With the recent installation of a transition government in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there’s renewed hope for peace in the country. But the eastern and northeastern parts of the DRC, the areas of the Kivus and Ituri, continue to be mired in conflict. What happens there could affect long-term prospects for stability. The matter was the topic of discussion this week in South Africa at a seminar sponsored by the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, or C-S-V-R.
First as Zaire and then as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the central African country has been battered by seven years of conflict. It’s estimated that anywhere from two to five million people have died. Rebels backed by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi battled government forces supported by Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia. The stated goal of the rebels was to topple the successive governments of Laurent and Joseph Kabila. But besides the struggle for political control, the conflict was also fought over the DRC’s rich mineral resources. And elements that drove the 1994 Rwanda genocide had fled to the DRC helping to further draw Rwanda’s involvement. Some have called it “Africa’s first World War.”
Now, a transition government has been sworn in, but it has much work to do to establish itself.
One of those taking part in the C-S-V-R seminar was Bene M’poko, DRC’s ambassador to South Africa. He comments on whether the transition government guarantees peace.
He says, "In theory, it should. It’s a beginning, but it’s not the end of the process. It’s a beginning of the process. The process started with the signing of the peace agreement and then the establishment of the government of national unity. But we need that institution to be in place to complete the set of institutions that are going to govern and guide the country during the transition."
Ambassador M’poko says these institutions include a new parliament, an independent electoral commission, a peace and reconciliation commission and a new national army.
He says, "The establishment of a new army – it will require the integration of the rebel forces into the new national army. That will take time. It’s a very lengthy, very technical process. And they will need international assistance."
However, he says the ethnic violence currently taking place in the east of the country is a major concern. And he puts much of the blame on Uganda, which backed one of the rebel groups.
The Ambassador says, "The fighting among them has been fueled by our eastern neighbors, mainly the Ugandans when they were there. When the Ugandans left, they left a vacuum. We knew that these militias had been armed, both sides. When people are carrying guns and so forth and they start fighting, it’s difficult to stop it. So, we must go through the process of disarming those militias. And the government of national unity will have to take the leadership to pacify that area, but the current violence will have to be stopped first."
He says international peacekeeping troops have brought peace to the northeastern town of Bunia, which had been the scene of much violence. But he says the force is not deployed in the Ituri region, where Hema and Lendu militias have battled, leaving thousands dead. Ambassador M’poko says more peacekeeping troops are due in September and hopes they will be stationed in the Ituri region.
Bea Abrahams is the Africa manager for the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. She says, “Many of the deep-rooted issues that have not been addressed in the neighboring countries do have a tendency to spill over into the Congo.” She says that simply added to the complex problems already facing the DRC.
She recommends that human rights and civil society organizations be established in remaining conflict areas, such as the Kivus.
Ms. Abrahams says, "I think it’s very important for all the local players are involved in a peace process. I think from our own experience in South Africa we’ve seen that it is so important for the community peace building process to support a higher political process. But then I think it is equally important to begin to talk to the neighbors in the region as well, particularly Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and so forth, because they are important role players. And if we talk about sustainable peace in the region, then I think it would be important that they are brought on board."
She says for the DRC to begin the healing process, poverty and the exploitation of the country’s mineral wealth are issues that must be addressed. Another, she says, is the repatriation of displaced people.
Ms. Abrahams says, "Repatriation and reintegration of refugees – they are within the Diaspora. We have a large percentage of refugees from the DRC in South Africa, for example. I think similarly, there are very serious concerns around the sexual violation and rape of women. And then, of course, there’s the issue of child soldiers."
DRC’s ambassador to South Africa, Bene M’poko, says for the peace effort to succeed it will take a united effort.
He says, "What we know is the political will, first from the Congolese leadership. And President Kabila has committed himself to the return of peace to the country. We need political will from our neighbors Uganda and Rwanda. We also need political will from the international community. With that I am very confident we will see the return of lasting peace to the Congo."
Ms. Abrahams of the C-S-V-R says even if all goes well, creating a firm peace may take a long time.
She says, "You know, I lived in exile myself. I lived as a refugee and came back to South Africa. I also happened to have trained as a psychologist. And so maybe from both a personal and professional perspective I can say that the experience we had in South Africa is that immediately after coming home there was a preoccupation with very basic survival issues. And it seems as though that’s a universal pattern in people who have gone through extreme trauma and especially in a situation of war where poverty, destruction of the infrastructure, destruction of family units is so, so prominent."
What the DRC needs immediately, she says, is to rebuild infrastructure and reunite families to help establish a sense of normalcy.