GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Gen. Bosco Ntaganda is a familiar figure around town, dining at the Le Chalet restaurant, playing tennis on Sunday at the Hotel Caribou. “He lives right over there,” a United Nations official told me over drinks. “We could visit him.”
Bosco also happens to be under indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and the use of child soldiers, making it awkward for the U.N. peacekeepers who regularly pass him on the street. They should arrest him. But Bosco — a former Tutsi rebel leader — is now legitimately an officer in the Congolese national army, along with being a feared organized-crime figure. An international fugitive is the most powerful man in eastern Congo and the co-owner of a Goma nightclub.
This is the outsize politics of Congo — as large as America east of the Mississippi, possessing a disproportionately large allotment of mineral wealth and home to the bloodiest global conflict since World War II. More than 30 armed groups live off the land and the wealth beneath it, often using rape as a strategy of terror and control.
But Congo’s central government has purchased a kind of fragile, partial peace. For years, the governments of the DRC and neighboring rival Rwanda each employed ruthless militias in eastern Congo to fight for their interests. Now Congo has brought a number of militia groups — including Bosco’s approximately 6,600 National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) rebels — into the regular military.
This was one element of a broader deal struck in late 2008. Rwandan President Paul Kagame agreed to have an out-of-control CNDP commander (Bosco’s predecessor) placed under arrest. In exchange, Kagame got permission to invade eastern Congo for 30 days to pursue Rwanda’s sworn enemy, called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) — a Hutu rebel group that includes perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. Congo President Joseph Kabila pledged to continue this fight against the FDLR (once an ally) and to incorporate the CNDP (once an enemy) into the national army. Both Kagame and Kabila seem to have tired of the violent game of arming proxies. Now the two old enemies talk regularly by phone. This rapprochement between Rwanda and Congo is the largest, positive change since I was here in 2008, and it is the basis for any future peace.
Cooperation has yielded gains against the FDLR. A two-pronged strategy — applying direct military pressure, while offering rebels repatriation back to Rwanda — has left the group diminished. The FDLR has lost control of profitable mines. Each month about 140 to 180 tired, hungry FDLR rebels decide to accept amnesty and return home. U.N. officials believe that about 2,500 remain in the bush. They still commit serial horrors. The hardest core is likely to fight to the end. But on the current trend, says one official, “the FDLR can’t survive in its current form for another year or two.”
Taking the FDLR — the last foreign force in the region — out of the equation would simplify the Congo puzzle. But the incorporation of other militias into the national army has been what an American official calls “an operational disaster.” CNDP forces engage in mass corruption, refuse military orders that displease them and control mines of their own. Bosco’s crew maintains an independent funding source, a separate chain of military command and a parallel system to exercise political power.
No army can survive for long as a coalition of fractious rebels. Eventually, the Congolese government will need to professionalize its military, demilitarize its economy and confront militia leaders such as Bosco. America has recently completed the training of a Congolese army battalion; it should do more of this controversial but unavoidable work. But right now, in an open firefight between the Congolese government and the CNDP, the government would lose. So Bosco still walks free in Goma and refines his tennis game.
In America, we are engaged in a debate about the size and role of government. But eastern Congo demonstrates the consequences of government’s absence. A state of nature — even an Eden of bougainvillea and natural wealth — is ruled by the most ruthless. Resources become a curse, propping up corrupt elites. Houses are surrounded by barbed wire, potholes consume the streets, the electricity flickers and helplessness becomes a habit.
Eastern Congo is both a tragedy and a lesson in political philosophy. Human beings need bread and justice and freedom. And all are made possible by orderly, responsible government.