Two rebel factions fighting to topple President Laurent Dsir Kabila from power in the Democratic Republic of Congo added their long-awaited signatures to a peace deal yesterday. It had already been endorsed by six other parties to the central African conflict.
Emile Ilunga, leader of the Congolese rebel group Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) and Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, who heads a splinter faction by the same name, formally agreed to stop "all air, land, and sea attacks" in the Congo and abandon any attempt to "occupy new ground positions."
But reports of fresh fighting around the diamond-rich town of Mbuji-Mayi cast grave doubts on the efficacy of a cease-fire consistently violated by all sides since coming into effect six weeks ago. Just two weeks ago, for example, Dr. Ilunga and Professor Wamba's splintered group battled for the city of Kisangani, eastern Congo's largest city and the headquarters of the Ugandan and Rwandan military campaigns in Congo.
Most experts are mildly hopeful, but skeptical that the peace will last. They list two reasons: The first is a rise in African imperialism - it's relatively new for African countries to intervene in one another.
"There's a strange transformation going on in Africa," says Uri Ra'anen, director of the Institute for the Study Of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy at Boston University. "Until seven or eight years ago, there was very little outside intervention by one African country in another. Now you have African countries - like Uganda and Rwanda - intervening in Congo."
The second is the underlying reason these countries are involved in the Congo conflict. It is a resource-rich nation in central Africa, and the six countries involved in the conflict all want a stake in the wealth of resources.
Pearl Robinson, director of the international relations program at Tufts University's Fletcher School, says management of resources like diamonds is crucial to a lasting peace. "As long as you have outside countries trying to capture territory where there are mines, then selling resources, peace will not come.
"Settling disputes by parceling up mine-rich areas is not part of a real cease-fire agreement. With resource riches, rebel factions continue to buy weapons. Peace remains tenuous," Dr. Robinson adds.
Experts say the signing of the agreement by the two Congolese factions is indicative of the efforts Uganda and Rwanda are making to reconcile their differences, but outside help may be needed to keep all the sides at peace.
Edouard Bustin, an African specialist at Boston University, says military presence is the only way to uphold the accord. "They've got to come up with a means to make the agreement hold - and troops are the only way to enforce what's on paper."
Dr. Bustin is encouraged by the UN's pledge to deploy peacekeeping soldiers - as many as 25,000.
The peace deal brokered in Lusaka, Zambia, by Zambian President Frederick Chiluba envisions an immediate cessation of hostilities, the deployment of an international peacekeeping force, and the establishment of a joint military commission to oversee the eventual pullout of all foreign troops. The deal also anticipates 90 days of "national dialogue" to either broaden or replace the government of President Kabila. Kabila has had the backing of Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe in the year-long conflict.
The rebels, which control half of Congo, are backed by Rwanda and Uganda, both of which have accused Kabila of trying to destabilize them by harboring forces hostile to their governments.
Hopes for a peaceful solution to Africa's first continental conflict were raised two weeks ago when the leader of the Rwanda backed faction, Ilunga, agreed to let his Uganda-backed rival, Wamba, add his signature to the cease-fire agreement along with the other 50 founding members of the original rebel group.
As talk of peace rang out in the capitals of central Africa, fighting broke out last weekend in Congo near Kabinda, just east of Mbuji-Mayi, between President Kabila's army, the Forces Armes Congolaises and Rwandan backed rebels of the RCD, headed by Ilunga. Military sources in Kisangani, the headquarters of the anti-Kabila revolt, say the fighting has since died down. Still, the week-end episode brings the number of reported cease-fire violations to six in a mere six weeks.
Prior to the battle for Kisangani, Rwanda had been opposed to Wamba's signing the agreement. Rwanda argued that Wamba had no right to sign because he had been ousted earlier this year by his own people in the Congolese Rally for Democracy. But Wamba countered that he had been pushed aside in a "coup" of dubious legitimacy masterminded by Rwanda.
*Elisabetta Coletti contributed to this article from Boston.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society