By David Patrikarakos in Kinkasha for ISN Security Watch
This year the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from Belgian rule. Fifty years on, the Congolese have been almost continually at war. In total, 5 million people are estimated to have died. Despite an official ceasefire they are still fighting now. According to Human Rights Watch 45,000 people a month were dying in 2009.
Natural resources are Africa’s blight - a magnetic for the invader. And if any country in history was ever a victim of its own natural wealth it is the Congo. Beginning with Belgium’s colonization in the 19 century - the most vicious in history - the country has been continually raped by those around it. Racked by internal civil strife and paralyzed by political corruption, it is the definition of a failed state.
This means that for the last 10 years the Congo has been home to the largest UN mission in the world. MONUSCO, as it is called since July (formerly MONUC), has a mandate for a force of around 20,000 personnel. The UN Security Council has decreed that MONUSCO be deployed in the country until 30 June 2011, authorizing it to concentrate its military forces in the East, where fighting continues, while keeping a reserve force in the capital city, Kinshasa. But President Joseph Kabila wants the UN to begin pulling out as the country enjoys its 50th anniversary celebrations. Troops have already begun leaving.
Since the 2006 elections - judged ‘free and fair’ - the Congo has been a democracy, and the government thinks it is ready to go it alone. Information Minister Lambert Mende told ISN Security Watch that “within 18 months the Congolese army will be in a much better position to keep order in the country.”
Still a mess
Yet many see the UN as the only effective institution left in a country with little or no infrastructure, miniscule literacy levels, poor healthcare and the safeguarding of human rights left almost entirely to foreign intervention. The country is still a mess.
Outside of Kinshasa’s ministries this message is loud and uniform. Predictions are customarily albeit not always unfairly gloomy. There are serious problems with the country’s armed forces, the FARDC (the Federal Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo) which will be charged with controlling Congo’s rebels - notably the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance army (LRA) andFDRL (Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda).
Accusations of abuse - rapes and theft - have plagued the army as it has worked in concert with the UN troops over the past few years. Over 1,000 civilians have been killed this year alone in controversial UN-backed military offensives undertaken in partnership with the Congolese army.
Last year’s Operation Lightening thunder - a joint undertaking between Congolese, Ugandan and South Sudanese troops to finish the LRA once and for all - led to a torrent of criticism as troops were accused of incompetence and brutality.
General Babacar Gaye, the Mission’s Senegalese force commander, acknowledges the challenges facing the FARDC, telling ISN Security Watch, that while the “FARDC did a lot of good everyone knows their weaknesses,” adding that army was still “in a process of reform.”
Congo is a failed state. It was a failed state 10 years ago when the UN mission began and it is a failed state now. Unless there are deep and structural changes it will be a failed state in 10 years’ time. The Congolese want to take control of their future. This is understandable. Leaving aside the perfectly natural desire for self-determination, reliance on the UN is imperfect because it is reliance on an import. And as with all imports it is finite and costly and subject to end at any time.
But the feeling is that any UN withdrawal, to whatever degree (and the government doesn’t want a total withdrawal - it is not that stupid), is likely to create a vacuum. Most are skeptical that the Congolese have the capacity to fill it. The army appears not yet ready to keep order; internal hatreds simmer.
And here we come to the crux. Because what is also clear is that the UN will eventually leave Congo. As several officials told ISN Security Watch, as a peacekeeper you are also a guest in a foreign country - the job is temporary by its very nature. Any accurate assessment of future must therefore consider the obvious but consistently overlooked majority - the Congolese themselves.
ISN Security Watch discovered a significant movement that is preparing to take control of their country’s destiny. One of them, Henri Ladyi, lives and works in North Kivu, the centre of Congo’s bush war. He told ISN Security Watch that he works on a simple principle that can be described as the maintenance of an indigenous peacekeeping force. His goal is to function almost as a mini-UN as he coordinates task forces of local people who search the jungles to disarm rebels and reunite child soldiers with their families. He has been threatened, kidnapped and beaten for his pains.
The work Ladyi does is indicative of a proactive and committed few prepared to take risks to make their country better. And, more importantly, it is indicative of what may yet fill the UN-shaped hole when the organization does eventually leave the country for good.
In the past year alone Ladyi has rescued over 200 child soldiers from lives of squalor and sordid violence. His mediation work has resolved over 150 local conflicts, and has brought stability to many of the areas in which he works. As the UN leaves a country lacking infrastructure and centralized authority, the social entrepreneurship of people like Ladyi will be critical.
Ladyi's rescue work is an example of how the Congolese can grasp their own future, and of how local organizations can fill the gap when the internationals leave, and, if it works, of a possible future for the Congo.David Patrikarakos is a writer and journalist. He is the author of a forthcoming book on Iran and its nuclear program.