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Thu Dec 13, 2012, 06:53 AM

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Looters' Truce

The Rwanda-backed M23 rebels – M23 for 23 March 2009, when a peace deal was signed with Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila – attacked the city of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), on 17 November, trouncing the Congolese army in less than three days. Twelve days later they withdrew. But they have not melted back into the hills of Northern Kivu from where they launched the assault. They have put a ring around Goma and are staying put until the power-sharing agreement for which they’re named is renegotiated in their favour. Meanwhile, Goma, a border town of one million people, resembles Berlin in the Cold War, an island linked to the west by an air bridge.

The pressure brought to bear on Rwanda by the international community, notably the UK’s decision to suspend £21 million in bilateral aid, has not turned DRC’s eastern border into a red line Rwanda will no longer cross. Yes, this is the first time any pressure has been put on Kigali; and yes, a chink has appeared in the armour of Rwanda’s post-genocide impunity, forged by the West’s guilty conscience. But General-President Paul Kagame has also proved once again that his tiny country – 12 million inhabitants, 26,000 km2 – lords it over its gigantic neighbour (75 million on 2,300,000 km2). You want peace in eastern Congo? Come to Kigali and negotiate a price.

This has been the rule since the end of Mobutu. When the former Congolese dictator had already lost most of his power to a chaotic democratisation process and terminal cancer, his eastern neighbours – mainly Uganda and Rwanda – organised his succession via a ‘rebellion’. In October 1996, an army equipped with Kalashnikovs, fatigues and gum boots sprang up in the east and began its long march across a country the size of Western Europe. Yet the figurehead it swept into power, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, proved unco-operative. He wouldn’t give his sponsors a free hand in the mineral rich borderlands where gold, tinstone, wolframite and coltan abound. Kabila Sr was assassinated in January 2001. His son Joseph succeeded him and, since then, ‘rebellions’ have risen in the east as predictably as the sun. Only the March 2009 agreement, which transformed eastern Congo into a condominium, brought relative peace, the looters’ truce – la paix des pillards – as it’s known locally.

The martyrdom of eastern Congo doesn’t turn Joseph Kabila and the political elite in Kinshasa into innocent victims of outside aggression. To begin with, most of them have taken turns at selling out their country to Kigali – currently, Vital Kamerhe, the leader of a party ironically called the Union for the Congolese Nation, is trying to piggyback on the M23 rebellion. Besides, corrupt leadership in Kinshasa has effectively broken up the DRC into three different countries: the Swahili-speaking east, a land of booty fought over with Rwanda and Uganda; the Lingala-speaking Congo, which extends along the river from Kisangani to the Atlantic via Kinshasa and remains the turf of various opposition parties; finally, Katanga, the rich southern province of cobalt and copper, where Kabila comes from and which he has parcelled out to Belgian, Canadian and, lately, Chinese mining groups, latter-day ‘concessionary companies’ as they used to be called under colonial rule.


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