Ben Shepherd looks at an African regional conflict system in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). International pressure convinced Rwanda to withdraw support for Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), and encouraged dialogue between Rwanda and DRC. But although large-scale violence was reduced, such inter-state security cooperation has failed to tackle structural drivers of violence in eastern DRC related to governance and borderland marginalisation.
The violence between CNDP and the Congolose military that caused such enormous humanitarian suffering from 2006-08 was therefore a product of state weakness, the marginalisation of a borderland community, and a cross-border intervention by a neighbouring state.
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The downfall of Laurent Nkunda was startlingly swift. In late 2008 he had seemed untouchable. His forces had humiliated the Congolese military (FARDC) three times in as many years. His politico-military movement, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) was exerting increasingly coherent administrative control over a growing fiefdom on the eastern fringes of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Nkunda had resisted or ignored the attentions of a wide variety of international envoys and was beginning to express national political ambitions. Conflict in North Kivu appeared to be entrenched and doomed to repeat. But by early 2009, just weeks later, he was a prisoner in Rwanda and the CNDP was in the process of disintegrating.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the CNDP and its precursor groups had weathered repeated peacemaking initiatives, from the inter-Congolese dialogue (2001-02) and the transition (2003-06), to the ‘mixage’ agreement of 2007, the Goma conference of 2008 and subsequent Amani programme. Each of these processes treated CNDP and its antecedents as a predominantly Congolese phenomenon, with roots in domestic political dynamics or inter-community tensions. All failed.
In late 2008 CNDP had repeatedly proved itself to be the most effective military actor in eastern DRC. Meanwhile, its political demands had not been met and the structural causes of conflict, such as land distribution, nationality, resources and refugee returns, also remained salient. The Congolese state was also as weak as ever. Yet by early 2009 it had all but ceased to exist as a discrete actor.
The power of information
Most importantly, at the end of 2008 Rwanda suddenly saw the prospect of its support to CNDP starting to carry significant costs. This was in part a product of the availability of more and better information. A scarcity of observers and patchy and ideologically-driven media coverage had allowed Rwanda to deny its support to CNDP for many years, despite widespread suspicion.
Conflict transformation or cosmetic change?
Although Nkunda has been removed from circulation in the region, remaining under house arrest in Rwanda, eastern Congo remains the site of significant violence and humanitarian suffering. Long-running inter-community disputes over land ownership, refugee returns and the nationality status of the Congo’s Tutsi community persist. Equally, although former CNDP forces are now officially integrated into the Congolese army, ex-CNDP commanders still control key economic and strategic sites in eastern DRC, with loyal ex-CNDP troops under them in robust, parallel chains of command. Seen from the ground up, the demise of Nkunda has produced little more than cosmetic change.
Lessons for peacebuilding: international diplomacy and local deal-making
In attempting to resolve hybrid cross-border and intra-state conflict, the levers of international diplomacy are most effectively deployed against state actors rather than armed groups. Nkunda had proved resistant to all the tools in the international conflict resolution toolbox – sanctions, asset freezes, travel bans, threats of international justice, shuttle diplomacy by multiple envoys and so on. None were sufficient to moderate his behaviour or bring him to meaningful negotiations. Indeed some, such as threats of international justice, may have had the converse effect of pushing some of his commanders – Bosco Ntaganda in particular – into maximalist positions, in search of leverage to negotiate immunity.