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Securing the Congo's Transition, Gareth Evans

Address by Gareth Evans, President of the International Crisis Group, to Seminar on The Memory of Violence and the Culture of Violence: Crisis Management and Beyond, sponsored by Hanasaari – The Swedish-Finnish Cultural Centre, Museum of Cultures, Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Swedish Embassy, Helsinki, 8 May 2006

The conflict in the Congo is probably the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis. Credible mortality studies estimate that not only have some 3.8 million people died since 1998, but over 1,000 people continue to die each day from conflict related causes, mostly disease and malnutrition but ongoing violence as well. What began as a struggle for liberation from Mobutu’s dictatorial regime in 1996 became two years later an all out war, drawing in nine African countries and splitting the country between half a dozen major rebel groups.

While some of the external interveners initially had genuine security concerns – with Rwanda in particular wanting to get its hands on perpetrators of the 1994 genocide who had fled in large numbers across the border – less elevated motives rapidly became more important for the interveners: diamonds, gold, coltan and revenue extorted from the local population.

But there are signs of hope. The neighbours’ troops have now withdrawn from the country and the main belligerents signed in a peace deal in 2002, creating the transitional government currently in power. The UN’s peacekeeping mission, MONUC, with some 17,000 personnel deployed, is the world body’s largest and most expensive current peacekeeping operation. Presidential and legislative elections are scheduled to be held on 30 July this year and 25 million voters – over 85 per cent of the estimated electorate – have registered to vote.

The European Union has contributed significantly to this process by funding much of the $480 million electoral budget, training several thousand policemen and by agreeing to make available a contingent of some 1500 European troops (EUFOR) to support the UN mission during the elections.

Major problems, however, remain. Most goals of the transition – unifying the country, creating a national army, and national reconciliation – have foundered due to the corruption and lack of vision of the Congolese leadership. The national army is the single greatest threat to the population: the seven brigades trained so far are often unpaid, and resort to taxing and abusing the population to survive. Pockets of foreign militia persist in the east of the country and give a pretext for Rwanda and Uganda to continue meddling in Congolese affairs. Above all, the state is run like a business by many of those in power, who use public office for personal enrichment. State institutions are weak to non-existent and the state provides few services to the local population.

This ongoing tragedy has generated remarkably little international interest in the plight of Congolese. On the latest available comparative figures, Darfur, where an estimated 200,000 people have died over the past three years, received $89 per person in humanitarian aid in 2004, whereas the Congo, with close to 4 million deaths over the last eight years, received just over $3 per person. This ratio appears to have improved somewhat more recently, but it is clear that the Congo will not be able to emerge from the cycle of poverty and conflict without much more international investment and assistance. The international community, not least the EU, has a responsibility to address this crisis in all its complexity.

There are three major challenges facing the country, as the International Crisis Group has made clear in our series of reports on the DRC – three already this year. First, reasonably free and fair elections need to be held so the country can have a government to hold to account; with violence contained both from those unhappy with the election process and who are bound to be disappointed with its outcome.

The second challenge is to make that government, and the other institutions of state that need to be created or re-created, work credibly with minimum corruption: strong oversight bodies must be set up, the parliament empowered, the courts made independent and auditing bodies properly staffed and funded.

The third and perhaps most critical challenge of all is to urgently create an integrated, professional army that, for the first time in the country’s history, would protect rather than abuse the population, and be able, together with UN forces, to tackle the remaining militias in the east.

1. Managing the Election Process

Three years ago, when the transitional government first took power, few people actually believed elections would ever take place. But there have been many successes, most of them unsung, over the past year: the registration of 25 million voters, over half of whom are women; the overwhelming approval of a new constitution in December; and the setting up of 53,000 polling booths. In a country the size of western Europe, with only an estimated 500 kilometers of paved roads, that is no mean feat. Competing in the polls on 30 July will be 33 presidential and over 9,500 legislative candidates from an extraordinary 269 political parties (although only half a dozen of these have the resources to set up offices and field candidates across the whole country).

But elections bring with them problems of their own. The popular veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi and his UDPS party have decided to boycott the election, claiming the process is already rigged by the other parties with access to state resources, media and security services: in fact Tshisekedi called on his supporters not to register to vote and then realised, too late, that he would not be able to stop elections from taking place and that the non-registration of some of his supporters now puts him at a disadvantage. Since around 10 per cent of voters overall (rising to 20 per cent in Kinshasa, and 30 per cent in the Kasais) could have been expected to vote for UDPS, and the boycott could certainly lead to major urban unrest in Kinshasa, and in the Kasais.

And for those contesting the election, there will as always be winners and losers. In this case, some of the losers have guns and a proven disposition to use them. The former Rwandan-backed rebels, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), who used to control around a third of the country, will lose most of their power. They currently have 11 ministers and vice-ministers in government, 116 parliamentarians and numerous heads of lucrative state-run enterprises, and stand to lose nearly all of them. The leader of the RCD, Azarias Ruberwa, is running as a presidential candidate, but never gets more than 2 or 3 per cent support in the opinion surveys.

What makes this likely huge loss particularly dangerous is the failure of army integration in the east. Dissident officers from the RCD have created a militia based close to the city of Goma led by Laurent Nkunda. Nkunda is notorious for repeated insurgencies he led in 2004 and in January this year, which have earned him an international arrest warrant and UN sanctions. He commands around 2,000-3,000 troops and, if nothing is done to stop him, is almost sure to launch further attacks to undermine elections. There is a troublesome ethnic dimension to the conflict as well, as Nkunda and his followers are almost all Congolese Hutu or Tutsi; fighting could easily degenerate, as it has in the past, into indiscriminate attacks targeting entire ethnic groups.

The UN mission in the Congo, MONUC, and the fledgling Congolese army can do rather more to preempt such fighting through political as well as military means. One of the roots of the conflict in the east is disputes over land tenure between communities, and the UN and the government need to set up structures to deal with these disputes. And Kinshasa and the UN need to match their words with action and arrest Nkunda. It would obviously be more helpful if political candidates spent more time discussing strategies for ethnic reconciliation in the east than whipping up hatred to boost their popularity, but it would be a brave prediction to suggest that they might.

It is crucial for the election results to be seen as broadly legitimate. As Crisis Group highlighted in our most recent report Congo’s Elections: Making or Breaking the Peace (27 April 2006), if the polls appear to be rigged, the post-elections period could be marred with violence and protests, not just by the RCD but any of the other 268 parties. And the potential for such fraud is huge. The security services, the media and the administration are deeply politicized and bound to try to skew the outcomes.

In many areas in the east, where armed groups maintain close ties to their former patrons, it is impossible for some political parties to campaign. Kabila himself has direct control of the over 12,000 strong presidential guard, which he has deployed to strategic locations throughout the country. It will be crucial to keep all of these troops garrisoned during the election period, except for areas where there militias seriously threaten the local population.

While the European Union is planning on making available at least 1,500 troops, the highest concentration of them will be in Kinshasa, and a good many of them will remain on standby outside the country: these troops do not seem likely to be given any role in the east, and it is unclear how robust a concept of operations they will have to go with their broad civilian protection mandate.

Many of the institutions that are tasked with monitoring the elections – the police and the courts – have shown considerable bias during the transition. All the judges on the Supreme Court, the arbiter for all electoral disputes, were named by Joseph Kabila before the transition began. Even if it acts neutrally, the Court has very limited resources, with fewer than 50 personnel deployed to address disputes arising in the 500 parliamentary seats and the presidential race. The international community is setting up a “committee of the wise” to act as a moral authority in case of political disputes during elections, but it will have only five members. Donors need to urgently invest in staffing the Supreme Court’s provincial offices, and need to coordinate their efforts in election monitoring to cover the largest possible area.

2. Fighting Corruption

None of the reforms in the Congo will be sustainable without something resembling good governance. By the end of Mobutu’s kleptocracy, the state had all but collapsed. The two wars of 1996 and 1998 have exacerbated this situation, and all state institutions are crippled by corruption. The abuse of public office for personal gain reaches from low-level civil servants to the highest members of the government and implicates many international corporations. Political actors regularly interfere in the administration, customs service, natural resources and the army to embezzle funds.

Separate studies by a UN expert panel and the private consulting firm Crown Agents estimated that between $870 million and $1.7 billion are lost every year through corruption in the customs service. Military experts in Kinshasa indicate that, every month, between $3 and $5 million are stolen from the $8 million army payroll. An audit of state-run enterprises revealed that millions of dollars were being embezzled by political appointees. This has a direct impact on the lives of ordinary Congolese. According to the World Health Organisation, 36,000 women die every year during childbirth in the country because they do not have access to health care. Almost a third of Congolese survive – or starve - on one meal or less a day.

A first step towards creating a state is through building institutions able to oversee and supervise the executive and the administration. This includes providing funding, training and expert advice to the parliament, courts and state auditing bodies. Parliament is the most important check on executive power, but the incoming legislature is likely to be weak and divided. The constitution gives the president the power to dissolve the national assembly and political parties are numerous, poor, ill-disciplined and disorganized. Although legislators have the power to launch commissions of inquiry and audits, they will not have the necessary resources to conduct them effectively. Donors need to provide funds for these commissions and expert advice to the legislators for the drafting of laws and audits.

The judiciary is also badly in need of reform and support. There is only one judge for every 30,000 people in the country, and some 80 per cent of the population have no access to courts. While at least 50,000 women were raped in just three eastern provinces in 2004, there were only 66 convictions, mostly sentences of less than five years. The Ministry of Justice has contravened the transitional constitution by naming, promoting and firing judges – a function that is supposed to be assumed by an independent council of judges. Despite the rampant graft, not a single public official has been convicted for corruption during the transition. The European Union and British government have already funded some programs to rehabilitate courts, and this effort needs to be expanded to the entire country, with a much higher level of investment. Impunity is a key element in the cycle of poverty, crime and corruption in the Congo and it is critical that it be seriously tackled.

Last but by no means least in this respect, the administration of natural resources must be improved so that this potential blessing is no longer a curse for the country. One billion dollars worth of diamonds are exported every year, yet the diamond producing region of Kasai is one of the poorest in the country. The population living next to the Inga dam, potentially the biggest hydroelectric power source in Sub-Saharan Africa, do not have electricity themselves. Many of the most mineral-rich concessions in the country have been bartered away at basement prices to multinational corporations, allegedly in return for hefty kickbacks.

In order to promote transparency in the resource sector, the various existing oversight mechanisms need to be strengthened; in particular a permanent parliamentary commission should be set up with sufficient resources to deal with natural resources. The Congo has signed up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which requires both private companies as well as the state to publish financial transactions related to natural resources, but the transitional government has done nothing to implement its commitment Clauses for disclosure of payments and transparency should be incorporated into domestic legislation. Donors should also consider funding an international NGO to monitor the implementation of reform in the mining sector, an approach has been relatively successful in Cambodia, Cameroon and Honduras.

3. Improving Security

Insecurity is the main cause of death in the Congo. Mortality in the east, the area most affected by militia, is at least 50 per cent higher than in the west of the country. Many armed groups persists, including the FDLR (who are led by the remnants of those who perpetrated the genocide in Rwanda in 1994), the Lord’s Resistance Army, (some members of which have fled Uganda to seek refuge in northeastern Congo), and the Mai-Mai (a local Congolese militia that recruits largely along tribal lines). The impact of these groups on society has been devastating. Near to 4 million people are displaced, around 9 per cent of women are widows and over 50,000 rapes have been documented in 2004 in three provinces alone: the real number of rapes may well be many times higher.

There needs to be a two-pronged solution to improve security. As described in Crisis Group’s 13 February report, Security Sector Reform in the Congo, the only sustainable way of addressing the country’s chronic instability is to create a professional national army and police force. Unfortunately, the international community – hampered by limitations on the use of development aid for military purposes as well as by a lack of will – has shied away from this, perhaps the most important task in the Congo.

The Angolans, the Belgians and the South Africans have each taken over army integration centers, where they train soldiers. However, these trained soldiers are then reinserted into the decrepit machinery of the Congolese army, where they often go for months without pay, are not fed, receive little to no medical care and have no resources for operations. In one integrated brigade, 236 soldiers succumbed to cholera shortly after their deployment, while six soldiers died of starvation in an integration camp. When soldiers were sent to Katanga late last year to deal with a Mai-Mai insurgency there, their operational budget of $250,000 was embezzled and the troops ended up extorting food out of the displaced people they were supposed to protect. No matter how good their training, in these conditions soldiers become a threat to civilians.

Reforms in the police, which is the prime body responsible for securing the elections, are still insufficient. 39,000 police are being trained to assure the security of the elections process, but most of these troops only receive a week training and little resources outside of the capital. Donors have put a lot of emphasis to train thousands of specialized units in Kinshasa, but police services in the interior are defunct and no match for the various roaming militia.

Crisis Group has been advocating for over a year for donors to adopt a much more hands-on approach to army and police reform. Essentially, the task is to transform these forces from predators to protectors. This can be done by creating an International Military Assistance and Training Team (IMATT) that would share control over the training, payment and command of Congolese troops with the government. Foreign officers work together with Congolese troops into the field for operations to ensure that they do not resort to extortion and abuse.

The European Union has moved in this direction, and their EUSEC mission in Kinshasa has achieved considerable successes with very few means. They have installed a payroll mechanism for the seven integrated brigades and together with other countries have helped train over 4,000 police. But much more remains to be done. For a start, salary levels need to be raised from the paltry $24 a month – far below the poverty line – to a decent wage.

It will take many more months to create a Congolese army that can take on the militia in the east. In the meantime, UN troops need to live up to their mandate of protecting civilians in imminent danger. MONUC has made considerable improvements over the past several years in its military operations. While in 2002 and 2004 blue helmets stood by and watched as hundreds of civilians were massacred, by 2005 they had taken a more aggressive stance in Ituri. Instead of waiting for violence to break out, they demilitarized the bases of various militia in joint operations with the Congolese army. This contributed to the demobilization of 14,000 combatants in Ituri. The presence of well-trained and self contained Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi brigades helped greatly.

This type of operation needs to be carried over the Kivus region as well, where there are still 8,000-10,000 FDLR combatants. The province of Katanga has perhaps become the most violent region of the country in recent months, and over 160,000 people have been displaced by fighting there between local Mai-Mai militia and the national army. This conflict will make electoral supervision difficult in central Katanga. While MONUC is deploying over 1,000 troops near the fighting, this will simply not be enough - and there is no indication whether they will actually take action against the militia or just observe from the sidelines.


The next six months will be the most difficult period of the peace process, as many current leaders will be forced from power. The polls will ideally form a watershed between a past of conflict, impunity and corruption to a more accountable state. But even if the elections themselves go well, the transition process will take many years, and it will only be with the next elections five years from now that we will be able to tell whether peace has become sustainable or not.

For the average Congolese, these reforms are immensely important. A World Bank survey on good governance in the Congo several years ago asked: “If the state was a person, how would you interact with him?”. One common response was “Bring him to justice.” Another, even starker, was “Kill him”. Needless to say, a rather less desolate approach to the obligations of citizenship is desperately overdue.

If this is to happen, and the Congo is to enjoy the stable peace and effective democratic governance its long-suffering people deserve, a sustained and substantial commitment from the international community, including the EU, will be absolutely critical.