29 May 2003

Africa’s Thirty Years War

By Gwynne Dyer

In the next few days a French-led multinational force will begin arriving in the Congo’s north-eastern Ituri province, empowered by the UN Security Council to use “all necessary means”, including force, to stop the bloody struggle between the rival militias of the Lendu and Hema tribes that has killed an estimated 50,000 people and driven half a million from their homes in the past four years. It will have just over a thousand troops, and it will stay only until a Bangladeshi force of similar size arrives in August. It is, in other words, a very small drop in a very big bucket.

The fighting in the Congo since the death of long-ruling dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 has been called ‘Africa’s First World War’, with up to six other African armies and dozens of local tribal militias involved in a many-sided struggle for control of the country’s rich resources. The International Rescue Agency, an American aid group, estimated in April that between 3.1 and 4.7 million people have died because of the war, mostly from famine and disease. How are a thousand troops for three months going to cope with a tragedy on this scale?

Well, first of all, it is not like the First World War at all. It is more like the Thirty Years War that killed up to a third of the population of Germany between 1618 and 1648. Like the Congo now, Germany then was more a geographical expression than a real country, with no central authority and no way of protecting itself from rapacious outsiders. The Germans were at each others’ throats, with religious differences playing a similar role to tribal rivalries in the Congo now, but military interventions by foreign powers — the Swedes, the French, the Spanish — made things far worse.

It took longer in 17th-century Germany than in the 21st-century Congo to reach the point where whole cities were depopulated and reports of cannibalism became commonplace (the Pygmy communities of the north-eastern Congo recently protested to the UN that their people were being “hunted and eaten literally as though they were game animals” by both government and rebel troops), but Germany also got there in the end.

There is nothing uniquely African about this tragedy, and no particular mystery about how to stop it. It just takes political will on the part of the international community, and a sufficient number of peace-keeping troops with the authority to use “all necessary means” to stop the killing.

An emergency force of a thousand troops in one province isn’t enough. Neither is the larger Monuc force that the UN has maintained in the Congo since the first cease-fire agreement in 1999. It only has 3,800 troops scattered in small packets across the centre and east of the country (its authorised strength is 8,700, but too few countries were willing to contribute troops), and in any case it is an observer force with no right to conduct military operations. But forty or fifty thousand troops with a mandate to use force and to stay for at least two years would probably do the job.

Most of the UN force on the ground could be provided by Africans, even though it would be vital to exclude troops from the countries — Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Angola — that were most heavily involved in the fighting over the past four years. Western and Asian countries would need to provide communications, logistics, engineering and other specialist units and, above all, the money to pay for the operation. A few billion dollars over two years would cover the cost — the equivalent of one day’s expenditure in the recent war in Iraq.

It would be the biggest UN operation for many years, but it wouldn’t be starting from scratch. There is a formal cease-fire in place, and even an agreement to hold a free election in two years’ time. Most of the foreign armies have already withdrawn — indeed, it was the departure of some 6,000 Ugandan troops from Ituri province in March that unleashed the most recent round of carnage there, as the Hema and Lendu tribal militias originally armed by the Ugandans and their Rwandan rivals fought for control of Bunia, the provincial capital.

The first and worst of the foreign meddlers in the Congo, the Rwandans, would have to have their arms severely twisted. Though they are nominally withdrawing their forces, at least 5,000 Rwandan soldiers have been seconded to their proxy rebel force, the Congolese Rally for Democracy, which still controls a huge chunk of the centre and east of the country. But the perennial Rwandan excuse that their troops are in the Congo to contain the remnants to the Hutu militia that fled there after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda has worn thin, and the country is highly vulnerable to pressure because over half its budget is foreign aid.

Rebuilding the Congo after 32 years of corruption and neglect under the Western-backed Mobutu regime and over four years of civil war and foreign intervention is a generation’s task, but ending the fighting and starting it down the right road could be done cheaply and quite quickly. Both the African Union, which would supply most of the troops, and the countries of the European Union, which would probably supply most of the money and the military expertise, would gain some sorely needed cohesion by collaborating in the task, and the UN could win back some respect after a very bad season.

In four and a half years, the Congo has lost between six and nine percent of its people to war. The rest of the world can put a stop to the slaughter now — or we could wait for a decade or two, and see if the Congo can beat Germany’s 17th-century record.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“It took…end”; and”The first…aid”)