UN steps up peace efforts in Congo ahead of April vote

Recent moves to secure the country's lawless eastern region have led to the deaths of eight UN peacekeepers.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Once criticized by the Congolese people and Western governments for its passivity, the world's largest United Nations peacekeeping operation has redefined itself as an aggressive and determined force.

The UN mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC, has in recent months stepped up efforts to tame the country's lawless eastern region ahead of the first free presidential and parliamentary elections in more than 40 years, scheduled for April 29.

Yet, despite six years of peacekeeping efforts from MONUC, UN spokespeople and analysts say the dozens of local and foreign militias based or lurking in the resource-rich but isolated east still endanger civilians and the electoral process.

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The UN's 17,000 troops are now out across Congo's east to track down and, at times, kill the militiamen. A major offensive last month in the North Kivu region left nearly 90 gunmen dead.

However, those stepped-up efforts often carry a human cost: Eight UN soldiers from Guatemala recently died in combat, allegedly in an ambush by the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, in Garamba Park near the Congo-Sudan border.

In the wake of this attack - the second biggest loss by MONUC forces since the mission began in 1999 - the UN Security Council passed a resolution Friday condemning militias and other armed groups involved in destabilizing Africa's Great Lakes region.

A European Union reconnaissance team arrives this week to prepare for a possible deployment to back up UN troops in the run-up to April's vote.

The UN's determined approach is succeeding, say UN officials, pointing out how the number of people with guns has been reduced across eastern Congo.

Without the mission analysts say Congo would be a much more violent place.

"There's a need for a neutral force to calm the population," says Jason Stearns, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. "The Congolese army is a nascent, fledgling force. MONUC fulfills the task."

That task is to protect civilians along with giving support, assistance, and logistics to the Congolese Army.

Those antagonistic toward it, however, belittle the force's capabilities.

"The soldiers from [the Congolese government], they are running, and it's MONUC who is taking over," says Dido Manyiroha, a leader of the rebel Congolese Revolutionary Movement. "The Congolese forces have failed many battles."

Despite MONUC's pleas to the contrary, Manyiroha and analysts contend it has become the dominant security force in eastern Congo since 2005.

The stakes are high

Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, says the stakes are enormous, should MONUC fail. "Peace in the DRC is essential if Africa as a continent is going to move forward," she says.

Ms. Van Woudenberg and Mr. Stearns credit MONUC's newfound toughness to a mix of soul-searching, a change in leadership and shrewd deployments.

The slaying of nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers in Ituri in February 2005, the largest single-day casualty total, already hardened MONUC's resolve against the militias.

Another contributing factor is the failure of armed groups, local and foreign, to observe disarmament deadlines that expired in April and September.

What inspired the soul-searching is MONUC's failure to intervene in 2004 when dissident army soldiers clashed with their former colleagues. "MONUC realized that its reputation could be tarnished, and the transition could be undermined, if it didn't take more robust action," Stearns says.

That changed attitude was matched by the deployment of new deputy force commander, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, in early 2005. He previously served as the military adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and eastern Congo is under his command.

Search-and-cordon operations, where forces backed by helicopter gunships encircle the areas where armed groups are operating, started not long after Cammaert's arrival.

Yet there are fears that the killing of the eight Guatemalan soldiers will weaken MONUC's resolve. To date, MONUC has suffered 62 military fatalities.

"I don't think the UN, or the troops, or the troop-contributing countries will buckle because of this tragic incident," says MONUC spokesman Kemal Saiki.

Foreign militias remain a big risk

Still, neither the analysts nor Mr. Saiki deny the deep problem caused by foreign armed groups.

"[They] ... are a destabilizing factor, a security risk, and prevent the authority of the state to be reestablished," Saiki says.

The lingering presence of these groups presents a challenge to the bolder MONUC, one that involves diplomacy.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is pressuring the UN force to crush the LRA and two other militias roaming eastern Congo. Last week he said that the Ugandan Army was ready to deal with rebels in Congo, should the UN and Congo want it to.

Analysts say the threat of another Ugandan Army invasion remains low, but does exist.

Manyiroha, the leader of the MRC militia says his group alone has 18,000 fighters, which is more than MONUC, and can mobilize thousands more, if necessary. He resents MONUC for "attacking" his group with helicopter gunships, rather than choosing negotiations. Manyiroha says it will never succeed.

"You cannot pacify someone with a gun."

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