Congo and the UN

The many large scale wars in Congo deserve a bigger place in the world’s eye. They range over vast distances and involve long running themes of vengeance and corruption. These wars drag in neighboring countries and involve important natural resources. By many accounts the Democratic Republic of the Congo has enough minerals to be one of the world’s largest countries – instead it is one of the utterly poorest.

I recommend reading Africa’s World War – Congo, The Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe By Gerard Prunier if you are interested at all in the topic.

In many ways the story of Congo could be conceptually linked to the causes of the first and second world wars in Europe and Asia. Grievances that were not resolved from one war carry over to the next, and fires smolder from generation to generation. The geographical facts on the ground also carry significant weight, and small armies or bands of rebels can overcome large, sprawling inefficient armies, even those supported by outside parties like the UN with air power.

The Fall of Goma and UN Peacekeepers

Congo is a vast country. On the far west in Kinshasa, the nation’s capital. On the far east, near the border with Rwanda, is Goma, their most important eastern city.

Even calling Congo one country is a misnomer. The capital city is the home of the president, the younger Kabila, who isn’t even very popular in the west (the most popular politician, Bemba, was charged with war crimes). A lot of Kabila’s support came from the east, where he successfully negotiated an end to the wars with Rwanda that had put the area in turmoil under depredations from local warlords. You can’t even really get across the country except by boat through winding rivers (where it is passable) and air travel is difficult or dangerous with the shambolic local carriers. The western part of the state and the capital have little capability to impact events on the ground in the west or exert state authority.

Events in the Congo often relate back to Rwanda and the genocide of 1994. After the genocide the Tutsis, under the effective leadership of the great jungle general Paul Kagame, took back Rwanda from the Hutus and launched a war with a small band of hardened fighters that took down the entire government of Congo and drew in multiple regional countries. The exploits of the small number of Rwandan fighters need to go down in history as the story of a relatively tiny and disciplined crew taking on an audacious war across a giant country. Regardless of their motivations and ethics from a military point of view they deserve high respect.

Now a band of ex-Congo soldiers who are mostly Tutsi and said to be supported by Rwanda and Uganda (two allies in the east who also clash over the looting of minerals through their rebel proxies), called M23 (after the date March 23 when the central government of Congo was said to have violated the terms of their entry into the Congo army as soldiers) have taken over the city of Goma right under the nose of the supposedly best equipped and trained units of the Congolese army, protected by attack helicopters and UN troops under the United Nations mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO).

From this article describing the UN peacekeepers role in Goma:

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said it was “absurd” that the UN peacekeepers could not stop the rebels from entering Goma. With a 17,000-strong military and civilian staff, MONUSCO has a yearly budget of close to $1,5 billion and is the second-largest peacekeeping mission in the world.

On paper it seems astonishing that the tiny M23 band, which only takes up half a wikipedia page, can take on and win a major army with UN support and hold a city of over a million citizens in a supposedly hostile area. They only have a few thousand fighters, but it can be seen that they are effective and cohesive and were able to advance even though outgunned from the air. Obviously many are saying that they are simply Rwandan soldiers or heavily supported from Rwanda and Uganda but the truth cannot be verified. In any case it is clear that a small band of disciplined soldiers has made a mockery of Congo sovereignty in the east and the UN mandate.

At some point the illusion that eastern Congo is part of the west will likely die, and perhaps the time is now. People are pointing to the creation of South Sudan as a possible precedent, but it seems more like chaos than a civil war situation, and the local people aren’t exactly itching to be part of a larger Rwandan state.

It would be a giant mistake to under estimate the power and fearsomeness of these M23 rebels, especially if they are de-facto elements of the Rwandan military. Even a few of these soldiers have no problems taking on the demoralized (Congo army) or tactically limited (UN) soldiers. The world has trouble holding Rwanda accountable for their actions since the world basically sat on their hands and did nothing during the 1994 massacre. Like the Israelis, not only are the Rwandans extremely effective for their size in military terms, they have a cohesive identity tied to the genocide.

For the locals, sitting in an area of large mineral wealth that could be exploited to everyone’s’ benefit, being under the control of local warlords and in chaos is the likeliest situation in the short and medium term.

This confusing and long running story goes on, and perhaps only the final breakdown of Congo into a mass of tinier states will take us to the next step in this drama.

Cross posted at LITGM

4 thoughts on “Congo and the UN”

  1. The post-colonial history of the Congo is staggeringly violent.. The 1962 Congo silver war claimed something like 6 million lives. The horrific ethnic violence in the rest of Africa made apartheid look like a mere annoyance by comparison.

    Sub-Sahara Africa and many other places in the world, face two fundamental structural problems.

    Firstly, owing largely to the chaotic terrain of Africa itself, Africans cultures have nearly zero experience with large scale organization political or otherwise. Everything is extremely family based and all African cultures dictate that caring for the welfare of ones kin is the highest moral obligation even if that means cheating, harming or even killing non-kin. If your average African becomes a government official, they would view it as amoral not to abuse their position for the benefit of their family. Such thinking is not unusual and is the normal baseline human behavior everywhere. China and other Confucian cultures also wrestle with it. Even in the American pockets exist e.g. back hills Appalachian culture. It took the Western world centuries to evolve away from it while the Africans have only decades at best.

    This has many profound effects from preventing capital formation to a habitual ignoring of formal law. It also creates the Big Man phenomena with its centralization of power as well as the cyclically collapsing alliance networks. (Haiti has the latter real bad.)

    Secondly, the political boundaries in Africa were drawn by colonial powers and have zero relationship to the ethnic distributions. No African state is a nation state. Even without colonialism there was a lot of intermixing of ethnic groups like there was in Eastern Europe.

    That means that an ethnic group is usually the majority in one country while a minority just across the border. The ethos of family before all other things leads rapidly to discrimination, exploitation, oppression and even murder of minorities. This will eventually trigger an intervention from the other country. Throughout the Cold War, the powers did not allow cross border invasions so majority ethnic groups helped their kin by supporting insurrections. Things get ugly in a hurry.

    The Western world escaped the trap only because of the freakish importance of long distance trade for Northern Europe. That in turn drove the development of corporations and a culture of ethical universalism i.e. ideally having the same ethical obligations to every human regardless to degree or type of relation. Likewise, the Western European nation state is another freakish institution that gelled over many centuries.

    I’m not sure if there is a solution for Africa. They can’t escape the culture of hyper-familial loyalty unless they have some other system to protect individuals and their families. They can’t create such a system as long as hyper-familial loyalty is a dominate ethos. Worse, they really don’t have a lot of time. Chicken and the egg feedback loops change only very slowly if at all.

    One step forward would be for Leftists to honestly address the problems of Africa without trying to convert every event there into a moralistic fabel for why leftists should be in charge of

  2. Theodore Dalrymple’s writing of his time in Rhodesia illustrates some of the problems of family and the educated descendants.

    A useful primer on Congo is a couple of WEB Griffin novels in his “Brotherhood of War” series. The New Breed and Special Ops contain the Congo story. I am certainly no expert but each time I’ve checked the facts, they check out. For example, he has a story of US Special Forces in Congo in the early 60s. Heart of a Soldier by Stewart describes how Rick Rescorla met his US Army friend when they were both in Africa and that is how Rescorla decided to join the US Army where he was a hero at Ia Drang Valley in 1965.

    Anyway, I remember the events but I was busy as a medical student at the time and did not dig too deeply.

    Another interesting book is Dinner with Mugabe, a very sympathetic book about the man as he took over Zimbabwe. My review of it is here.

  3. Now that the Congolese soldiers have fled and the UN isn’t going to attack the M23 forces on the ground (they were providing air support to the government when the government was fighting) they are claiming that the government forces are regrouping and going to make a stand.

    It will be interesting to see if the Congolese forces can hold against M23 likely supported by Rwanda. In the past the forces of the Congolese government have been ineffective or pushed aside. The M23 and Rwandan rebels for some reason have much higher cohesion and once they get past the heavy weapons fire they always seem to win.

    I wouldn’t be on the Congolese government….

  4. Recently the Congolese government over in Kinshasa issued an “ultimatum” for the M23 soldiers to leave Goma. The M23 soldiers on the other hand are asking for unspecified concessions from the government. Since Congo has little ability to influence events on the ground in the East it looks like this will go on for a while. On the other hand Rwanda and Uganda are getting into trouble for their apparent support of the rebels and may want this situation to go away. Remember that Rwanda and Uganda fought a big battle in some of the eastern cities while trying to control the mineral and trade routes so this could either get resolved or expand it is a big unknown.

    But it is laughable that the Congolese government even pretends to have an sovereignty over the region. That is a joke that everyone can agree upon.

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