Friday, January 2, 2015

Another war in Eastern Congo: Have we lost our minds!

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As we enter 2015, the Hutu community in Eastern Congo is reluctant to welcome the New Year.

While a new year means a new beginning for many of us, this does not seem to be the case in Eastern Congo. Instead, the drums of war are beating loud and to the pleasure of Mr. Kagame, the chief architect of violence in the region. How long the West will continue to pretend that policy revolves around the wishes of Mr. Kagame remains unclear. But for the people in the region, a price must be paid.

Perhaps a price too high.

The current proposal for a joint offensive against FDLR, the Hutu militia based in Eastern Congo are reminiscent of failed attempts in the past. Assuredly, as we have seen in the past, the military operations have failed to deliver peace. Indeed, the last operation of this kind cynically code-named Umoja Wetu ("Our Unity") resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians while at least 1.5 million people were displaced (more on this, here). How long shall this madness continue, we ask.

Truly madness since very little will change by repeating the same catastrophic mistakes that have failed in the past. However, US policy makers seem convinced that a new war is the only way to consolidate peace in the region--as ironic and naive as it sounds. So convinced they are that the U.S. special envoy to the Great Lakes region, Russell Feingold has been pressing the UN to launch the offensive.  "... Military action must be undertaken to pressure the FDLR to lay down its arms," the former senator said.

While I agree with the noble effort to disarm the FDLR, I disagree that this should be done through militant means. Moreover, if the desire is to disarm the FDLR, there are many other ways to do so that do not cause such massive suffering. For instance, very little effort has been invested in trying to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The ultimatum to the FDLR has consistently been "disarm or face retaliation". This has pleased Kagame but done little for peace in the region.

I am convinced (as many are) that a peaceful solution to the FDLR question is possible. However, this will not happen unless the foreign arbitrators start to listen to both side of the conflict. For the longest time, the only constant in US policy in the region has been the wholesale embrace of Mr. Kagame and his position on the conflict. However, no peace can be attained unless the points of view of both sides of the conflict are addressed.

The National Democratic Congress (NDC), a party with close ties to one of the Hutu militia groups has stated that "[t]he root of the problem of Rwandan refugees in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and around the World is the prevailing political situation in Rwanda". This is quite convincing given the systematic and recorded history of repression in Rwanda under President Kagame.

Surprisingly, the proposed policy on the FDLR keeps mum on the political repression in Rwanda. It says nothing about the legitimate concerns of the refugees and young fighters within the ranks of the FDLR. Instead, armed confrontation is seen as a an attractive despite its abysmal results in the past. As it is all too clear, these operations have all failed to bring peace in the region. Instead they have led to unspeakable human tragedy, massacres and more instability in the region.

In the absence of any genuine desire by Kagame  or any efforts by the West to compel him to do so, the war will likely take place. However, there is no reason to believe that this will bring peace to either Rwanda or the DRC. The challenges that we see in Eastern Congo have their roots in the political exclusion that is the practice of Kagame's regime. FDLR might go but it will not take long before another armed group sprouts up to militarily oppose Kagame. Fighting tyranny is a legitimate right and a sacred duty for those who are oppressed in the region and any efforts to bring peace cannot ignore this basic fact.

Lastly, it is important to keep in mind previous efforts to restore peace in the region and why they failed. It is not true for instance that the FDLR has refused to lay down arms. In fact, the ROME Process, mediated by the Saint Egidio Community resulted in FDLR renouncing violence and promising to transform into a political party in 2005. Instead, in 2009, the Rwandan government launched an offensive which effectively put an end to this efforts.

Yet another sad ending to the many years of peaceful mediation is approaching as the smell of warfare looms close. As George Sntanya warned us in  the past, "those who learn nothing from the past are doomed to repeat it."

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