Tempering Optimism in DR Congo

Everyone was indeed surprised by this morning’s news of the seemingly commendable arrest of Congolese General Laurent Nkunda by the Rwandan army, but my inherent streak of pessimism toward Congo-related developments has me worrying that some folks are being too sanguine about the potential positive consequences of this tricky maneuver. Sure, one destabilizing factor (and an increasingly power-hungry one, at that) is gone, and if Nkunda’s soldiers do in fact intend to join the Congolese army, as has been reported, then that is, ostensibly, a good sign. However — and there is always a however — another potentially destabilizing factor (Rwanda’s army, which has a, shall we say, historical penchant for invading and destabilizing Congo) has firmly made its presence felt. And then, there’s always the fact that, as the Enough Project’s Colin Thomas-Jensen points out in this worthwhile analysis, an indicted war criminal has currently replaced Nkunda as the head of the rebel army. Colin makes the important — but underemphasized — reminder that this is not necessarily a good thing for Congolese civilians.

According to one narrative, the arrest of Nkunda is a sign of progress: growing cooperation between the Congolese and Rwandan governments, a step toward consolidating the Congolese state after the 2006 (somewhat) free and fair elections, and the elimination of two rebel groups (Nkunda’s CNDP and the FDLR, the Hutu militias whose long-sought-for dissolution was what attracted Rwanda to this bargain). According to another, I see Rwandan forces invading Congo (again), without telegraphing any concrete plan for how to eliminate the FDLR nuisance; a Congolese president who has thus far been pretty successful at getting his political rivals sent to The Hague or arrested by a neighboring army (granted, these are no martyrs); and, generally, a large number of people with guns and not too much accountability.

One sign of the shadiness of the operation, which Colin alludes to but not too many seemed to have picked up, is the bizarre turnaround of the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, MONUC. MONUC has never had the upper hand in eastern Congo, caught between protecting civilians and supporting the notoriously civilian-abusing Congolese army, but recent developments leave it in an even more awkward position on the sidelines. On Wednesday, the mission’s head felt it necessary to clarify that MONUC was not involved in the joint Congolese-Rwandan operation to wipe out the FDLR. The next day, it called for a role — protecting civilians, not in anti-FDLR operations — in the operation. The exclusion of MONUC, the world’s largest peacekeeping mission, from this supposedly coordinated effort does not, I would wager, bode well for either civilian protection or a concerted attempt to secure peace in Congo.

Plus, Nkunda’s pet goat is, for all we know, still on the loose.