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In the “Heart of Darkness”

George Roberts, 16.11.2012
If the EU is not prepared to follow the direction pointed by the footsteps it itself has previously left in the central African rainforest, then it must be asked when the Common Foreign and Security Policy will ever become a reality living up to its name?

If the EU is not prepared to follow the direction pointed by the footsteps it itself has previously left in the central African rainforest, then it must be asked when the Common Foreign and Security Policy will ever become a reality living up to its name?

On 20 November 2012, a band of several thousand armed rebels, going by the name of the ‘March 23 Movement’ (M23), seized the city of Goma on the eastern fringes of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their motives and aims are unclear. The leadership claims that the national government has broken peace accords signed in 2009, in which the group agreed to change from a rebel movement into a legitimate political party – a switch that M23 has now reversed with its current offensive. Doubtless they are also unsettled by President Joseph Kabila’s calls for their leader, General Bosco ‘The Terminator’ Ntaganda, to be arrested and stand trial for war crimes. The rank and file may simply be motivated by empty stomachs. Whatever the reasoning behind the rebellion, it has already forced hundreds of thousands of innocent Congolese from their homes.

The Congolese civil war broke out in 1996, when Laurent Kabila – the current president’s father – launched a similar rebellion in the eastern borderlands, disappeared into the rainforest and reappeared months later on the outskirts of Kinshasa. He toppled Mobutu Sese Seko, the country’s kleptocratic leader since 1965, but was unable to secure peace. The ensuing conflict’s politics are beyond comprehension and in many senses beyond the point: violence has become endemic to eastern Congo. The zenith of what has been variously termed ‘The Great Africa War’ and ‘Africa’s World War’ was reached in 1998-9, when nine neighbouring states were dragged into the fighting by the allure of Congo’s rich mineral deposits or in the hope of settling long-running feuds with rival states. Central Africa’s rivers of blood flowed into the Congo Basin – most significantly, for our purpose, from the hills of Rwanda and Uganda. M23’s offensive is merely the opening of a fresh chapter of one of Africa’s most troubling stories.

Where does Europe enter the present scene? Assertive activity in Congo has been one of the few moments of strength in the tepid history of the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), first introduced as part of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Under the CFSP’s military arm, five EU peacekeeping missions have been dispatched to the country, including 2003’s Operation Artemis, the first autonomous EU mission beyond the geographical borders of Europe itself. Various other operations followed: EUPOL Kinshasa and EUFOR RD Congo sought to assist the country’s transition to democracy around the time of the landmark 2006 elections; the ongoing EUPOL RD Congo works on governance issues, largely related to making democratic reforms to the police and justice sectors – efforts that should not be overlooked by too great a focus on the violence further east. There is admittedly also a small-scale EU mission, EUSEC, operating largely out of Kinshasa via smaller detachments in the interior to provide assist reforms of the Congolese army. As the archetypal African crisis, exhibiting a full catalogue of human rights abuses – the use of child soldiers, sexual crimes, mutilation – that have become so commonplace as to become mere reporters’ footnotes – the conflict in Congo represented an opportunity for the EU to demonstrate its commitment to a more peaceful world, even if their missions were mostly focused around the capital.

Almost a decade on from Artemis, in the face of the current crisis, the EU and its members’ leaders have barely raised their voices beyond the usual bureaucratic appeals for peace in the region. Despite the denial of the two states, M23 are almost certainly receiving at least indirect backing from Rwanda and Uganda. Having become drawn into the initial wave of fighting in 1996, Rwandan and Ugandan forces have reaped the riches of the Congolese rainforest, extracting diamonds and gold across the border to fill their own governments’ coffers. Rather than a drain on resources, war has become a profit-making business. In the first year of the conflict alone, Uganda’s diamond exports increased by 900 per cent. Uganda has no diamond mines.

Western leaders have long been wary of criticising Rwanda and Uganda. Their respective presidents, Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni, both came to power following long periods of ethnic violence in their states – especially Kagame, who took charge after the 1994 genocide. Both set about liberal free market reforms. Museveni became the leading African figure in the fight against HIV. The foreign aid rolled in. Gradually, however, democracy has been revealed to be an empty promise and civil liberties have been curtailed. Neither leader looks set to concede power without a struggle in the foreseeable future.

Having provided vast quantities of aid to Rwanda and Uganda, European leaders are understandably unwilling to perform a volte face and become their outspoken critics. Previously, Kagame was able to rely on the world’s shame of having abandoned Rwanda in her hour of need in 1994, where it simply watched as the horrors of genocide unfolded. On a 2010 visit to Kigali, President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly acknowledged France’s failure to intervene when required. Nearly two decades on from the events of 1994, surely such baggage has to be cast aside?

As the moral issue clouding European relations with Rwanda should have faded, Uganda has become a more complex geopolitical issue. Museveni has managed to establish a strong bargaining position with the United States thanks to military commitments made in Somalia, where Ugandan troops make up the bulk of the African Union force attempting to crush the Islamic fundamentalist movement Al Shabaab – a key flashpoint in Washington’s ‘war on terror’. Conflicts in two of Africa’s ‘failed states’ have thus become directly linked: on 2 November, Kampala announced it would cease its operations in Somalia after a UN report accused Uganda of arming rebels in Congo.

The European aid continues to flow nonetheless. Having controversially released €10 million to Rwanda in July, the UK only recently – following the media attention attracted by M23’s seizure of Goma – postponed its aid programme. In May, the EU itself pledged an extra €89 million aid package. Few questions are asked of Uganda Of course, humanitarian and development goals cannot simply be ignored. But there must be a point at which the governments Rwanda and Uganda cannot be allowed to squash the democratic aspirations of their own peoples while perpetuating war in Congo.

Moreover, from the perspective of Brussels, the EU must seize this opportunity to demonstrate its genuine commitment to peace and human rights if the CFSP is to develop any real credibility. Since the schisms over the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the CFSP has done little of note. Especially given the current economic crisis, it would be unreasonable to ask European governments to commit to any military operation in Congo. But taking a firmer stance towards Rwanda and Uganda, whose activity in Congo is not currently openly condemned and who continue to receive huge aid packages that merely prop up two corrupt governments, would at least offer a presently hollow foreign policy some concrete substance.

If the EU is not prepared to follow the positive direction pointed by the footsteps it itself has previously left in the central African rainforest – to date the most committed action taken under a policy characterised by a lack of commitment – then it must be asked when the Common Foreign and Security Policy will ever become a reality living up to its name.

*George Roberts holds a BA in History from the University of Cambridge, and is currently studying for an MA in European Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. He is particularly interested in the history and contemporary affairs of Central and East Africa.