Watching from the sidelines

Thierry Vircoulon

The West has a long and chequered history of interference in the Democratic Republic of Congo, stretching right back to independence. Having been instrumental in securing the end of open hostilities in 2003, Western countries are now wary of being drawn back into the ongoing conflict in eastern Congo. However, they are willing to hand out humanitarian assistance and provide development aid.

Western intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo started immediately after independence from Belgium in 1960, with major powers playing a significant role in the country’s messy post-independence politics. The risk of the country ‘becoming red’ put it on the Cold War map, prompting US involvement in Central Africa – a region considered the fiefdom of the former colonial powers, Belgium and France.

Following his seizure of power in a coup d’état in 1965, for almost three decades the West quietly supported Congo’s dictatorial leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, despite his regime’s violent rule. However, the end of the Cold War turned Mobutu’s tyranny into a liability, and in the early 1990s, while he was facing growing domestic discontent, his Western backers requested the end of the one-party system that had kept him in power, thereby weakening his authority further.

Western powers did not simply stand by and watch Mobutu’s 32-year rule descend into anarchy and bloody warfare, and by the late 1990s were actively supporting one party in the conflict. The Rwandan and Ugandan-backed coalition, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL), headed by Laurent Kabila, received political support from Washington even though Belgium and France disagreed on this policy. And, while the Ugandan and Rwandan armies occupied eastern Congo, US authorities expressed views about a possible partition of the country.

The spread of the Rwandan conflict to eastern Congo following the genocide in 1994 led Western powers to support a peace process, once again playing a behind-the-scenes role. In 1999, they funded negotiations at the South African resort of Sun City and, from the beginning, backed UN involvement, both politically and financially. Washington continues to be the biggest financial contributor to the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) and therefore has had the privilege of running it.

In addition to the UN force, the EU dispatched two military missions in Congo during the political transition (2003-06): the first to prevent conflict escalation in the north-east Ituri district (operation Artemis, 2003), and the second to secure the 2006 elections (operation EUFOR DRC). However, the EU’s political involvement in Congo was not the result of its own strategic interest but due to French and Belgian lobbying.

Western powers now play a safety net policy in eastern Congo: unable or unwilling to resolve the root cause of the conflict, they make sure that the situation does not deteriorate too much. France, the USA and the EU have disengaged from the Congolese politics by suppressing their own special envoys but have maintained a presence in eastern Congo by posting diplomats or development staff. However, Belgium and the EU still play a watchful role, as proved during the latest crisis when a new rebel group, the M23, emerged in May 2012.

The EU may be watchful but it is no longer willing to engage, as signalled by its rejection of Kinshasa’s call for military intervention against the rebellious Laurent Nkunda during the 2008 crisis in the eastern Congolese city of Goma. However, Western donors are supporting – financially and technically – the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), a political forum involved in conflict management. Set up in 2000, the ICGLR is tasked with promoting peace and security and is now in charge of sorting out the new crisis.

Western countries are providing humanitarian assistance for 2.2 million displaced persons and around 17,300 refugees, as well as supplying most of the country’s development aid (52 percent of the government’s budget stems from aid). Much of this aid is dedicated to the east through programmes such as the International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy: implemented by the UN, it has cost about $200 million over two years (2010-12). The directing of aid to the east is creating an imbalance within Congo and has fuelled the local saying: “No war, no aid, no money.”

Paradoxically, conflict and economic investment have never been at odds in eastern Congo. It is here that most of the gold, coltan (used in mobile phone production) and cassiterite (tin ore) deposits are found, and where the most important mining deals were signed with Western companies in time of war. Of course, as insecurity remains high, the industrial exploitation of these concessions is problematic.

Some of the countries that sourced minerals from the region before the war carried on during hostilities – the boom in coltan happened in 2000. Belgian and British companies have played a key role as traders of eastern Congo’s minerals, while Germany has been one of the final export destinations. Present attempts to regulate the minerals trade in the Great Lakes – such as Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, that specifically deals with the exploitation of Congo’s minerals, the establishment of centres de négoce (trading centres) and Certified Trading Chains – stem from the bad publicity generated around the issue of conflict minerals. If the USA appears as the pioneer of this initiative, Germany is playing a discreet but active role by supporting a traceability project in eastern Congo and the ICGLR natural resources regulatory project. Despite the fact that the Kivus remain a high-risk area, the scramble for natural resources carries on there. In 2010, concessions in North Kivu were allocated to Western companies for prospection, and this is just the beginning.

The continuing crisis in Congo does not confirm that the West is losing ground in Africa. Western involvement was key to ending the war in 2003, and footing the bills has become the West’s major contribution:

it continues to provide most of Congo’s development aid and humanitarian assistance. The current ‘Congo fatigue’ is more political than financial, and the Western powers thus demonstrate that, if peace mattered a lot in the past, now democracy matters far less.

About the author:

Thierry Vircoulon is the Central African Project Director at International Crisis Group


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