- Thursday, June 23, 2016

There are signs of hope in Eastern Congo. This resource-rich region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has finally seen the fighting and mayhem recede and a fragile peace take hold.

There are still dozens of militia groups in the area, some supported or opposed by neighbors Rwanda and Uganda, but cooperation between the DRC army and the United Nations peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, has gone a long way to pacifying the area.

With growing stability and security in the region, Kinshasa can begin to restore its full authority and look to developing this part of the country. Its mineral riches, which have been a major objective for warring parties, can now be exploited in an orderly way under the control of Kinshasa.

In addition, the DRC’s spectacular wildlife, which has suffered from a lack of protection in the Virunga National Park and elsewhere, can now be managed properly, eventually opening up great possibilities for tourism.

The DRC’s relations with the rest of Africa and the world have largely been dominated by issues related to the conflict in Eastern Congo, and the arrival of peace will enable Kinshasa to refocus its international agenda.

Of all the recent conflicts in Africa, the worst by almost any measure has been that in Eastern Congo. Here neighboring countries have taken advantage of a weak central government in Kinshasa to invade, back militias, rape and pillage.

Perhaps inevitably, the conflict drew in countries on all sides of the fighting, including several DRC neighbors who came to its defense. Altogether nine African countries have been involved in Eastern Congo fighting, as have at least 20 militia groups.

The result has been the greatest humanitarian disaster since World War II, in which some 5.4 million people have died and another 3 million are displaced from their homes. Countless others have suffered through rape, abuse and being forced into combat as child soldiers.

Much of the conflict and its lethal impact were hidden from the world because of the remoteness of this part of the DRC. Neighboring Rwanda and Uganda are much closer to the Eastern Congo than is Kinshasa, which is over 1,000 miles away. For most players, there were good reasons to hide what was really going on in the region.

The most recent period of conflict started with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which the Hutu-dominated government led in the massacre of the Tutsi minority. In its aftermath, an estimated 2 million Hutus fled the country as (current Rwandan president) Paul Kagame’s Tutsi forces took control of the country.

Among the refugees from Rwanda were perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. These Hutu exiles formed an armed group of their own, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which has been a major cause for fighting ever since.

Rwanda, joined by Uganda, sent troops into the DRC to attack the FDLR and other Hutu elements. They soon turned on Kinshasa itself, and, putting their troops under the command of Congolese Laurent Kabila, marched all the way to the DRC capital, where they took power from then-President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.

In 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated and replaced by his son, Joseph, who has been twice elected president since then and is president today.

In the meantime, the United Nations has built up its largest-ever peacekeeping force, currently called MONUSCO, in Eastern Congo, with 20,000 troops and a cost of some $9 billion since it began its mission in 1999.

In July 2002, the DRC and Rwanda signed the Pretoria Accord, which called for Rwanda to remove 20,000 troops from Eastern Congo.

In December 2002, a peace agreement was signed between the government in Kinshasa and rebel groups operating primarily in the east. One result was the creation of a unity government in Kinshasa and agreement to hold elections. The agreed-upon transitional government took power in July 2003.

The peace was not lasting, however; fighting continued in the east among various groups and the national government army.

In February 2013, another peace agreement was signed, this time by 11 African nations, including DRC’s nine neighbors and South Africa.

In late 2013, a joint MONUSCO-DRC military operation defeated the main pro-Rwandan Tutsi force in Eastern Congo — the M23 — which was backed by Rwanda’s President Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

That left the anti-Rwandan Hutu FDLR and anti-Museveni Ugandan rebels (particularly The Lord’s Army) operating in Eastern Congo, as well as various other militias, such as the Mai Mai, who have no particular ideology or affiliation but are armed groups formed to protect a group or area, even though they may ravage other communities in the process.

Rwanda still wants to defeat once and for all the FDLR, but the presence of a large United Nations force in the area is clearly a deterrent to Rwanda and Uganda, which value Western approval and support. However, the weakness of the poorly funded national army of the DRC means that Kinshasa itself is not yet ready to secure its own territory.

Nevertheless, the formation of a transitional government in 2003, followed by two national elections, has given foreign investors and others hope that the DRC will remain peaceful enough to allow for investment and economic activities to go on.

Ultimately, Kinshasa will have to gain full control of its own eastern territory, and secure its borders with neighbors. The DRC has paid a very high price in human suffering for the predations of covetous neighbors and disgruntled factions at home.

Economic development depends on peace and stability. After years of gruesome conflict, the DRC deserves lasting peace.

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