- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — The U.N. mission in Congo, already one of the largest of its kind in the world, will get bigger and more complicated before it ends, said the top U.N. official on the scene.

The 3-year-old effort to wind down “Africa’s First World War” was never a simple undertaking, but with hostilities at their lowest level in five years, the world organization now is tackling the hardest part: rebuilding a Congolese state that can govern itself after elections in 2005 and closing down the U.N. presence after that.

“We’re in a political phase now, in which new Congolese institutions begin to function, and we assist them in good governance,” said William Swing, the U.N. special representative in Congo.

Although it’s a country in ruins after a war that lost 3.3 million lives to combat, disease or starvation, Congo’s prospects now appear better than they have in five years.

In 1998, Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo to overthrow President Laurent Kabila, and subsequently backed Congolese proxies attempting to do the same. The war eventually involved troops from six other African nations.

Now, rebels have joined a transition government under President Joseph Kabila, who took over when his father was assassinated in 2001. In place since July, the government includes rebel vice presidents, ministers and members of parliament, all looking to the United Nations for assistance.

The United Nations’ light blue and white on uniforms, vehicles, buildings and aircraft enjoys as much brand recognition in Congo as Coca-Cola. About 10,800 people work for the United Nations Observer Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known by its initials in French, MONUC.

The U.N. presence in Kinshasa pushes up rents in the capital. Dozens of U.N. flights crisscross the country each day, including a chartered Boeing 737 that provides the safest air transportation available in Congo.

MONUC officials train new Congolese police. MONUC human rights officials investigate cases of rape and pillage, and MONUC military observers do their best to track the movements of rebel fighters in the bush.

“I constantly have to reread our mandate [from the U.N. Security Council] to make sure I haven’t left anything out,” Mr. Swing said. Now 70, the veteran U.S. diplomat peppers his speeches with proverbs in Lingala and Swahili, the two most widely used languages in Congo, and gets widespread praise for his work so far.

Appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in May, Mr. Swing hopes to be the last to hold the Congo post. With the tab for MONUC at $638 million this year, the countries paying for it, including the United States, are looking for Mr. Swing to carry out the United Nations’ exit from Congo.

That means completing a raft of political and economic chores and holding “free, fair and transparent elections” in Congo in 2005, Mr. Swing said.

Mr. Kabila, the leading candidate to win the leadership in the planned elections, agrees.

“The priority of priorities has to be the elections,” he said.

Azerias Ruberwa, a vice president from the Rwanda-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy, contends there is another, more-urgent problem: “Securing Congolese territory has to be MONUC’s first task.”

Mr. Swing, reasoning that relative calm must precede the elections, thinks the two Congolese politicians are asking for essentially the same thing.

Two weeks ago, he ordered a vast redeployment of U.N. forces — from the former front lines that ran through the center of the country to Congo’s far eastern provinces, bordering Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

In most areas, MONUC is overseeing the demobilization of armed groups. But in far northeastern Ituri province, the United Nations also is working to restore law and order to an area where no civil administration exists.

The Ituri region, Mr. Swing says, will be perhaps the toughest test for the United Nations in Congo.

“I don’t see the potential for real military conflict,” Mr. Swing said, but he added that “the vestiges of armed groups” still threaten the peace.

Ethnic violence, fueled by rich gold and other mineral reserves, has claimed 50,000 lives in Ituri since 1999. An emergency French-led force helped stabilize the main town of Bunia during the summer, and now 2,500 U.N. troops, mostly from Bangladesh, patrol the region.

Still, said Mr. Swing, “we need a political process” for Ituri. A half-dozen militia groups that once vied for control have yet to commit themselves to peaceful competition, he said.

“We have to break these patterns of the past,” he said.

On a parallel track, the United Nations also is overseeing the initial phase of rebuilding Congo’s shattered infrastructure. Mine-clearing teams are reopening roads while MONUC river units are shepherding commercial convoys up the Congo River from Kinshasa into territory once in rebel hands.

But prodding Congolese leaders to put together a stable, clean postwar administration that can resist the pressures that divided the country in the late 1990s remains a pressing task for Mr. Swing. The most serious obstacle is a decades-old culture of corruption in Congo, in which those with power skim state resources to enrich themselves and enlarge their power.

A U.N. report in October concluded that officials close to Mr. Kabila and the various rebels turned politicians who now run the government still are profiting handsomely from Congo’s vast natural resources.

Having been the U.S. ambassador to Congo, Mr. Swing is quick to warn that the Congolese will have to be on their best behavior for the next two years.

“If this becomes an unacceptable process of lining deep pockets, the Congolese will lose the support of the international community,” he said.

But with a new government in place, Mr. Swing is under heavy pressure to push the Congolese into elections and get the blue-helmeted soldiers out of Central Africa — without worrying about changing deep-seated Congolese political habits.

“If you have a clear winner from reasonably clean elections,” said one Western observer in Kinshasa who did not want to be named, “then [the U.N. mission in Congo] is done.”

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