The DRC is a Hornet’s Nest South Africa Should not Kick
South Africa’s efforts to foster peace and security have placed it centre stage in some of the continent’s most intractable conflicts.
This is an inevitable result of the quest to promote “African solutions for African problems”.
It comes at a time when the continent lags behind on its commitments to establish a functioning standby military force.
The decision at the 50th anniversary summit of the African Union in May to establish an interim emergency force again saw South Africa put up its hand to contribute.
Good intentions, perhaps, but what can the nation actually deliver?
Will its political and diplomatic intentions be appropriately serviced by its weakened military infrastructure, and how is this to be explained to the South African public?
Pretoria’s handling of the Central African Republic (CAR) debacle left much to be desired and was characterised by excessive defensiveness.
Most South Africans had little idea where the CAR was on the map, let alone knew of their government’s earlier commitments to building the army of that nation’s ousted leader, François Bozizé.
A detailed analysis of what actually transpired politically, militarily and diplomatically has yet to be undertaken.
It must be done, if South Africa, and especially its politicians, are to learn from the experience.
The postmortem over events in the CAR capital, Bangui, has raised questions over South Africa’s military capacity, and in particular, the exposed military and political intelligence deficit that resulted in unnecessary exposure and loss of life.
The expansion of its commitments comes as the defence budget is cut yet again and Pretoria this week prepares to deploy 1 345 peacekeepers for an unprecedented UN-led offensive against armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Despite a few similarities, like the provision of military training by South Africa, the backdrop and context of Pretoria’s engagement in the CAR and the DRC are very different.
Unlike in the CAR, where the South African public was largely ignorant and disengaged, in the DRC it is imperative the public know the risks their troops are being exposed to and why.
Public discourse on the DRC situation and South African interests there is narrow and largely insipid.
Yet another rebellion in the east of the nation, allegedly sponsored by neighbouring nations, has exposed the DRC’s lack of democracy and the ongoing failures to promote a political compact that addresses the security concerns of Kinshasa and neighbouring nations, as well as the needs of local populations.
Why is there perennial crisis in the DRC and what will further military intervention achieve?
What use does such costly intervention have if this is not complemented by commitments to and tangible action around political and security-sector reform as well as fundamental improvements in governance?
The former without the latter translates into little more than a containment strategy.
As the UN prepares to deploy its intervention brigade in the Kivus region, South Africans must pay close attention to the parallel peace talks in Kampala, Uganda, convened under the auspices of the
International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and Uganda President Yoweri Museveni.
In addition, close attention must be given to Kinshasa’s commitments to reform. A combination of limited capacity and inadequate political will has consistently stymied reforms, fundamentally undermining longer-term prospects for political and security stability.
In this context, South Africans must assess the extent to which these disparate interests converge or diverge as parties seek to maximise their comparative advantage.
What prospects are there for fostering common ground in a context of competing agendas, mutual distrust and an absence of accountability?
How can South Africa promote political settlement and attempt to help with its extended security commitments?
A careful and ongoing assessment of these developments will temper and inform the evolution of the intervention strategy by the UN’s stabilisation efforts in the DRC (through Monusco, the UN organisation tasked with monitoring the peace process in the DRC), but concerns remain regarding the lack of an integrated approach.
It is not even clear whether the intervention brigade, consisting of troops from Malawi and Tanzania as well as South Africa, will have an effective integrated command.
It is also essential to assess the risks and to know who the enemy is – something that was not done effectively in the CAR.
The brigade’s deployment is in direct response to the takeover of and subsequent voluntary withdrawal from Goma in November by the M23 rebel militia.
Since M23 still presents a substantial threat to Goma and the Kampala negotiations between the Congolese government and M23 are stalled, the brigade’s primary target is therefore likely to be this armed group.
This situation is complicated by tensions with Rwanda, which the UN group of experts report for last year claimed were unofficial M23 sponsors.
Addressing this security challenge and accommodating Rwanda’s legitimate security interests without worsening political tensions in the region – as well as tensions between South
Africa and fellow international brigade nations and Rwanda – will be a challenge.
The UN resolution tasks the international brigade to fight against all armed groups in the Kivus region: the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, opposed to the Rwandan regime; the National Forces of Liberation, opposed to the Burundian regime; and the Allied Democratic Forces, opposed to the Ugandan regime.
There are also several dozen local armed groups.
These are not forces that will fight conventionally, and they can move in and out of the densely forested terrain.
It is unlikely the UN brigade will have the capacity or will to flush these forces out.
A stalemate may ensue that does not consolidate security in the Kivus region, though it might temporarily displace sources of insecurity.
The international brigade’s mission is confronted by a range of other challenges: its mandate raises the broader risk profile of Monusco’s operations, both military and civilian, and will require an enhanced tactical coordination of peacekeeping units on the ground.
As demonstrated in the eastern DRC over the last three years, security operations significantly raise the likelihood of civilian casualties and a deterioration of the humanitarian situation.
The security situation and proliferation of armed groups are a symptom and not a cause of instability in the DRC.
Democratic deficit, bad governance and institutional weakness, especially within the security sector, remain the primary causes.
Addressing these must be part of an integrated response.
Without this, the international brigade may prove both an incomplete and dangerous solution to the DRC problem.
» Pigou is southern Africa and Vircoulon is central Africa project director of the International Crisis Group