One month after six of the seven parties fighting in the Congo signed a peace agreement, the remaining holdout has joined the ceasefire. Peace is desperately needed in the long-suffering nation, impoverished by decades of looting by former strongman Mobutu Sese Seko and then wracked by civil war after his overthrow by Mr. Laurent Kabila. The agreement signed in Lusaka, Zambia could deliver it. Strict enforcement will be required, however, if the mistrust is to be bridged and the hatreds that sparked the civil war are to be quelled.
The conflict in Congo has its origins in the furious split between Hutu and Tutsi that dominates much of central Africa. After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the overthrow of the Hutu government by Tutsi rebels, the defeated Hutu forces retreated to Congo territory (then known as Zaire). From there they launched raids into Rwanda. The Rwanda government put together a rebel group, led by Mr. Kabila, to stop the attacks. Mr. Kabila’s group drove Mobutu from office, but the new president failed to rein in Hutu extremists.
Seemingly unable to learn their lesson, the Rwanda government, this time joined by Uganda, put together another rebel group to force Mr. Kabila from power. Mr. Kabila, in turn, solicited aid from other neighboring countries, reportedly in exchange for shares of his country’s vast mineral wealth. The result was a 13-month civil war that was fought to a standstill.
In July, most of the combatants met in Zimbabwe to sign a peace accord. Unfortunately, by then the largest group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy, known by its French initials as the RCD, had split. The two faction leaders were locked in a bitter power struggle and both refused to sign the agreement. Fighting continued until a clash last month between the two RCD factions — and the Rwandan and Ugandan forces supporting them — sobered those two governments up. They then pressured the two factions to sign the accord, which they did earlier this week.
This agreement calls for an immediate ceasefire, a 90-day national dialogue, the introduction of a 25,000-man international peacekeeping force and national elections scheduled for next July. A joint peace commission is to be set up. One indication of the difficulties that lie ahead was the dispute that broke out immediately after the signing over rebel representation on the commission.
Practical questions hang over the agreement. The first group of peacekeepers is due to enter the country next week. It should not be too difficult to staff the initial contingent of 90 soldiers, but it is unclear who will supply the other 24,900 troops. Since neighboring governments were combatants, their participation in the peacekeeping forces is likely to be contested.
That mistrust is a subset of the key issue: the murderous hatred between Hutu and Tutsi. The violence between them has erupted throughout central Africa. Their readiness to fight, and the ability of others to exploit that violence for their own personal gain, has meant that conflict flares all too quickly.
Given recent events in the region, it is tempting to accept the violence as inevitable. That may square with pre-existing prejudices about Africa, but it ignores history. Violence does not just occur: It is incited. The key to bringing peace to Congo and Rwanda (and the former Yugoslavia, for that matter) is ensuring that individuals know that they will be held responsible for their actions. The war-crimes tribunal that is trying the actors in the Rwandan genocide is critical in driving that message home to would-be tyrants in Africa. If Africa’s leaders know that they will be held accountable and that other governments will not turn a blind eye to misdeeds as they have done in the past, then there is no reason why Africa cannot have a prosperous and stable 21st century.
Congo is key to that future. The largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, it is located at the heart of the continent. Its vast mineral resources are a virtually irresistible lure for its neighbors. It must have a government capable of resisting their meddling. If Congo is unstable, then the rest of the region will feel the effects.
The agreement that has been cobbled together can bring peace if it is enforced. That means a real effort to end the murderous reign of the Hutu guerrillas in the border regions. It means genuine dialogue between the government and the rebels. It means genuine power sharing. And most of all, it means an end to the looting of a country by its elite. That looks like a lot to ask. It is, in fact, the least a people can ask of their government.
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