As the Congo once again falls into despair and dysfunction following a threatened takeover by the M23 rebel force, the U.S. has dispatched its top diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, to try to help resolve the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the important city of Goma, which M23 rebels seized last week, chaos and despair is widespread as the Congolese feel helpless in the face of the rapes and murders that seem to accompany the M23 wherever they go. There is fear that if the M23 are intent on advancing across the country, it will soon blow up into a full-fledged war similar to the last Congolese war, which lasted over a decade and killed more than an estimated three million people.
“I can tell you that Assistant Secretary Carson is in the region working on this issue,” White House Spokesperson Jay Carney told reporters. “The president is updated through the Presidential Daily Briefing on the developments there in the Congo and is obviously very concerned about the violence and the loss of life.”
The Congo is an extremely beautiful and lush land. With 70 million people, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the 18th largest country in the world by population and the 12th largest country by area. Since it was colonized by Belgium in 1908, the Congo has been victimized by its beauty and its richness of minerals, as it is a prize sought by many. The Belgians brutalized the population in order to extract as much rubber and ivory as possible and over the last several decades rebels from inside and other African armies from outside have pushed aside the weak government to take enormous tracts of territory rich in copper, timber, diamonds and gold.
In this latest conflict, Congolese officials believe that the country of Rwanda, much more stable and orderly with a tough and disciplined army, is backing the rebels as a way of gaining control of the mineral-rich eastern region. The conflict also has roots in the genocide that took place in neighboring Rwanda 18 years ago, when the Tutsi ethnic group was almost extinguished in a chilling massacre by the Hutus. Now the Tutsis have re-emerged in the form of these new rebels, called the M23, who are made up almost exclusively of Tutsis. Rwandan President Paul Kagame is also a Tutsi. More than 2 million Hutus fled Rwanda into the Congo after the genocide, fearing the new Tutsi-led government would be intent on revenge. With million of Hutus in the Congo, the Rwandan government has been accused of backing the Tutsi militias in their efforts to overthrow the DRC government.
As the M23 rebels rode into Goma, an important population and economic center with about a million residents, the Congolese army actually ran away and about 1,500 UN peacekeepers didn’t lift a finger to stop the rebels. The M23 have caused as many as 100,000 people to flee their homes, according to aid organizations such as Oxfam and UNICEF. Nearly half a million Congolese already live in camps because of the decades of violence. Aid groups are struggling to get food and supplies to them.
Although the Obama administration is sending a diplomat and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did meet with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Congo’s President Joseph Kabila at the UN General Assembly Meeting in New York in September to urge them to find a peaceful solution to not only M23, critics are accusing the U.S. of being too removed from the conflict.
“The US government’s silence on Rwandan military support to the M23 rebels can no longer be justified given the overwhelming evidence of Rwanda’s role and the imminent threat to civilians around Goma,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch in a statement. “The US government should support urgent sanctions against Rwandan officials who are backing M23 fighters responsible for serious abuses.”
Meanwhile, there is hope of a possible end to M23’s advance as their military commander Sultani Makenga, has flown to the Ugandan capital of Kampala to join negotiations to end the fighting. The militia is refusing to end its occupation of Goma, hours before the expiration of a deadline for them to leave.
The presidents of Uganda, DR Congo, Tanzania and Kenya, together with the Rwandan foreign minister, issued a statement calling on M23 to “stop all war activities and withdraw from Goma” and “stop talk of overthrowing an elected government.”
M23 political leader Jean-Marie Runiga said a withdrawal was possible, but could only result from talks with Kabila.
State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Carson will meet with President Kagame while in the region, but she declined to explicitly name Rwandan as a supporter of the militia.
“We’ve been very clear that we want to see all outside support for M23, for any of these groups, come to an end,” said Nuland, who also said Secretary Carson is working with leaders from Rwanda, Congo and Uganda to negotiate a cease-fire and withdrawal of the rebels before the violence escalates.
“We want to see a cease-fire. We want to see a pullback to July lines,” said Nuland. “We want to see a sustainable process of negotiation and discussion of the status of the eastern Congo with all the stakeholders.”
Criticism of the American government is also coming from actor Ben Affleck, who founded the Eastern Congo Initiative, a humanitarian organization working in Eastern Congo with local leaders for peaceful, long-term solutions to the country’s problems.
“We have a lot of levers there. We can engage in the kind of high-level, shuttle diplomacy that you saw be so effective in Gaza,” Affleck, who pointed out that the United States contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the 17,000 UN peace keeping force in the country, said on ABC. “With the United States when we had issues that were important to us, we sent John Kerry to Sudan, we sent Bill Richardson, we sent — I think it was North Korea — General Powell, folks like that. That’s a level of engagement that I think we need to step up to.”