Global Policy Forum

Congo’s Civil War – From Warlord to Statesman


By Horand Knaup

Der Spiegel
November 2, 2008

The general is late. One hour passes, then another. Important people take their time. The sun beats down on the stadium in Rutshuru, where the shaded sections are reserved for high-ranking officials and officers in the stands. But patience has been expected of the people in eastern Congo for a long time, and they also know full well that many must suffer while a handful of people do extremely well. General Laurent Nkunda, 41, is tall and slim. He wears inconspicuous glasses, has six children, studied psychology for several years and learned his military skills in Rwanda. He's a good listener, and he has a gift for convincing people.

However, human rights organizations and the United Nations peacekeeping troops stationed in Congo accuse him of serious war crimes. The BBC reported on Thursday that his rebels had received aid from the Rwandan government -- suggesting the civil war here is part of a wider regional conflict -- and the government in Kinshasa would like nothing better than to see him hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

To do that, they would have to catch him, which isn't easy. Nkunda is a powerful man. There are several ways to secure influence in a large, lawless country like Congo: An ambitious leader can seek allies abroad, or build his own army. He can attempt to capture resources, and he can take steps to overthrow the president. Nkunda has used all four methods.

The general gets out of his limousine. The windows are tinted. He's selected a gray field uniform with a matching hat for his appearance. He wants the world to see him as a man preparing for battle. Tall bodyguards clear the way for his first appearance on a big stage. Foreign camera teams and photographers are there, along with about 3,000 residents of Rutshuru. There is a simple reason for the rapidly growing interest in this warlord: Many militia leaders in eastern Congo have higher ambitions, but none can match Nkunda's intellect, leadership skills or military prowess. His army of about 8,000 men is considered the most disciplined among all the warring factions. In addition to fighting Maji-Maji rebels and Hutu militias, Nkunda's forces are battling -- and are vastly superior to -- the 20,000 government soldiers in the region. And now Nkunda has decided to challenge President Joseph Kabila, 37, politically. "Such a big country, such a rich country," the general calls out into the stadium, "and there are no roads, no hospitals, no schools -- how can this be?" He asks the questions everyone is asking, questions which make the situation in Congo -- since there are no answers -- even more tragic than the suffering in Somalia.

Congo has some of the world's richest deposits of minerals. It has so much water in its rivers that it could supply half the continent with hydroelectric power. The eastern section of the country in particular has the potential to produce three harvests a year. "This country has no leadership," says the general, as the loudspeakers hum. "I want to make Congo strong again." In late October, Nkunda's troops appeared at the airport in the city of Goma. The soldiers of the Congolese army -- vastly outnumbering Nkunda's forces -- ran away. Peacekeepers in the Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) were already prepared to surrender the city. But then Nkunda ordered his men to stop advancing, allowed trucks carrying aid to pass through and pulled back his units.

So is Nkunda a humanitarian?

Hardly. In 2002 his troops are believed to have committed a massacre of civilians in Kisangani in northeast Congo. In 2004, his soldiers made their way, raping and looting, through Bukavu on the southern shore of Lake Kivu. In the area under his control, children are abducted and forced into military service. Word of the troops' behavior has spread. When they advanced a few weeks ago on Rutshuru, near the border with Uganda, many residents fled to the Kibati refugee camp outside Goma. "We are afraid of Nkunda," they say. "His men rape the women and kill many people. They cut off their heads and force the men to serve in his army."

MONUC spokesman Jean-Paul has a similarly drastic view of Nkunda and his men. "His army is not known for its acts of charity. There have been massive human rights violations in the area he controls."

Nevertheless, many Congolese conceded that there is significantly more order in Nkunda's realm than outside it. The school system, the police, the courts and public offices function reasonably well in his zone, and the farmers have been able to return to their fields. Now the general wants to be more than just a rebel leader, and he has taken to playing the role of statesman.

Reasons for War, Both Ethnic and Economic

There are many reasons why war has raged in eastern Congo for the past 13 years. They include natural resources, which attract thieves and shady businesspeople; the weak central government, which is unable to maintain order; cabinet ministers, who take advantage of the lawless circumstances to shamelessly line their pockets; and a clash of different linguistic and ethnic groups. There is a tense and potent rivalry between the Nande and Hutu ethnic groups on the one hand, and the Tutsis on the other. In the former kingdom of Rwanda, which extended into what is now eastern Congo, the Tutsis and Hutus were not different tribes -- the words referred, rather, to different social classes.

Even if Nkunda has brought a relative measure of order to his realm, he is not popular among the majority of Congolese. He is a Tutsi, and Tutsis are tolerated without being liked. They have bigger houses and larger cattle herds. Thousands have lost everything they own in recent weeks and fled to the forests to escape the fighting, but some Tutsis have managed to keep their sizeable herds of cattle safe, even when surrounded by gun battles.

Dislike of Tutsis is fueled by a history of conflict, envy and, for many, painful personal experiences. When Laurent Kabila, the father of the current president, who was allied with the Tutsis at the time, crossed eastern Congo on his way to the Congolese capital Kinshasa in 1996 to overthrow the unpopular dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, he treated Hutus with great brutality. To this day, neither Nande nor Hutu will sit next to a Tutsi on the bus in Goma, and when a wave of violence swept through the city in late October, it was mainly Tutsi shops that were looted. "Many believe that the Tutsi simply come from Rwanda," says Hussein Kalumbi, a teacher. "The Nande believe that they are from here." Kalumbi's mother, who lives near Rutshuru, is a Tutsi who was born in Congo. But she speaks the Rwandan language, Kinyarwanda, and her ancestors were ruled by the Rwandan king, whose realm extended deep into present-day Congo.

No small number of Hutu and Nande accuse Rwandan President Paul Kagame, also a Tutsi, of wanting to re-live history. Kagame, they believe, is planning to establish a new empire that would encompass the regions where the Rwandan language is spoken -- namely Rwanda and parts of Uganda and Congo. In this arrangement, General Nkunda would be assigned the role of a governor in Congo.

The truth is probably not as complicated. The general was only able to become as strong as he is now because he has powerful allies -- of both the voluntary and involuntary sort. Rwandan President Kagame is one of the voluntary allies. Rwanda clearly benefits from the unstable conditions, and earns millions of dollars each year for exporting raw materials that come from Congo. It is also no secret that a sizeable number of Nkunda's fighters are former soldiers in the Rwandan army. In fact a draft report for the UN, which the BBC reported on Thursday, says the Rwandan government has directly helped Nkunda's rebels in eastern Congo with child soldiers, aid and even mortar fire from Rwandan territory. The report also claimed that elements of the Congolese army had collaborated with Nkunda's militia to exploit Congo's mineral resources. The government's information minister, Lambert Mende Omalanga, has denied these accusations of Congolese support.

Chaos and Corruption

But Nkunda's most important helper -- one who has assumed the role far from voluntarily -- is Joseph Kabila, Congo's president. He is attempting to govern an enormous country from Kinshasa, a capital on the periphery. The problem is that Kabila, after eight years in office, has not moved past the test stage. His central administration is among the most corrupt in the world. There are ministers who hold shares in mines, ministers who run airlines, and ministers who pocket the money intended as pay for soldiers. The president's budget alone is more than 20 times as high as the healthcare budget for the entire country. Nevertheless, both Kabilas, father and son, were long supported by many Congolese. Those days have passed for good now that the exhausted population of Congo has realized that nothing in their country has changed since Mobutu's overthrow.

In Kabila's Congo, the police and the courts are dysfunctional, there is no education system, and there are no roads or a functioning transportation system. By the middle of the year, at least two dozen inmates had starved to death in the prisons of East Kasai Province. In Butembo, 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Goma, only 10 out of about 200 inmates were convicted in proper trials. Teachers no longer receive their pay from the government, but from fees paid by their students' parents. To obtain a passport, a Congolese citizen must travel to Kinshasa and pay $1,000 (€775) -- the equivalent of several years' pay.

A government body called CONADER, meant to coordinate the disarmament process among the various militias, has failed miserably. The World Bank, the Netherlands and others pumped more than $400 million (€310 million) into the program. A few thousand militia members were paid $110 (€85) each for turning in their weapons, but the funds were no longer sufficient to pay for the construction materials the men had been promised to build their own homes. The money had simply disappeared, and when an investigative commission sought to investigate the distributors of the funds in Kinshasa, a fire destroyed the accounting records.

The most serious problem is a lack of security. Now power can guarantee that law and order will be upheld. Kabila's soldiers, in particular, are among the most notorious marauders in eastern Congo. When they hurried through Goma in late October, fleeing from Nkunda, they seized cars and motorcycles. Anyone who refused to hand over his vehicle was shot. "The majority of government troops might as well be sent home," says a MONUC officer in Goma. "They are a rotten bunch." Out of desperation, and to limit further attacks on the civilian population, MONUC has begun handing out packages of food to government soldiers.

In the Rutshuru stadium, Nkunda gives his speech without notes. He appeals to the pride, patriotism and hope of his fellow Congolese. "Other countries are developing. We are not, even though we are rich. It hurts me to see that we have fallen behind Somalia." Of course, he adds, everything will improve, provided he has the support of the people. "Rutshuru will become a model for all of East Africa," he tells his audience. Officers who have defected from the Congolese army explain why they fled. A thief caught in the act is pulled onto the stage -- a frightened-looking 12-year-old boy. He is supposedly a Maji-Maji fighter who was captured and will now be returned to his parents. This motley collection of characters seems to reinforce Nkunda's promise of a better future.

His populist appearance is well-organized. He dances with young girls, administers the oath of office to fresh police recruits and introduces the city's new representative. "Do you want to be ruled by strangers, or by people you know?" he says. In the stadium, people murmur compliantly, which the general interprets as a sign of approval. A president without power, soldiers who need to be fed by the UN and who, for their part, are unable to stop even one of the warring parties -- these are the circumstances that have allowed Nkunda and his soldiers to raid the countryside and expand his sphere of influence. Peace in Congo is no longer a prospect without him. President Kabila has understood this, and on Monday a delegation of Nkunda's rebels will meet for talks with envoys from Kinshasa.

More Information on the UN Security Council
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