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New Fears for Stability of Congo

This peace has never been easy. At times, there were as many as seven foreign nations fighting in DRC's civil war and numerous home-grown rebel militias fought against the central government in Kinshasa, each other, and the foreigner troops.
TORONTO (NFTF.org) -- The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (Background Report) was the scene of a vicious civil war that began in 1998 and by the time it was over, almost five years later, as many as 4.3 million people were dead. But after many false starts, a transitional government was finally established with a mandate to put the country back on an even footing and to put into place a social and economic infrastructure. One of its primary goals is to shepherd the nation through to 2005 when it is expected to conduct the first democratic elections in over 40 years.

This peace has never been easy. At times, there were as many as seven foreign nations fighting in DRC's civil war and numerous home-grown rebel militias fought against the central government in Kinshasa, each other, and the foreigner troops. This civil war raged without intervention from the West or from the United Nations because the area was considered too volatile and the chances of subduing the violence and imposing a peace were considered remote. Eventually, though, the Congolese found a way to make this work themselves with encouragement and assistance from neighboring countries. In particular, a lot of help came from South Africa.

Today, however, new fears are arising that the peaceful transition to DRC democracy may be coming off the rails.

The transitional government has been unnerved by a failure to curb continued violence and lawlessness in some of the more remote parts of the jungle. Indeed, some of that violence appears to be on the upswing. Peace has been slow coming to the Ituri region of Orientale province and the violence has never completely subsided. Much of the area is so remote that news travels slowly and it is often several days or even weeks before word of some massacre reaches the outside. By that time, of course, tracking the perpetrators is impossible. To add to that problem, the United Nations now has a sizable contingent of troops (known as MONUC) stationed in the Ituri region and these troops are more frequently finding themselves fired upon by rebel militias who quickly melt back into the forest.

Much of the violence in this part of DRC is ethnic in origin with Hema and Lendu forces accusing and counter-accusing the other of starting and continuing it. As well, it is still believed by many in the area that some of this ethnic rivalry is being promulgated by factions within Uganda and Rwanda and, possibly, by the governments of those countries. Both deny such accusations.

However, some groups within the Ituri area are calling for the withdrawal of MONUC forces. At the beginning of March, leaders of the Hema community in Ituri accused Dominique Macadam, the officer in charge of Ituri's MONUC contingent, of responsibility for a massacre of civilians the previous week when 10 people died and they have threatened to charge the perpetrators in the International Criminal Court. MONUC has recently become more aggressive under new 'robust' rules of engagement approved by the U.N. and the Hema claim that MONUC has been targeting their villages and compounds. MONUC spokespersons say they are only defending themselves although they do admit to reprisal raids.

In the meantime, the transitional government is still having difficulty with armed forces integration. The plan called for new armed forces that would be comprised of the former national military and various rebel militia groups. While many of the groups have integrated with success, there continue to be holdouts that put in peril the success of this plan.

MONUC is also under intense pressure in the Equateur province where they are stationed largely as observers. The U.N. has complained about "unacceptable and unjustifiable" obstacles to their movements and to carrying out their inspection duties. MONUC wishes to assert its authority but various groups in the region respond that the U.N. workers favor one side or another in the transitional government. In faraway Kinshasa, that is making it very difficult to keep the various opposing factions reading from the same page. Observers fear that it will take very little to make the entire transitional government effort unravel, something as benign as an off-handed comment over which some individual takes offense.

By far the most serious situation troubling the peace in DRC is current conditions in the Kivus, the two provinces known as Nord-Kivu and Sud-Kivu (north and south Kivu). There have been serious clashes between rebel groups, caches of arms have been discovered, and there appears to be a glut of frontier justice. On February 21, Major Joseph Kasongo of Congolese Democratic Movement (known by its French initials 'RCD') was arrested and sent to Kinshasa by troops loyal to the military commander of the region, Prosper Nabyolwa, who in turn is loyal to DRC's president Kabila. This followed the discovery of an arms cache in Bukavu, belonging to governor Xavier Ciribanya. The result was to put Kasongo at risk of his life, since he had been sentenced to death in absentia by the Court of Military Order for his alleged involvement in the assassination of the late President Laurent Kabila (the current president's father). According to a local NGO, 'Voice of the Voiceless', half of the 30 persons sentenced to death by the that court have been executed since January. In retaliation for the arrest of their chief, soldiers attacked the residence of Nyabolwa on February 23, killing three members of his escort, looting the house, abducting eight of his supporters and forcing him to flee.

The risk of a major eruption in Bukavu emerged on February 24 when the RCD second-in-command, Colonel Jules Mutebusi, broadcast an order to all soldiers to obey only his orders and ignore those of the general appointed by Kinshasa. On the same day, Mai-Mai militias ready to fight the RCD troops were seen around Bukavu. At the same time, back in Kinshasa, RCD leaders threatened to suspend participation in all transitional government institutions if Major Kasongo was not released immediately. President Kabila did order his release the following day and tensions seemed to subside - but pro-Kabila hardliners including Vital Kamerhe, information minister, who is a native of Southern Kivu, protested loudly. He offered his resignation in protest while another group of hardliners called for the suspension of the entire transitional process.

In Sud-Kivu, there continue to be 'snatch and grab' raids where people are kidnapped in groups and taken into the jungle where they are raped, murdered, and sometimes eaten. The presence of MONUC in this area is not strong but it is also here that the U.N. forces are viewed with the greatest disdain. MONUC knows that it is powerless at this time to effect any changes here.

But, at last, MONUC has started to take more notice of the neglected situation in Katanga province. At the beginning of March, Médicins san Frontières (Doctors without Borders) reported the flight of some 10­-20,000 refugees fleeing from violence between the Congolese army and Mai-Mai militia. This followed a spate of violence attributed to a General Chinja-Chinja (Swahili for The Ripper, or throat-cutter) who is said to enjoy drinking the blood of his victims. There is another notorious Mai-Mai leader named Bakanda Bakoba ('The Irreducible') and a third named Kabale who gained his notoriety by wearing a dead human fetus around his neck.

This Katanga violence began in early February and it has the potential to create great difficulty for the central government: Katanga is an area that has been under the control of President Kabila since 2001 and failure to exercise any power in the area will be a clear sign of weakness.

Almost all observers in the area say it is time for MONUC and the central transitional government to regroup and re-assert control throughout DRC. There are great fears that DRC is rapidly sliding back into chaos.

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