The Congo: so near, yet so far

Two significant events took place on our continent in the last fortnight. One gave us hope, sadly only briefly, and the other was downright just devastating.

Last week, the M23 rebel group ended its 18-month insurgency in eastern Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) and surrendered.

After nearly two years of conflict that has left many dead and devastated, the DRC, the government and the M23 agreed to a peace deal brokered by neighbouring Uganda.

Curiously and disturbingly, this week, the DRC government pulled out of signing the peace deal at the last minute, calling M23 a group of criminals.

DRC information minister Lambert Mende has insisted that the title of the Ugandan-mediated document was the problem, not its contents, and that it should be called a declaration not an accord, as that gave too much credibility to the rebels.

Mende believed it was a question of the government’s credibility in the eyes of the Congolese people – it could not be seen to be signing an agreement on an equal footing with ‘criminals’, he said.

“Militarily, we have finished M23 and what is more important for us is to maintain our credibility towards the Congolese people,” he said.

The government’s contention probably makes sense in a world where many governments are taking a hard stance against rebel (and ‘terrorist’) organisations. But in the context of the DRC, this stance may not go down very well.

Uganda has not given up and is reported to have said it expected it would take a few more days before any deal was to be signed. There is hope, because at the time of writing on Wednesday evening, Congolese security officials and other delegates were still in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, which signalled that the DRC government has not completely ruled out the possibility of signing the agreement.

The UN special envoy to DRC, Martin Kobler, has expressed his confidence that talks would resume after a ‘cooling off’ period.

At least 800,000 people fled their homes after the M23 took up arms in April 2012. M23 is active largely in the eastern DRC. Reports say that there’s currently more than 30 other “rebel” groups operating in the east.

Since independence from Belgium in 1960, the DRC has never known peace. It all started when the first democratically elected prime minister and popular leader Patrice Lumumba was ousted in a bloodless coup, barely a year after assuming power.

It was downhill from then onwards. The DRC, under coup leaders, liberation heroes and rebel leaders has been at war. Since November last year, until two weeks ago, Goma was under the “rule” of M23.

Similarly in the north, other insurgents have caused havoc in Lumumbashi, displacing hundreds of thousands of citizens.

There is limited or no movement between provinces in this country, making it difficult to do business there. Investors are discouraged by poor road, telecommunications, rail and other infrastructure that make it impossible to trade in this vast country.

Reports may very but general agreement is that in the 40 years of conflict since the Belgians left, millions of people have been displaced. Estimates are that more than a million people have died over the years.

Coupled with senseless wars and political disagreements, millions more have been subjected to famine, disease and crime committed by a myriad of forces on either side.

It is in this context that many African leaders welcomed the news of a pending peace deal in the DRC. The leaders of this continent know what peace in the DRC means for the entire continent.

Nestled in the centre of sub-Saharan Africa and bordering six other countries, the DRC is the biggest country in Africa by size and second biggest in population only to Nigeria. In spite of wars and conflict, it remains one of the mineral-resource wealthy countries in Africa (some say in the world).

Experts estimate that more than 90 per cent of the DRC’s mineral resources, including gold, iron ore and diamonds, remain underground and unexploited. A fraction of this would wipe out the hunger and poverty in this country.

Agriculturally, although the DRC cannot feed itself and depends on imports and aid, it boasts very fertile lands for all sorts of agriculture and a climate suitable for two to four harvests per year.

The River Congo, the second biggest river in Africa, after the Nile in Egypt, boasts capacity levels of no less than 90 per cent and it is regarded as the potential answer to the power problems of the entire sub-Saharan province.

With all these issues considered, it is rather devastating that the government may just back off from the one deal that could just deliver the 75 million citizens of the DRC from this hell on earth.


[First published in Dubbo Weekender:]