In the late 1990s and early 2000s, “Africa’s World War” claimed the lives of over four million in the Great Lakes region, even as the world scarcely noticed. With the Sun City peace accord and new leadership in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the security situation in the sub-region stabilized. The main focus of fighting, the eastern region of the DRC, even began to attract foreign investment in its rich mineral reserves. Since April 2012, however, fresh fighting – especially in the provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu – has reawakened the ghosts of the bad old days.
This week the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo claimed that mutinous rebels in the Kivus are operating a “state within a state.” The rebels, who apparently receive covert support from the government of Rwanda, are known as M23. As with many relationships in Congo, the true motivations of M23 are murky. At some level, though, the mutineers are genuinely upset over failure of the Congolese government to pay and equip them. Now these former government soldiers are equipping themselves by extracting “taxes” at checkpoints and generating revenue from mining operations.
These markers of state failure – corruption, unpaid bureaucrats and soldiers, and official loss of control over territory – are nothing new for the DRC. Under the long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko (1965-1997), Congo experienced gradual institutional decay driven by official thievery at all levels. The “big man” Mobutu is estimated to have stolen more than $4 billion. Ghost workers proliferated in the bureaucracy. Local officials survived by extracting bribes from the public. And huge chunks of territory – especially in the East – mostly persisted outside government control. Eventually, state failure in Congo served as a main catalyst for Africa’s World War. (The aftermath of the Rwandan genocide was also critical in precipitating this catastrophic war.)
So what is the UN doing? The peacekeeping mission has 18,000 soldiers and a fairly robust mandate for operations. Even so, Congo has a vast territory and there are too few blue helmets on the ground. More importantly, the UN can only do so much to address rot within the Congolese state.
*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.