By HERMAN J. COHEN
Published: December 15, 2008
THE conflict in eastern Congo over the past 12 years has been as much a surrogate war between Congo and neighboring Rwanda as an internal ethnic insurgency, as a United Nations report underscored last week. The only way to end a war that has caused five million deaths and forced millions to flee their homes in Congo 's two eastern provinces is to address the conflict's international dimensions. The role of Rwanda — which borders the provinces and which denied the accusations in the United Nations report over the weekend — is of prime importance.
The international community has worked hard to resolve the conflicts among the various parties: the sovereign states of Rwanda and Congo as well as the assorted militias and private armies that are sponsored by these two governments and by opportunistic local warlords. But despite the deployment of 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers, and many efforts at mediation with constructive American support, the situation appears intractable.
The failure of international diplomacy is related to the economic roots of the problem, which began with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda . Until the economic conundrum is addressed, there is little prospect for a solution.
The genocidal war between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi in Rwanda spilled into Congo, and the eastern part of that vast country has been unstable ever since. When Tutsi rebel forces took power in Rwanda in June 1994, more than a million Hutu fled to Congo , where they settled into refugee camps on the Rwandan border.
After two years of cross-border raids from the refugee camps by exiled Hutu soldiers who had participated in the genocide, the Rwandan Army attacked and destroyed the camps, with the quiet but unambiguous approval of the United States in the absence of another solution to the violence. Most of the Hutu refugees returned to Rwanda , but about 100,000 of them, along with the exiled Hutu soldiers, moved westward as a disciplined group into Congo 's interior.
The Rwandan Army pursued the escaping Hutu and caught up with them near the city of Kisangani at the headwaters of the Congo River . The refugees were massacred, but the former Hutu soldiers escaped to neighboring countries.
The move against the refugee camps was the first step in a well-planned action by Rwanda in 1996 and 1997 to overwhelm the weak Congolese Army and, with the help of the Congolese opposition, overthrow the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. With logistical support from Uganda and Angola , the military action succeeded in less than three months. A new government in Congo was installed under President Laurent Kabila, an exile handpicked by the Rwandans.
And from 1996 to today, the Tutsi-led Rwandan government has been in effective control of Congo 's eastern provinces of North and South Kivu . This control has been maintained through intermittent military occupation and the presence of Congolese militias financed and trained by the Rwandan Army.
During these 12 years of Rwandan control, the mineral-rich provinces have been economically integrated into Rwanda . During this time, Congo 's governments have been preoccupied with internal and external wars elsewhere, and have been unable to combat foreign control of the eastern provinces, a thousand miles from the capital, Kinshasa .
But two years ago, Congo held multiparty elections that were judged to be transparent and credible by international observers. For the first time in a decade, there was hope for stability. President Joseph Kabila (the son of Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001) turned his attention to trying to gain control of the eastern provinces.
Unfortunately, this has led to increased conflict and suffering. The main source of the current violence is an insurgent force of ethnic Congolese Tutsi commanded by Laurent Nkunda, a former general in the Congolese Army. He claims to be fighting to defend the Tutsi community from discrimination and from the former Rwandan Hutu fighters who have returned from neighboring countries and now operate in the forested hills of eastern Congo .
General Nkunda's military operations, however, are aimed mainly against the Congolese Army's efforts to restore Congo 's sovereignty over its eastern provinces. His force is well armed and financed by the Rwandan government. The armed Hutu presence in the provinces provides the Rwandan government with a pretext to justify its interference there.
Having controlled the Kivu provinces for 12 years, Rwanda will not relinquish access to resources that constitute a significant percentage of its gross national product. At the same time, Congo 's government is within its rights to take control of the resources there for the benefit of the Congolese people. This economic conflict must be taken into account.
This provides an opportunity for the incoming Obama administration. Acts of war and military occupation aside, there is a natural economic synergy between eastern Congo and the nations of East Africa , including Rwanda , Burundi , Tanzania and Uganda . The normal flow of trade from eastern Congo is to Indian Ocean ports rather than the Atlantic Ocean , which is more than a thousand miles away.
After his inauguration, Barack Obama should appoint a special negotiator who would propose a framework for an economic common market encompassing Congo , Rwanda , Burundi , Kenya , Tanzania and Uganda . This agreement would allow the free movement of people and trade. It would give Rwandan businesses continued access to Congolese minerals and forests. The products made from those raw materials would continue to be exported through Rwanda . The big change would be the payment of royalties and taxes to the Congolese government. For most Rwandan businesses, those payments would be offset by increased revenues.
In addition, the free movement of people would empty the refugee camps and would allow the densely populated countries of Rwanda and Burundi to supply needed labor to Congo and Tanzania .
If such a common market could be negotiated, Rwanda and Congo would no longer need to finance and arm militias to wage war over the natural resources in Congo's eastern provinces. Without government backing, the fighting groups would either dissolve on their own or be integrated into legitimate armed forces.
If undertaken with enough will and persistence, an American-led mediation to create a common market in East Africa could end the war and transform the region.
Herman J. Cohen was the assistant secretary of state for Africa from 1989 to 1993.