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Experts Say EU Mission in DR Congo is Merely Symbolic

Mathis WinklerJuly 7, 2006

Some 2,000 European troops, including 780 Germans, will help safeguard the elections in DR Congo. Government officials see the deployment as an important peacekeeping effort, but most experts call it a symbolic gesture.

German Defense Minister Jung (right) says the mission will be a neutral forceImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Twelve hundred schools or 1,400 clinics -- that's what could be built in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the 56 million euros ($71.4 million) Germany is spending on safeguarding the upcoming elections in the central African country, according to Rupert Neudeck, the founder of charity Cap Anamur and a vocal critic of the endeavor.

Rupert Neudeck mit Foto
Neudeck with a picture of a refugee from DR CongoImage: AP

"The international community just pretends to act in DR Congo," Neudeck wrote in a recent op-ed piece for Süddeutsche Zeitung. "When the UN asked for troops, they weren't worried about the Congolese, but international election observers, who they want to fly out of the country in case of unrest during and after the election. That's what the Bundeswehr is for."

Rolf Hofmeier is one of about 250 European election observers and could benefit from the presence of German soldiers should things go wrong. The Congo expert and former director of the Institute for African Studies in Hamburg said his upcoming four-week trip to Africa to monitor a first round of elections on July 30 will be longer and more risky than his previous stints as an election observer in places such as Kenya and Burundi.

He agreed with Neudeck that the money spent on the EU Congo mission was immense. But he also said that it didn't seem that much when compared to the roughly 500 million euros the international community has already funneled into making the election possible in the first place.

The lesser of two evils?

07.02.2006 Journal TT D Kongo
The UN's 17,000 peacekeepers are busy dealing with fighting in the east of the countryImage: dw-tv

"If you look at it this way, the military component is just an additional aspect," Hofmeier said, adding that he had grudgingly come to accept the mission as the lesser of two evils -- the alternative being that no additional peacekeeping troops safeguard the elections in the Congolese capital Kinshasa in the western part of the country.

He also said that the German participation, and especially the German leadership of the mission in Potsdam near Berlin, was little more than a symbolic gesture towards the French, who didn't want to stir suspicions of yet another unilateral engagement in Africa on their part.

"No one's really enthusiastic about it, of course," he said. "But we're part of it now and have to approve."

With less than half of the 2,000 EU soldiers actually trained to engage in combat and a large part of the German contingent stationed in neighboring Gabon, Hofmeier added that they were unlikely to be able to achieve much more in Kinshasa -- a city of more than seven million people -- than evacuating foreigners in a worst case scenario of major upheaval following the elections.

Questions regarding neutrality

Joseph Kabila
Joseph KabilaImage: AP

European soldiers have already reported that locals have made xenophobic gestures towards them, Hofmeier said.

"There are a lot of voices that incite the situation, saying that the foreigners are only neutral on paper, but actually just want to secure (incumbent President Joseph) Kabila," he said, adding that while the Germans were neutral in the matter, the French, Belgians and the USA did have a significant interest in seeing Kabila elected.

Kongo Tote nach Unruhen
UDPS supporters in Kinshasa last yearImage: AP

But others countered that at least one of the 33 presidential candidates, Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union pour la democratie et le progres social (UDPS), had already discredited himself by boycotting the election.

"If people are making gestures towards EU soldiers, they're likely to be supporters of this party," said Denis M. Tull, a Congo expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, an independent advisory body to the German parliament and government.

Sending a strong signal?

Tull agreed that the limited scope of the mission was a weak point. But he added that he saw the undertaking as more than just a symbolic gesture on part of the EU.

"It sends a strong signal that the international community does not want to accept failure of the election," he said. "I think that relatively small armed European units can act effectively and deter militias."

Kinshasa Kongo
Will the Europeans be able to handle violence on the streets of Kinshasa?Image: Alexander Göbel

But Jason Stearns, a Kenya-based Congo expert for the organization International Crisis Group, said that military troops were not the best way to deal with the kind of urban conflicts such as rioting, demonstrations and targeted assassinations that could arise in Kinshasa.

"This is the work of the police," said Stearns, who worked for the UN mission in DR Congo from 2002 to 2004. "If you bring in combat troops that don't have any urban unrest experience, then what are these for?"

Bracing for a longer stay

Stearns did say that EU soldiers could play a role should a coup or military uprising take place in the capital after the election, especially in the unlikely event that Kabila loses.

Verteidigungsminister Jung in Kinshasa
Jung has told soldiers they will return home in four monthsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Hofmeier meanwhile said he was already prepared to head to DR Congo for a second time later in the year to monitor a runoff election between the most successful candidates. And while German officials, including Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, keep saying that troops will return home after four months, the German parliament's decision to limit the mission's time frame will mean little should things go seriously wrong and require a longer presence of European troops.

"Everyone's preparing to stay much longer," he said.