegations of rape made against some UN contingents attest. The UN operation has cost $1 billion a year to run. The general election in 2006 cost the international community half a billion dollars.

However, this is much less than what has been spent in Iraq and Afghanistan and the results more favourable. Indeed, one can plausibly argue that before the Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan the Congo was the country of the three in the greater mess, with the most violence. Now it is the one with the least.

After the 2006 election it looked as if peace had finally arrived. It didn’t. One of the main belligerents, the Congolese Rally for Democracy, Rwanda’s ally, did badly in the election and went from controlling one third of the country to securing only 3% representation in parliament. Not surprisingly, a number of its leaders went back to war. Fighting in the eastern Kivu province flared up.

The fact is the UN and its most active backers, the US and EU, had taken their eye off the ball. Once the 2006 election was over interest in the Congo among top Western leaders dissipated.

The Congolese government seemed incapable of using its aid money well. Some of its troops were accused of atrocities against civilians. It did not follow through with promised local elections. The revenues and powers promised to the provinces stalled. Judicial reforms were abandoned.

The 2011 election came and went and nothing changed. Outside observers concluded that the election results were fraudulent. A year later it became clear that the UN and its backers’ assumption that war would not re-start proved to be wrong.

Finally, seeing the good work of past years coming undone, the Security Council in March this year authorized a peacekeeping brigade consisting of Malawians, South Africans and Tanzanians and were given an aggressive mandate to defeat M23 in Kivu. In turn, the brigade gave backing to the army of the central government in its effort to subdue M23.

Of course, as the saying goes, “it is never over until the fat lady sings”. President Joseph Kabila has stuffed his pockets and proved inept at creating one functioning society.

Outsiders now have to be firmer than they have been in the past about conditioning their aid on progress to a more accountable and less bellicose central government. Meanwhile, according to the IMF, the economy will grow next year at more than 10%. Mobutu ran the country into the ground. Perhaps it is rising again.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.

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