The Congo: Devil's Jigsaw

The Congo crisis is central Africa’s most complex and destructive conflict, and one for which there is no quick fix. Co-ordinated local, regional and international peace talks and humanitarian interventions are a starting point, but ultimately it is the people of the DRC who will have to resolve their country’s fundamental problems.

By Knox Chitiyo, Head, Africa Programme and Lawrence Devlin, Researcher, International Security Studies Department, RUSI

20 November 2008

The Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] seldom escapes its violent past; since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960 the Congo has been plagued by recurrent conflict. The war in the eastern Congo has escalated and millions of lives are again in the balance. Although rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and his National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) forces regularly receive the most column inches, Nkunda is a symptom, as well as the cause, of eastern Congo’s deadly harvest.

Zone of Crisis

The current area of conflict lies in the eastern provinces of north and south Kivu (the two provinces have a combined area of 130,000 sq km and a population of 15 million). There are a variety of armed groups which include the Congo national army’s Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC) numbering 80,000 in total, with 20,000 troops in the Kivu provinces and 10,000 on the frontline. There is the 6,000 strong Hutu Forces Democratique de la Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), who are nominally allied to the government forces in south Kivu.

There is also the Mai–Mai militia, who number approximately 3,000. Laurent Nkunda’s Tutsi–dominated CNDP numbers approximately 6,000. Nkunda’s forces have pushed south from north Kivu, overrunning the national army’s positions. There is also the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) peacekeeping and peace monitoring mission, numbering approximately 17,000 in total (there are 6,000 UN soldiers in Kivu, with 1,000 in Goma, the UN provincial HQ and capital of south Kivu).

Despite having overwhelming numerical superiority, the government forces have failed to achieve a decisive concentration of forces in battle. Discipline under fire has been a recurring problem for Kabila’s forces, with his troops displaying a tendency to cut and run. Although low pay contributes to the poor morale of the soldiers, the central problem is a lack of effective military leadership.

FARDC’s losses have forced Kabila to take drastic measures – numerous army commanders have been sacked, with the most prominent casualty being the Military Chief of Staff Dieudonne Kayembe, who has been replaced by Navy Chief Didier Langomba. Nkunda’s rebels have been more cohesive in combat. They are well stocked with small arms and short–range artillery, and so far they have been the better tacticians.

Nevertheless, with only 6,000 men, Nkunda’s forces are becoming increasingly overstretched, and they will struggle to hold ground.

There are also external stakeholders; the second Congo war was a regional conflagration which was fought on Congo territory. Rwanda is a tacit supporter of Nkunda’s rebels, whilst the government forces have clashed with the Ugandan forces, amidst claims by the Ugandans that Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army is using the Congo as a rear base from which to launch attacks into Uganda. Small contingents of Zimbabwean and Angolan forces have also remained in the east.


MONUC is and will remain the ’point man’ for the Congo. The UN response has been muddled, limited and entirely reactive, and there have also been questions regarding the professionalism of the UN forces. MONUC’s rules of engagement also favour self–harm; UN forces cannot use the element of surprise in any battles with the rebels, since MONUC has to fire warning shots and give verbal notification to the rebels before initiating any engagement. Nevertheless, MONUC is doing its best in an impossible situation.

In the short term, the MONUC forces must focus on establishing civilian-friendly cordon sanitaires. This means that safe camps will have to be established, and the areas and roads around the camps will also have to be secured. Nkunda has announced a limited withdrawal on two fronts; there is no guarantee that this will last, but MONUC needs to move forces rapidly to create buffer zones in the vacated territory. This will require more troops: UN Secretary– General Ban Ki Moon and Alan Doss, head of the MONUC, have both stated that MONUC requires at least 3,000 more troops, thus raising its total in Kivu province to 10,000. In reality, MONUC requires closer to 15,000 experienced peacekeepers and peace–makers, and significant lift capacity in the east.

MONUC has engaged Nkunda’s forces as a result of trying to protect civilians, and there is a danger that the vitiation of government forces will force the UN into a protracted war with the rebels. It may be that such a confrontation is unavoidable, given the CNDP’s brutal assaults on civilians, but the UN thus has an even greater need to reconfigure its combat capacity. With the EU reluctant to pledge any battle-groups and UN and AU member states hesitant to send in more troops, MONUC has been forced to plug the numbers gap by redeploying some of the 17,000 UN troops to Kivu. Although this staunches the immediate haemorrhage, it weakens the MONUC presence in the rest of the Congo.


A robust MONUC deployment is vital, not only to protect civilians but also to provide the space to conduct political negotiations. The negotiations form a second and complementary tier in an intricate tapestry which includes the UN humanitarian intervention; talks (through intermediaries) between Kabila and Nkunda; regional intervention and continued, possibly escalating, combat.

Nkunda has insisted that there can be no peace until he and Kabila engage in direct negotiations, and there is little doubt that this will have to happen. However, Kabila has pointed out that negotiations with Nkunda must be part of wider talks with other armed groups in the east. It is clear that there will have to be talks among all the military stakeholders with the aim of a comprehensive settlement for the east.

This would have to lead to the demobilisation and disarmament of the militia groups such as the Mai–Mai, the demobilisation and repatriation of the FDLR and the incorporation of the CNDP into the national army. Some of this has already been agreed upon: the 2007 Nairobi agreement explicitly stated that the FDLR would be demobilised and repatriated to Rwanda. This was not done, and gave Nkunda the ammunition to portray himself as a Tutsi protector.

What needs to be done?

For there to be any chance of peace in the DRC, the following needs to happen:

i. MONUC needs to establish a cordon sanitaire. This necessitates establishing and protecting a constellation of refugee camps. It will also necessitate an upgraded combat capacity for MONUC (possibly in partnership with an EU and/or AU force);

ii. There need to be credible stabilisation and peace enforcement forces in the Congo. Nkunda has dictated the pace of conflict, ceasefire and negotiation in the DRC. A multi-national force, in partnership with a re-energised national force, would help to regain the initiative; the forces would also monitor and police any armistice between the government, rebel, and other armed groups;

iii. The FDLR have to be demobilised and repatriated;

iv. The porous Rwanda–Congo border has to be effectively policed;

v. Pragmatism, backed with credible force, is key to dealing with Nkunda. Kabila will have to make some political concessions to Nkunda in return for the latter integrating his forces with Kabila’s (the government forces will also have to be stabilised for them to be worth integrating with);

vi. The regional and international community will have to pressure both Kabila and Nkunda to agree to a ceasefire, and they will have to use carrots and sticks to pressure Nkunda to accept an international ceasefire–monitoring group (probably MONUC) and to honour a ceasefire (Nkunda has offered – and broken – numerous ceasefires). The rebel leader does not consider MONUC to be a neutral force, but it is hard to see which other force has the in–country experience and capability to do this vital task at such short notice;

vii. The momentum of regional restraint, which has so far prevented a rerun of the catastrophe of 1998–2003, has to be maintained; this means, in essence, that Rwanda and DRC governments must fulfil their recent agreement to prevent escalation and spill-over.


Ultimately, the Congo’s long-term problems have to be resolved. The country’s huge size, population, ethnic and resource conflicts, embedded corruption and weight of history has led to a profound ambiguity on whether the DRC should function as a nominally unitary state with a weak central government, or whether the best solution is to recognise the power of the periphery and formalise the ethos of functional decentralisation and recognition of military power-brokers such as Nkunda.

Another long-term pre–requisite is the professionalisation of the national forces of the Congo, because they have the potential to become the engine of national cohesion. Recently a number of FARDC soldiers have been tried and given life imprisonment by military tribunals for incidents of murder, rape and looting at Goma and Kanyabayonga. This is an important milestone in professionalising the army, and the process should be widened and deepened.

There is no doubt that an effective multi-national stabilisation force will have to be based in the DRC for the duration. This means strengthening MONUC, since it is unlikely that any other single force can fulfil this role. Only a robust peace will allow the vital inter-Congolese dialogue to succeed. Corruption and predatory resource elites have always been a major cause of conflict in the DR Congo, and the dialogue will have to address this. Rwanda’s influence in eastern Congo and the Hutu–Tutsi conflict will also have to be resolved.

There are no simple, quick- fix solutions for the DR Congo; a military ceasefire and political agreements are vital to end the enormous suffering of millions of men, women and children. Whilst there is certainly a need for locally driven solutions, the reality is that in the first instance, the peace and humanitarian ‘deliverables’ will have to be internationally delivered by MONUC.

Dr Knox Chitiyo, Head, Africa Programme, RUSI

Lawrence Devlin, Researcher, International Security Studies, RUSI

The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Knox Chitiyo

Associate Fellow

View profile

Explore our related content