January 29, 2009

HARRISONBURG—Today in his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, examines the fast-moving developments in the conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), arguing that they lead “both to an escalation of what had hitherto been a low-intensity proxy conflict and, ironically, to the possibility that a comprehensive resolution to the longstanding regional instability might actually be in sight.”

After reviewing the background to the conflict, the article goes on to discuss the new entente between the government of Rwanda and the Kinshasa-based regime of Congolese President Joseph Kabila which has led both to the arrest of General Laurent Nkunda, leader of the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP, “National Congress for the Defense of the People”), a largely Tutsi group, and several thousand troops from the Rwandan Defense Force entering the eastern DRC to pursue the Forces Démocratiques de la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR, “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda”), a group of armed Hutu insurgents, including some of the génocidaires responsible for the 1994 genocide. These developments could have wide-ranging effects:

[T]he turn of events… may present a significant opportunity to break the logjam that has kept the heart of African continent locked in conflict for too long. If military coordination can lead to security cooperation between Kigali and Kinshasa, then perhaps it might be hoped that the current operations could prove to be a “confidence building measure” through which the two neighbors, so long at odds, might be led to discern that it might be in both their interests to strive for a comprehensive political settlement and then, with effort and a bit of luck, joint economic development, leveraging the comparative advantages of each country.

Of course, for now, this is all aspiration. More immediately, the direct Rwandan intervention raises a number of questions, beginning with how long the RDF will remain in the two Kivus. Among the Hutu militants currently being pursued across the inhospitable terrain of North Kivu are some 7,000 individuals wanted in Rwanda for having taken part in the genocide. Certainly the Rwandan forces cannot be expected to withdraw until the FDLR is totally disarmed, a task which the 18,422 personnel of MONUC with their $1.2 billion annual budget has been unable to accomplish in eight years. Moreover, even if the Hutus no longer pose a military threat to Rwandan state, any government in Kigali would still have a tutelary interest in the fate of the vulnerable Tutsi minority in eastern Congo. Add to these calculations the temptations of the region’s abundant resources and one could see a scenario whereby Rwanda maintains a presence in the Kivus for some time, either openly through a status of forces agreement with the Kabila regime in Kinshasa or via proxy in the form of a reconstituted CNDP, presumably under a more malleable leader than the irascible General Nkunda.

Nonetheless the piece concludes on a upbeat note: “ [T]he mere fact that—at least for the moment—Rwanda and the Congo are not pulling in entirely opposite directions is in itself reason enough to give rise to hope.”

To read the full text of the article, “New Twists in Congo Conflict—and Just Maybe a Turn for the Better,” click here.