The United Nations’ Security Council has authorized an African army to take offensive action against the various armed groups in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think that this is a major mistake for two reasons, locally and internationally. Let me first describe the situation as I see it and then cover the reasons for the mistake.
There are numerous armed groups in North Kivu. The first is the Congolese army. This consists of soldiers from other areas of the Congo so the soldiers do not know Swahili and cannot communicate well with the local population. The Congolese army is part of the problem because they have looted, raped, destroyed, and killed people in North Kivu including, for example, 130 women and girls raped when the army fled to Minova after leaving Goma when the M23 rebel group conquered the city last November. Moreover, some local Congolese army commanders control North Kivu mines and exploit the people and resources just as the other rebel groups do.
There are a large number of various rebel groups in North Kivu. The latest one of note is M23, which is a Tutsi controlled group that has conquered the area north of Goma. For two weeks in November last year, it invaded and conquered Goma before it was forced to evacuate by international pressure. Rwanda and, to a certain extend Uganda, are accused of supporting this rebel group. The genocadaires who were responsible for the Rwandan genocide are still another significant rebel group – more than once the Rwandan army has tried to attack them in North Kivu with little result except the death of more North Kivu civilians. Then there are a number groups, collectively called Mai-Mai, which often are based on the local Congolese tribes from North Kivu. These gangs thrive because they control one or more mines and illegally export the minerals through Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. Control of the trade routes also allows for “taxing” the minerals as they pass through – one of the main reasons the M23 rebel group wants to control the area north of Goma. These groups are ever changing and shifting alliances depending upon the current conditions.
The United Nations has a peacekeeping force of 1700 soldiers in North Kivu called MONUSCO, but they do not have a mandate to take offensive action so they were ineffective when the rebels invaded Goma. At other times, they have supported actions by the Congolese army. I remember one incident a few years ago when a rebel group invaded Sake, 15 miles west of Goma, and the UN forces used helicopter gunships to kill over 100 of the rebels. While they claimed victory, it is really hollow because these “rebels” killed were mostly very young men, even boys. The next day the rebels could easily replace their dead soldiers with new recruits from the numerous youth who have nothing to do and no prospect for a bright future. In addition, UN peacekeepers from India were accused of participating in a sex ring and others peacekeepers were accused of selling weapons and ammunition to various rebel groups.
When the MONUSCO forces were unable to keep the M23 rebels from conquering Goma, there came a call to have a new force, which would have the offensive capability of attacking the M23 and other rebel forces. This was enhanced by the seeming success of the Ugandan, Burundian, Kenyan, and a few others armies in stabilizing Somalia, at least in the major cities. The UN Security Council approved of this (“created a special intervention brigade that has an aggressive mandate that allows it to fight armed groups, rather than merely defend civilians.”) Three thousand soldiers mostly from Tanzania and South Africa, are beginning to arrive in Goma for this intervention army.
Locally, as has happened so often in the past, this intervention brigade is going to be just another foreign army, adding to the fighting in the province. Usually in the “fighting” in the area, the combatants don’t face each other, but the weaker one “evaporates” into the local population. Many people flee as can be seen from the numerous pictures of people carrying whatever they can. But some people – the sick, elderly, and pregnant women — cannot flee and others contract diseases, starvation, and other problems which causes some to die. Civilian deaths in these operations far exceeds those from the actual fighting. Then when the “invading” army leaves, the rebel groups return and take revenge on the local people for “supporting the enemy” so more civilians are killed. Locally, the result of this new armed force is going to be more civilian deaths and little change in the dynamics of exploitation in North Kivu. There is also the possibility that the new forces will see the loot available in North Kivu and become just another armed exploiter. Tanzania, which already is the conduit for the transit of illegal minerals from South Kivu, can hardly be considered a neutral actor in this drama.
In the long run, though, it is the UN precedent that is most dangerous. This is the first time that the UN has approved offensive action for its forces. Where will this lead in the next five or ten years? If the North Kivu intervention is “successful” – which I doubt – it will be used as a precedent for further armed forays in international involvement in domestic affairs. If the invention force fails, there will be appropriate rationales for its failure, which will be “rectified” by the next intervention.
An offensive force is not neutral and therefore the UN will begin taking sides in armed disputes as it has in the case of North Kivu. The smaller, weaker countries already consider the UN as an arm of the five major powers on the Security Council – the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China. This development is going to erode the UN stance as a neutral world body even further.
The alternative to fighting is talking – talking to everyone involved. This should be done right there in Goma and should include civil society, women’s groups, religious leaders, youth organizations, businesses, and everyone else with a stake in a peaceful North Kivu. A peaceful, prosperous North Kivu would be so much better for those involved – including the armed groups which could then participate in legal activities which would create more wealth. Currently a small pie is being divided up by the armed groups, while peace would bring a much bigger pie where everyone would benefit.
I am sure that over the next months and years, I’ll be giving you my analysis of this intervention force.