Congo Needs an Army

Posted in Africa | 27-Aug-04 | Author: Mvemba Phezo Dizolele and Laur

A Burundian soldier looks into a mass grave in Gatumba, Burundi August 16, 2004.

The recent massacre of 160 Congolese refugees at the Gatumba camp in Burundi by Hutu rebels allegedly based in Congo underscores the need for a unified, well-trained, well-equipped and paid Congolese army and police. Until such a national army is raised, eastern Congo will remain a lawless place. With its limited chapter VII mandate, the UN mission in Congo, known as MONUC, will remain an ineffective force, a sitting target for both sides of the conflict. Rwandan and Ugandan proxies, Interahamwe militias, and groups of armed bandits will continue terrorizing the population. Without a strong national army and police, the transition government will be unable to enforce its decisions and restore peace in Congo.

Since the transitional government took office a year ago, fighting has threatened the fragile peace process in Bukavu and surrounding areas multiple times. As part of the peace agreement between former rebel groups and President Kabila, all armed factions were to integrate into a unified national army. However, the much-needed integration never materialized. Congo’s transition government finds itself with an unpaid, under-trained, under-equipped, and disorganized army fighting a collection of undisciplined ragtag militias in the East who wear uniforms from the RCD rebel force, but refuse to take orders from the RCD’s political wing that joined the transition government in Kinshasa. None of these forces have stopped the violence committed by Interahamwe militiamen and other Rwandan rebel groups who found themselves on Congolese territory after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Instead, all the armed factions and foreign troops or militias have perpetrated unspeakable atrocities against the civilian population.

The lack of a competent national army and police has created the right conditions for a continuation of the war in eastern Congo. Border insecurity was the primary pretext for Rwandan and Ugandan invasions of Congo. UN troops have been largely ineffective at monitoring the eastern Congo border and preventing atrocities against civilians. Despite MONUC’s $608 million yearly budget, the peacekeeping mission does not have the number or caliber of troops necessary to provide border security, control militias and armed bandits, or end large-scale human rights abuses in eastern Congo. MONUC should be improved and fortified, but in the end, a UN peacekeeping mission is not a good long-term replacement for a competent and professional national army.

Thirty-two years of Mobutu’s kleptocracy, followed by an eight-year civil war, have decimated Congolese fighting forces. Particularly, when it comes to paying military and civil servants, the transitional government coffers are empty. Congo needs the support of the European Union and the United States to secure funds to pay the salaries of its military, police force, judicial system, and civil service during the transition period. The money could be guaranteed through bilateral agreements or by financial assistance to Congo from the World Bank. International development agencies, such as USAID and DFID, could work with the transition government to create a transparent and practical system for salary distribution.

Despite promises from the US, Britain, and France to help rebuild the Congolese national army once a transition government was formed, Belgium is the only country that has actually become involved in training troops – and they have only trained one battalion. Congo needs more partners with bigger resources, for the daunting task ahead. Without a robust army and law enforcement structures, the country will never be able to hold long-awaited elections. Such a failure will continue to keep the Great Lakes region in chaos, with dire consequences for millions of innocent civilians.

In the words of the late Patrice Lumumba, without a strong defense and law enforcement system, Congo will remain “a house without a door, a door without a key.”

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele has worked as a radio broadcaster at the Voice of America’s French Service to Africa. Laura Engelbrecht is a former political officer at the US Embassy in Kinshasa.