Since May this year, the Great Lakes Region has been in the spotlight – with events in eastern D R Congo dominating the headlines. In March, the world’s attention turned on the region with greater intensity when the M23 rebels marched on Goma and captured it from Congolese government forces.
Smelling possible stories of savage brutality and eager to invent them should those they found on the ground not be sufficiently horrific, the international media descended on DRC with heightened, if slanted, imagination. They led a very noisy condemnation of the rebels and their alleged backers. Not a word about the myriad other armed groups in the region and the atrocities they committed. Nothing said about the cowardly national army, pillaging, looting and raping as it retreated.
The international human rights brigade and humanitarian mega business fed the media with material for selective condemnation in the Congolese conflict. They shouted like the onlookers in that famous trial two millennia ago urging the judges (this time not an individual but a few countries calling themselves the international community) to crucify (not an innocent individual but an equally innocent country).
Various governments, as has now become familiar practice, took their cue from the alarm raisers (never mind that they are often false or raised on behalf of the wrong people) and brought out trees and nails for the crucifixion.
Then just over a week ago, the M23 rebels, on the directions of the International Conference on the Great Lakes (ICGLR), withdrew from Goma and other towns it had captured as a condition for negotiations with the Congolese government.
With the prospects of peace and the consequent absence of blood and stories of horror, the scene was no longer interesting for the international media. They packed their cameras and notebooks and disappeared. Screaming, shock-filled headlines became fewer.
The rights and humanitarian groups suddenly fell silent. They had achieved their aims. Not only had they stopped the M23 advance, they had also forced it to withdraw, and more importantly, had the rebels’ alleged supporters punished.
Such quick disappearance from the scene when prospects of peace increase, raises a few questions.
Are all these groups – the media, human rights and humanitarian agencies really interested in peace and stability in DRC? Do they want to see the conflict there resolved?
Clearly not. If they were, they would be putting pressure on their countries to force them to get the DRC Government and M23 rebels to talk peace – the same pressure they had exerted to get them to cut aid to Rwanda, ostensibly to force it to rein in its supposed protégés.
At the very least, they should be supporting the ICGLR mediation efforts
They have done neither of these. At best, they have remained silent. At worst, they have continued to harp on their favourite blame game. Or they have been very loud in expressing doubts about whether they can work. On other occasions, they have undermined ICGLR efforts outright.
In this atmosphere of lack of enthusiasm for, or hostility to, an enduring solution to the conflict in eastern Congo, other complications have come in. Different interests seem not to be prepared to give ongoing efforts a chance to succeed. They are pushing other, parallel efforts that are bound to distract from the primary objective and make the situation even more confusing.
For instance, even as the ICGLR mediation efforts continue, the French Ambassador to the United Nations, Mr Gerard Araud, has been canvassing support from his colleagues for a more robust mandate for MONUSCO, the UN force in Congo.
There are several problems with this proposal.
One, MONUSCO has not failed because of a weak mandate or insufficient equipment. Their failure is a result of lack of interest in a resolution of the conflict. None of the troops – nearly all of them from faraway places – are keen to understand the issues, let alone lay down their lives to resolve them. In any case, as has amply been reported, they stand to gain materially from maintaining the status quo.
Two, the French have a record in this region of hiding behind the UN mandate to advance narrow national interests that are often counter to the stated aims of the mandate. Their proposal cannot inspire confidence that it will be otherwise this time around.
Equally, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has been dying to get directly involved in the current conflict in DRC. Although they appear to support ICGLR mediation efforts, they would (at least the more powerful ones) be happy to be taking the lead.
Again, there are problems with SADC positioning itself to replace ICGLR.
Firstly, SADC cannot be impartial. Already in a statement after the meeting in Dar es Salaam at the weekend, the leaders restated their support for DRC against M23 which they labelled a negative force. That does not help improve the atmosphere at the ongoing talks in Kampala.
Secondly, nearly all the southern African countries, especially the big ones, have mining interests in the DRC. Their offer of support is more likely to do with safeguarding these interests, and even acquire new ones than with the search for peace and stability.
Besides, an increasing number of players in the DRC will only confuse the situation a lot more and not lead to a resolution of the conflict.
In the current circumstances, the most sensible thing to do is to support efforts that are already underway. New proposals can only distract from these, or even take the region back a few months. That is not in anyone’s interest.