Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo teeters on the brink of chaos as civilians flee the fighting. Analysts warn only a radically new UN strategy can help.
The Democratic Republic of Congo seethes with unrest. Numerous rebel groups are fighting in the east of the country over territory, natural resources and political influence.
Particularly badly hit is the eastern province of North Kivu. Moustapha Mwiti coordinates civil society groups in the DRC. He says local residents there are in the middle of awar zone. "Many are fleeing, others are being killed and villages are being torched," he says.
In April 2012, a group of army mutineers formed a group called M23 and began waging a military campaign against DRC government troops (FARDC). The mutineers' leader is Bosco Ntaganda. As head of Tutsi rebel group National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), he agreed to the integration of his fighters into the FARDC after the signing of a peace agreement in 2009. He also served in the army as a general, even though the International Criminal Court had issued a warrant for his arrest. Fearing that the government of the DRC would detain him, he staged a mutiny.
Rwanda denies involvement
Ntaganda's M23 rebels have proved to be more than a match for the FARDC, leading the government of the DRC and the United Nations to suspect that neighboring Rwanda has intervened in the conflict on his behalf. Thierry Vircoulon, an expert on the DRC with the International Crisis Group, describes this as a very serious allegation. "But it is one for which there are many indications that it is the truth," he says.
Just 200 to 300 soldiers joined Ntaganda's mutiny. Yet there are capable of resisting the numerically superior FARDC. This could only be possible with support from Rwanda.
The Rwandan government denies all involvement. Foreign minister Louise Mushikwabo tweeted recently that her country was not going to serve as scapegoat to deflect attention away from the DRC's domestic problems.
Rwanda's interest in the east of the DRC dates back to the genocide suffered by Rwandan Tutsis in 1994. Since then the government in Kigali has been involved in several Congolese wars and retains close ties to the Tutsis in Kivu, a region rich in mineral resources.
"Kigali is pursuing security and economic interests in Kivu," Vircoulon says. All mineral resources mined in North Kivu are exported via Kigali. Many Tutsi businessmen in the DRC profit from this and are working closely with Rwanda.
Those mineral resources, mostly coltan, which is used in the manufacture of mobile phones and other hi-tech gadgets, and precious stones, give the conflict an economic dimension. One reason why the government and rebels are fighting each other is to secure control of land and resources. Ntaganda, himself a Tutsi, is building a huge business empire by smuggling mineral resources. That is also at stake in this conflict.
The United Nations has maintained a peacekeeping mission in the DRC since 1999. It is known as MONUSCO. Some 22,000 blue helmet soldiers are charged with the protection of the civilian population. Yet their successes have been modest. MONUSCO spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai says mobility in an area without proper roads, or other communications infrastructure, is a problem. "Sometimes something will happen just five or ten kilometers away from where we are based," he explains. "But hours can pass before we know about it. The rebels have long since disappeared by the time we have responded."
Call for new Congo strategy
The UN Security Council renewed MONUSCO's mandate on June 27. Bearing in mind the challenges in the rebel controlled area, its job is not getting any easier. The International Crisis Group has therefore called on the Security Council to realign UN policy on the DRC. The blue helmets should be able to stop the rebels from receiving cross-border assistance and political dialogue should be resumed in Kivu. "At the moment," ICG analyst Vircoulon explains, "their mandate only allows them to support the Congolese government. That's not very helpful, because it implies the military option and nothing else."
Kivu's problems are difficult and complicated. Relations between the DRC and Rwanda need to be improved, Bosco Ntaganda brought before the International Criminal Court and civilians given a chance to live in peace. It remains to be seen whether the UN is serious about tackling such problems.