The peace process in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo is on the verge of collapse due to resumed hostilities between Government forces and rebels loyal to Congolese general Laurent Nkunda.
Absent immediate and robust diplomatic pressure on the Congolese government and a more impartial effort by United Nations peacekeepers to stop the fighting, the region could descend back into total war.
After weeks of tit-for-tat violence, large-scale fighting between the Congolese army and Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of People, or CNDP, began again on August 28 in the territory of Rutshuru, North Kivu.
Violence has since spread to Masisi territory in North Kivu, and Kalehe territory in South Kivu. The clashes are the largest violations to date of the cease-fire agreement signed last January in Goma (capital of North Kivu) between the Congolese government, the CNDP, and 21 other armed groups active in the East.
The fighting has newly displaced an estimated 100,000 civilians in North Kivu, and has curtailed access for humanitarian aid agencies across the province.
On September 25, the Enough Project —along with 82 other NGOs—released a statement on the humanitarian costs of faltering peace efforts.
This follow-up examines why those diplomatic efforts are failing and what steps the international community must immediately take to halt the violence and reinvigorate the peace process.
1. Why the peace process is faltering
The Congolese army’s disastrous offensive against Laurent Nkunda and the CNDP in December 2007 compelled the government to hastily convene negotiations with armed groups in North Kivu and South Kivu.
The ensuing peace conference in Goma had two principal goals: brokering a cease-fire and forging an agreement on a comprehensive plan for peace, security, and development known as the Amani Program (amani means “peace” in Swahili, a language spoken widely in eastern Congo).
Following weeks of negotiation, and with support from the United States, European Union, United Nations and African Union, the government and the 22 armed groups signed an Acte d’Engagement (a cease-fire agreement and not a peace deal, as was widely reported in the press) on January 23, 2008.
The agreement demanded an immediate and total cessation of hostilities, including acts of violence, military movements and reinforcements.
Importantly, the Acte also demanded that a technical commission be created to oversee the disengagement of forces, integration of some members of armed groups into the Congolese army, and a process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, or DDR, for the rest.
The agreement’s brokers were hopeful about its prospects, but relatively candid that the agreement was but a first step. U.S. diplomat Tim Shortley noted after the signing that the Acte, “provided a process to achieve a sustainable path to peace.”
However, the two principal adversaries—the government and the CNDP—entered into the implementation of the agreement with wildly divergent intentions.
The CNDP poses a real military threat against a weak and ill-disciplined Congolese army, but Nkunda is wanted by the Congolese government for war crimes and represents a minority with little political clout in Kinshasa.
The CNDP hoped to use the processes within the Amani Program to engage in political talks with the government on army integration, the return of Tutsi refugees from Rwanda back to Congo, removal of the predatory foreign armed group the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, from the East, and power-sharing.
However, the Congolese government had no intention of making concessions on these issues and, absent genuine political dialogue with Kinshasa, Nkunda and the CNDP had less of a stake in the Amani Program’s implementation.
Refusing to negotiate one-on-one with the CNDP, the Congolese government attempted to weaken CNDP’s position at the negotiating table by inviting all armed groups in the Kivus and thus diluting the CNDP’s influence.
Many of the armed groups that signed the Acte, particularly those from South Kivu, were inactive before January and lacked significant military capacity.
Perversely, these armed groups are now justifying their participation in the peace process by recruiting and arming new combatants.
Throughout implementation, the government has generally dragged its feet, treating the Amani Program more as a technical exercise than an opportunity to begin to address the root causes of violence in eastern Congo.
In the months following the signing of the agreement and the establishment of the Amani Program, cease-fire violations and human rights abuses were commonplace.
Making matters worse, the UN Peacekeeping Force in Congo, or MONUC, appeared to take sides, publicly admonishing violations and abuses committed by the CNDP and other armed signatories but rarely openly reprimanding similar violations and abuses committed by the Congolese army.
At the same time, the Congolese government has expected MONUC to fight its war against Nkunda, and periodically blamed the UN for failing to dislodge the CNDP.
Recent public protests against MONUC are a grim indication that blaming the UN resonates with frustrated and war-weary Congolese civilians.
This cynical strategy by the Congolese government of failing to implement agreements while simultaneously blaming the peacekeepers for the eroding situation may well make things much worse.
2. Immediate steps to resuscitate a peace process in eastern Congo
The events of the past month have demonstrated how quickly progress in eastern Congo will unravel absent unswerving diplomatic pressure.
On September 18, Congolese President Laurent Kabila agreed to a disengagement plan that establishes zones of separation between the Congolese army and the CNDP.
If adhered to by the warring parties and enforced by MONUC, a separation of forces would be a sound first step toward calming the situation. Urgent diplomatic measures must be taken immediately to get the peace process on track.
1. The Amani Program’s backers—in particular the United States and European Union—must put pressure on the government, Nkunda, and other armed groups to immediately rejoin the cease-fire and honor separation zones as detailed in the disengagement plan. With the threat of wider violence looming, this requires high-level diplomacy in the Kivus and direct diplomacy with President Kabila and his Minister of Defense, Chikez Diemu.
2. Both the CNDP and the Congolese Army are acting as spoilers to the peace process.
Unfortunately, MONUC is more apt to speak out against the CNDP than they are against the Congolese forces about cease-fire violations and human rights abuses.
MONUC must be a more impartial broker of the peace if they want the CNDP to return to the negotiating table. The CNDP is unlikely to disengage if MONUC continues to support offensives initiated by the Congolese army.
Further, the Congolese army is likely to continue attacking the CNDP if army commanders know they can rely on MONUC to bail them out when their positions are threatened.
3. The international community and MONUC need to reinforce the message to the Congolese government that there is no military solution to its conflict with the CNDP.
Re-establishing a fragile stalemate—while necessary in the immediate term—is insufficient. If the Congolese government is sincere in its desire to forge lasting peace in the region, it must engage in genuine political negotiations with the CNDP.
If the cease-fire and separation zones are enforced and political space re-opens for talks between the government and Nkunda, it is essential that, going forward, diplomats also focus on implementation Nairobi Communiqué—a 2007 agreement between the Congolese and Rwandan governments on a “common approach” to removing the FDLR from eastern Congo.
The conflict between the Congolese government and the CNDP and the continued threat posed by the FDLR are interlinked, and the Enough Project has consistently argued that an injection of significant diplomatic capital and a more focused effort to remove the FDLR threat is required to maintain momentum toward regional stability.
Finally, meaningful progress toward peace in eastern Congo requires strong action to stop the illegal exploitation of natural resources and end impunity for crimes against humanity.
The author is a Policy Advisor with ENOUGH, a project to end genocide and crimes against humanity