In late September this year The New York Times reported positive news from Eastern Congo, a volcanic region of great natural beauty, where ethnic violence has been commonplace for over a decade: tourists were trickling back to the area. But a little over a month later, the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda advanced on the city of Goma on the Congolese/Rwandan border, leading to a mass exodus of refugees from the city.
Nkunda, a renegade general of the Congolese Army, formed a brutal rebel group in Eastern Congo in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. His stated raison d‘etre was to protect the minority Congolese-Tutsi population. Many ethnic Hutus also fled from Rwanda into Eastern Congo and formed their own militias, thus exacerbating existing ethnic tensions along the border.
This week, in an interview with the BBC, Nkunda said that he would overthrow the Congolese government unless they agree to talks with him.
In early October this year the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo, MONUC, asked the Security Council for an additional 3,000 troops to help resolve the escalating crisis in Eastern Congo. Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peacekeeping, said yesterday that it was unlikely the Security Council would come to a decision about more troops before the end of the month.
WIDE ANGLE spoke with Anthony W. Gambino author of a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, Congo: Securing Peace, Sustaining Progress, about the crisis in Congo.
WIDE ANGLE: In your report, you talk about the strategic interests for the United States in Eastern Congo. What are these interests?
GAMBINO: I’ll start with one that is not regularly talked about, but now that we’re moving into an Obama Administration I suspect it will be talked about more.
The issue I want to start with is Climate Change. Congo has the second most important forest in the world after the Amazon. There is a forest called the Congo Basin Forest that stretches from the Congo all the way across Western Africa to Gabon. It’s a huge forest but about half of it is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That forest is relatively unspoiled so in terms of all the benefits that this amazing stretch of trees brings, in terms functioning as a carbon sink, in terms of biodiversity, etc. we still have that as a global resource. If we would loose that, the impact on not just the Congo, not just Africa, but on the world would be enormous. This resources really needs to be preserved.
Second, the broader war that broke out in 1998 in the Congo, ultimately involving armies from Angola to Zimbabwe, destabilized most of sub-Saharan Africa. I think it’s pretty clear that that is something the United States absolutely doesn’t want. When you have countries that we are friendly toward like Angola and Rwanda on opposite sides fighting in the Congo that’s bad for Africa but it’s also bad for the United States. So a return to that kind of fighting is so clearly not in our interests that working to prevent it is very, very important.
WIDE ANGLE: How do you think U.S. policy toward the Congo will change with the new administration?
GAMBINO: The Security Council for reasons I don’t comprehend has not acted on the Secretary General’s request for 3000 additional forces, and it is not clear to me what exactly is happening. But I am very worried that our own government is not supporting this. I’ve certainly seen no positive signs by our government saying they wanted to see this happen. And I’m worried that we’re actually opposing it in the Security Council. And, in my view, if that were the case that would be unconscionable. I dearly hope, and various statements that we have seen during the campaign suggest, that an Obama Administration would be much more forward leaning in giving the United Nations the authority and tools it needs.
WIDE ANGLE: What power does MONUC — the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Congo — have?
GAMBINO: MONUC’s capabilities have changed in the Congo. Since it was introduced to patrol ceasefire lines it has seen its mandate expanded as circumstances have changed in the Congo so that its mandate today is to, within its capabilities, protect the civilian population, including using deadly force if necessary, and to try to maintain the peace.
However, there’s a huge problem in the way their rules of engagement are presently constructed. They are supposed to do all this in support of the Congolese Army. However if you’ve been following the news reports out of the Congo, it’s clear as can be that the Congolese army is part of the problem. Number one they can’t fight, and number two they’re abusive.
They murder, they rape, so how can any force restore peace in Eastern Congo if their real role is to be working in support of this murderous group of thugs? So MONUC is hamstrung for that reason.
The theory is fine, the Congo is a sovereign state. Sovereign states have their own own army. We introduce an international force. The international force should be there to support that army and help it accomplish what it needs to accomplish which is to guarantee the territorial integrity of the states. The theory is fine. The practice is impossible when you have probably the worst army in the world.
WIDE ANGLE: How much of the conflict is about the mineral wealth in the region?
GAMBINO: There is no question that the existence of minerals that are very valuable fuels this conflict. But it is a mistake to say that the conflict is only about that. Those ethnic tensions are not about control of minerals. These parts of eastern Congo are lawless. There is no effective projection of control of territory by any legitimate group. That means that you have right now dozens of groups running around, and all they really need to do is control some gold mining, some tin pan mining, some diamond mining — all that stuff is all over the place. And how do you mine this stuff? You mine it with your hands or a shovel, that’s all you need. If you can control that, you can make plenty of money, and all the money you need to buy Kalashnikovs, maybe a machine gun or two, and if you can get some rocket propelled grenades, so much the better.
The Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world, so if you’re a young man and you’re thinking about what your opportunities are, unfortunately, it could look to you that becoming brutal and exercising control over some of these mining areas, that can look like a pretty good deal to you. And so we see that all over these conflict areas in Eastern Congo.
WIDE ANGLE: Has there been a resurgence in the use of child soldiers?
GAMBINO: That’s a hugely important point, because the unfortunate fact about Central Africa is that our concept and the international concept about child soldiers that it is illegitimate to use young boys as fighters is completely not accepted. All sides all throughout this conflict regularly use boys as young as ten or eleven years old. Why? They’re the best fighters around. Most of Nkunda’s fighters are kids. Everybody is using them, including the Congolese Army. They just don’t accept our international view of the illegitimacy of using children under the age of 18 as combatants.