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DR Congo: Unmitigated tragedy

NewsNotes, January-February 2009

A recent article in Swiss Info asserts that “[t]he tragedy of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, is its underground wealth, abundant in strategic minerals – copper, cobalt, gold, diamonds, uranium, coltan, and cassiterites (tinstone) – which are motivating the greed of all the industrial powers, including China. The commandeering of coltan in particular, whose open-pit mines are located in Kivu province, is at the heart of the conflict which is once again tearing this region apart. … Coltan, when refined, produces the metal tantalum, widely used in the leading edge technologies, especially in the manufacture of mobile phones, game consoles, portable computers, and even in nuclear reactors.” In the following article, the International Crisis Group describes the situation in the DRC, a crisis to which we are all disturbingly close.

There was cautious optimism for peace in North Kivu after the “Goma agreement” was signed on January 23, 2008. The agreement and the resulting “Amani” peace process, an attempt by the Congolese government to create an inclusive and consultative framework to consolidate peace in the Kivus, followed negotiations between the government, renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda and Mai Mai militias to end fighting that had resumed in the region from December 2006. The Goma agreement provided for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops from key areas and creation of a program for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants into civilian life or the national army (FARDC). 

But implementation quickly fell through. After frequent clashes in the first half of 2008, violence again engulfed the region from late August, when Nkunda’s CNDP rebels launched a fresh offensive on army bases and areas under the formal protection of UN troops. … For a short time, UN peacekeeping troops found themselves the last protection against Nkunda’s advances on Goma. An October 29 ceasefire soon faltered, and clashes … continued throughout November. Partially due to an intense diplomatic effort, Nkunda put on hold his offensive on the city, while still continuing and consolidating advances in other areas.

The humanitarian costs of the violence have been catastrophic. Over 300,000 have been newly displaced since fighting resumed and the Congolese army has been implicated in looting, rapes and killings in and around Goma as troops abandoned their positions. MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force, though 17,000-strong and the biggest of all UN missions, has shown itself unprepared and unable to respond to the unfolding crisis and fulfill its mandate to protect civilians.

Despite Nkunda’s claim to be fighting to protect North Kivu’s ethnic Tutsi population, all civilians have suffered terribly in the recent violence, with reports of direct CNDP attacks on IDP camps and renewed child recruitment. Nkunda has increasingly declared his ambition to transform his movement into a nation-wide struggle.

Events have produced a serious resurgence in tensions with Rwanda over its continued support for rebel groups … . Antagonism has been fueled on all sides by the desire for access and control over eastern Congo’s significant mineral reserves … .

As violence continues the risks of a further escalation of the conflict are high. After several unsuccessful efforts to impose a military solution to rebel activity in Congo’s east, the international community must now apply heavy pressure on Kinshasa and Kigali to find a comprehensive political approach that will give momentum to both the Amani and Nairobi processes. Renewed commitment is essential to prevent even more devastating humanitarian consequences.

The problems in North Kivu stem from failures of the Congo peace process on army integration, economic governance and transitional justice. President Kabila’s legitimate election in November 2006 closed an important chapter of Congo’s transition, a process that had started in December 2002 with the signing of the Sun City agreement to end a devastating five-year war that ultimately drew in eight neighboring states….

A deal concluded between Kabila and Nkunda providing for the integration of Nkunda’s troops into the armed forces – known as mixage – collapsed in 2007 amid opposition from hardliners on both sides….[leaving] Nkunda militarily strengthened and removed a viable alternative to continued struggle. The illegal exploitation of natural resources continued unabated, fueled by deep resentments over land security and mass human rights abuses. …

Recent developments have also underscored the fragility of the situation in Ituri. October 2008 saw fresh clashes between government and rebel forces as well as a series of brutal attacks and abductions reportedly by Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army rebels. The risk of renewed violence in the north east region has been limited by the presence of UN troops, the dismantling of the majority of armed groups and the local population’s war weariness. However, the root causes of the conflict – including unequal access to land and unfair sharing of revenues from natural resource exploitation – persist, while the emergence of new sources of insecurity pose serious threats to the region’s reconstruction. …

For additional information on the role of mining in the ongoing conflict see Swiss Info and several excellent documents from the International Peace Information Service.

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