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New Fires Relight in Eastern Congo

In Africa, Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, The Search for Peace, United Nations, World Law on August 25, 2013 at 4:25 PM


By René Wadlow

In a message of August 24, 2013 addressed to United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Association of World Citizens (AWC) highlighted that the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern capital of North Kivu Province, Goma, had been shelled for the past three days, including Saturday 24.

The shelling seems to be a continuation of the struggle for power and wealth between heavily-armed rebels, called the March 23 Movement (M23) and the Congolese central government’s army – the Democratic Republic of Congo Armed Forces (FARDC).

This struggle with ever-changing groups began in 1996, two years after the genocide in Rwanda which led to a refugee influx into eastern Congo.  From 1998 to 2003, the area was the scene of fighting between forces of at least six countries – Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

A fighter with the M23 Movement.

A fighter with the M23 Movement.

Since the end of the international fighting, the area has been divided into what can be called “mafia clans” running protection rackets and trying to make a profit from minerals, timber, food supplies for the UN forces and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations present. A deep and deadly struggle for influence is being played out in the shadows with an ever-changing cast of characters.

The UN has a large and expensive peacekeeping group in the area, the MONUC, but with uneven results.  UN forces are seen by the local population as favorable to the far-away incompetent central government.  The M23 is widely considered to be favored by the government of Rwanda.

UN peacekeeping troops are generally effective when there is peace to keep. However what is required today in eastern Congo is not so much more soldiers under UN command as reconciliation bridge-builders, persons who are able to restore relations among the ethnic groups of the area.  The UN, national governments, and non-governmental organizations need to develop bridge-building teams who can help to strengthen local efforts at conflict resolution and re-establishing community relations.

World Citizens were among those in the early 1950s who stressed the need to create UN peacekeeping forces with soldiers especially trained for such a task.  Today a new type of world civil servant is needed – those who in areas of tension and conflict can undertake the slow but important task of restoring confidence among peoples in conflict, establishing contacts and looking for ways to build upon common interests.

There is only so much the MONUC mission can do to keep the peace and assist the civilian population in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There is only so much the MONUC mission can do to keep the peace and assist the civilian population in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As the militias and “mafia clans” have proliferated, rivalries, particularly over land tenure and use have become a key source of conflict.  With the breakdown of society, there was a parallel breakdown of local, traditional conflict reduction mechanisms.  The precolonial tribal society had been too weakened during the colonial period to return to precolonial forms of governance.  Post-colonial administration had never been put into place, and so the result was a void of social rules and mechanisms for dispute settlement.

In particular, disputes over land became critical.  Land tenure issues have always been complex.  Land is often thought of as belonging to the ethnic community and is given to clans or to individuals for their use, sometimes for a given period, sometimes for several lifetimes if the land is continually cultivated.  The rules of land tenure often differ from one ethnic group to another, even a small distance apart. Traditionally, clan chiefs would be called upon to settle land disputes, often by compromises, so win-win solutions were often found. With the large displacement of people, land disputes have become frequent, and clan chiefs have often disappeared or lost their function as judges.

Many people have left villages near main roads to live in relative safety far from roads. They have had to move several times and to re-clear land for planting.  Local markets have been destroyed.  Social organizations such as churches have been disbanded, and family links, which provide the African “safety net” have been destroyed by death and displacement.  What trust existed between groups has been largely replaced by fear.  A few people are making money from the disorder by plundering natural resources, but economic injustice and deprivation remain the order of the day.

There is a short-term need to bring the current fighting to a negotiated end, but future security is closely linked to the ways in which land tenure and land use issues are settled.

René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

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