Congo: is this the end of the world’s worst war? – By Richard Dowden
It may be just a pause but the recent defeat of M23 in Eastern Congo could mark the end of the world’s worst and longest-running war. No one will ever know how many people were killed directly or died of preventable diseases as a result. The frequently-quoted death toll up to 2007 is 5.4 million. But that, as Stalin said, is just a statistic. No one knows and no one can fathom the pain and loss that this war has cost. We will only ever know a tiny fraction of it from survivors.
There were no big decisive battles, just attacks which killed a few, raped millions of women and drove many from their homes and farms and into the forests or camps where they died of hunger and disease. It was not important for the big powers of the world and generally too complicated and too far away for the world’s press.
The Kivus, north and south, are one of the most densely populated parts of rural Africa, home to many ethnicities. Communities of Tutsi cattle keepers settled there, some of them exiled from Rwanda after the 1959 genocide and others migrating there or were brought by the Belgians, who saw the Tutsis as a superior race to the local Africans and used them as policemen and administrators. Successive uprisings and killings in Rwanda and Burundi sent more Tutsis across their borders into eastern Congo. This is well explained in Michael Deibert’s excellent new book in our African Arguments series: “˜The Democratic Republic of Congo Between Hope And Despair.’
I went to the region in January 1994, just before the genocide in Rwanda, to try to understand the complexities of the nasty little war between the Tutsis and the local Bahunde and Nande people. I had a long conversation with an expert on the region and its peoples. A group of journalists, uneasy with the usual cliches about Africa, “ancient tribal hatreds”, “chaos” and “tribal land wars”, had decided to try to dig a little deeper. We banned the words chaos and tribalism. The causes of conflicts should be made clear just as they would be anywhere else in the world. I spent several hours with the expert trying to understand the historical grievances and disputes of the region, the role of colonial rule and the present administration. The expert talked on and on. I made pages of notes and still had more questions. In the end he paused and said with a sigh: “If I were you I would just call it chaos”.
A peace conference was in progress in a small school the two sides were not making much progress. I remember a Bahunde chief saying that they were not against the Tutsis, but they were foreigners and should behave like foreigners. These Tutsis, he explained, were beginning to marry local girls, buy land and start businesses. They were taking over. But it was far more complicated than that. So complicated, that no one has been able to stop the wars since – 19 years later.
I did however discover one major cause. While I was staying in Bunia, the main town in the area, a large white cargo plane flew in. The Belgian crew came to the hotel I was staying at and I got chatting to them. They had come for the monthly gold collection. The area is rich in gold dug by local panners and sold to local dealers. The pilot told me that once the plane was loaded they flew from Bunia to Gdabdolite, Mobutu’s village and headquarters, where it was checked before flying on to Switzerland to be deposited in his personal bullion store. The government of Zaire – as Congo was called then – never saw a cent of it.
Eastern Congo is potentially one of the wealthiest places on earth. The rich soil and warm wet climate enable crops to grow all year round, the forests are full of valuable timber and below ground the rocks are veined with gold and coltan, the latter a key component of mobile phones. Anyone who controlled land could become seriously wealthy. In contrast, Rwanda has very little mineral wealth and its soils are exhausted. After the genocide in 1994 the armies of Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo in pursuit of the remnant of the previous genocidal Rwandan army. There they discovered the wealth that lay beneath the Kivu’s soil and it started heading east across the borders. Rwanda and Uganda called it “˜war reparations’ for a while, but then the generals of both countries found reasons to stay on long after Rwanda’s genocidaires could pose any threat. In Uganda’s case the generals kept the loot for themselves and their president. In Rwanda most of it went to the state.
It was only a few years ago that the UN, at the request of Congo, investigate just how much was being looted from eastern Congo. The Rwandans counted on the American military to support them but the substance of the report was verified from other sources. The Rwandans were forced to withdraw but supplied a series of local proxies to continue their resource grab, of which M23 was the most recent.
Significantly, it has been pressure from the US, and in particular from the military, where the Rwandans have cultivated many contacts and friends, that has forced Rwanda to stop supporting M23 and stay out. The US even supplied drones to the UN force to patrol the porous border. At the same time the UN peacekeepers have been given a stronger mandate and the training and weapons to go on the offensive. So has the Congolese army, which for years has acted more like just another gang of looters and rapists. Their coordinated attacks on M23 have defeated it.
Will this be a lull in the 20 year cycle of murder, rape and looting or is it the beginning of a new peace? That depends on whether the Congolese soldiers are properly paid (officers still regularly stole the payrolls of the soldiers), that they remain motivated and the UN force maintains the momentum and gains the confidence of the local people. It may be that Eastern Congo’s resources can be exported more cheaply if they flow eastwards to Kampala and Kigali rather than westwards to Kinshasa but this should be done in cooperation with the Congolese state which should receive proper payment and taxes.
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. It will be a profoundly moving moment for Rwanda, Africa and the entire world. There will be recognition that the rest of the world did nothing to stop the genocide and positive recognition that Rwanda and Burundi (which suffered similar but less publicised massacres the previous year) have not suffered a repetition. The recollection will end on a less positive note however if there is evidence of an ongoing reverse genocide in Congo.