DRC and Rwanda: The heart of darkness keeps getting darker

By Khadija Patel 27 June 2012

On Tuesday the United Nations Security Council held consultations on sanctions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, after the interim report of the Group of Experts on the DRC was finally released last Friday. The most contentious chapter of the report – said to incriminate Rwanda in sponsoring violence in the eastern shoulder of the DRC – is, however, yet to be released; a silence that only adds to the Western world’s ignorance. By KHADIJA PATEL. 

To many of us, notions of the Congo conjure up images from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is so tempting to appeal to Conrad’s Congo to explain the Congo of today. But this is to ignore the country’s agency – the multifarious, contemporary DRC, which is so much more complex than just the riches lying in wait in its soil. 

The DRC has always been suspended awkwardly in Western consciousness between romanticised literary descriptions and a somewhat more banal obsession with the safety of its mineral wealth. As political scientist Laura Seay succinctly tweeted, “One day I will get an RA to compile a list of every article that’s relied on lazy Conrad trope to frame a DRC story. There are thousands.” Even Tintin shines as an example – the famed fictitious wunderkind’s first-edition adventures in Congo appeared with the caveat, “Bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period”. How sad, then, that contemporary reportage hasn’t progressed much, often failing to consider Congo as a nation of human beings living in the present day. 

There are few sources of information that deal with the Congo in all its complexity, although the United Nations Group of Experts (GoE) Reports on the DRC are reputed to be the best source of credible information on the reality of the DRC’s seemingly constant flux between war and peace.

These reports have been presented to the United Nations Security Council twice a year for the last eight years. Writing on her blog, Texas in Africa, Seay admits that these reports are not ideal, but adds, a little resignedly, that they are the best of a bad bunch of sources. “The reports are not perfect, but they are generally about as good as data gets when it comes to the DRC,” she says, adding, “[They are] fastidiously researched and documented, usually having annexes containing incredibly valuable (and damning) data (eg, receipts for illicit mineral transactions, photos of destroyed villages, load lists for cargo planes carrying weapons). The members of the GoE really know their stuff, most live in the region while conducting research, and they have connections and usually manage to talk to members of most of the armed groups operating in the (Kivu regions) and beyond.” 

Usually, the first GoE reports for the year are released to the United Nations Security Council between May and early June. This year, however, the public release of the report has been held up over what is said to be the fate of a controversial annex that delves into reports of Rwandan support for mutineers in eastern Congo. Senior members of the DRC government have been in a huff over the delayed release of the GoE report, accusing the United States of shielding its ally, Rwanda, from damning allegations. The United States, of course, refutes these allegations, and the eventual release of the report last Friday was made without the incriminating chapter. Said annex is due to be released in two weeks, allowing the Rwandan government to formulate an adequate response to the allegations detailed within it. 

Discussions of the report have, however, already begun in the Security Council. Crucially, Seay reminds us that the exact contents of the withheld annex remain unknown. Its actual contents and its potential effects will only be known in the next two weeks. For now, the discussion will centre around the version of the report that is already in the open. And that, Seay points out, is not without consequence. The GoE report shows that the mutiny in eastern DRC has actually been months in the making. The announcement by Congolese president Joseph Kabila of his intent to arrest Bosco Ntaganda proved just a catalyst in the timing of the revolt. Ntaganda’s forces were readying themselves to revolt from as far back as the presidential elections in December last year.  

South Africa’s ambassador the United Nations, Baso Sangqu, was reluctant to comment on the report before the meeting on Tuesday, but reports indicate that Rwanda’s possible involvement in the recent mutiny in eastern DRC, led by forces loyal to Ntaganda and the newly-formed group called the 23 March Movement (M23), may well have been raised in the meeting. Rwanda is, of course, no stranger to the fortunes of its neighbour, but this kind of scrutiny into its role in the conflict is unprecedented in recent years. Rwandan officials and journalists who pledge their loyalty to the state-line have been quick to blame New-York based Human Rights Watch for their troubles. 

Field research conducted by Human Rights Watch in the region in May 2012 found that Rwandan army officials had provided weapons, ammunition, and an estimated 200 to 300 recruits to support Ntaganda’s mutiny in the Rutshuru territory in eastern Congo. The recruits, they say, include civilians forcibly recruited in the Musanze and Rubavu districts in Rwanda, some of whom were children under 18. One state sponsoring violence in another is generally a crime anyway, but in the DRC it is especially damning. 

If indeed Rwanda provided weapons and ammunition to Ntaganda’s mutiny, they are in contravention of the United Nations Security Council arms embargo on Congo, which stipulates that all states are to “take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer, from their territories or by their nationals […] of arms and any related material, and the provision of any assistance, advice or training related to military activities […] to all non-governmental entities and individuals operating in the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The Foreign Minister of Rwanda, Louise Mushikiwabo, has been at the United Nations’ headquarters this week, ready to defend her country from these allegations. On Wednesday she is set to address the Security Council on Rwanda’s defence. Speaking to the media in the last few days, she has also emphasised that news reports alleging Rwandan involvement in recent clashes are impacting the lives of the people in eastern DRC, particularly Rwandans. 

Not that this has calmed the brewing storm. Last week, the Foreign Minister of the DRC, Raymond Tshibanda, wrote to the Security Council informing it that there was evidence of Rwandan involvement in the recent crisis in the east, and that this could affect relations between the two countries. The letter also asked for the Council to remind Rwanda of its international obligations. 

The response remains to be seen, and the missing chapter of the report – whatever form it takes – is likely to be pivotal. There could still be a constructive dialogue, yes. But sadly, it is more likely that the outcome of these discussions will be felt in further conflict. DM

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Photo: Newly arrived refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo gather at the Nakamira transit camp from the La Corniche border crossing near Gisenyi, northwest Rwanda, May 2, 2012, after fleeing the Masisi region in Congo’s North Kivu province when fighting broke out between Congolese troops and fighters loyal to a renegade general. Clashes erupted after Congolese President Joseph Kabila announced last month he would try to arrest Ntaganda, accused by the International Criminal Court of recruiting child soldiers to fight in northeastern Congo’s ethnic conflict. (REUTERS)


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