New fires relight in Eastern Congo
By Rene Wadlow
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in his address at the start of the Human Rights Council on 26 February gave a cry of alarm of dangerous and worsening armed conflicts in which violations of human rights were an important factor. Along with conflicts that have drawn international attention such as Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, he cited two conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC), the continued violence in the Kasai of the eastern Congo and the re-ignited armed conflict in the Ituri area, also in eastern RDC near Lake Albert, facing Uganda.
There had already bee fighting in Ituri in 1997 and in 2003, but there had followed a period of relative calm. Now, since December 2017, the drums of war are again beating. People are killed, villages burned, people displaced and refugees fleeing to Uganda.
In some ways, the Ituri conflict is a classic one between the Hema, who are cattle herders and the Lendu who are settled farmers. While there have often been conflicts between herders and sedentary farmers in Africa, what makes the conflict particularly dangerous is that it was herder-settled farmer disputes that was the spark that set off the ongoing conflict in Darfur, Sudan and also in South Sudan . These two conflicts have created regional instability, refugee flows and great suffering. The conflicts in Darfur, South Sudan and Kasai have resisted all efforts of mediation and negotiations in good faith.
The government of the RDC has done little to develop the infrastructure of the eastern part of the country which lacks administrators and civil servants. Moreover, the country is in political turmoil over a possible third term of the President. Thus the whole east of the country continues an armed struggle with ever-changing groups which 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.
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 United Nations forces and humanitarian NGOs present. A deep and deadly struggle for influence is being played out in the shadows with an ever-changing cast of characters.
The United Nations 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 favourable to the far-away incompetent central government. One of the armed factions, the M23 is widely considered to be favoured 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.
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 pre-colonial tribal society had been too weakened during the colonial period to return to pre-colonial 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.