What next for Congo after politics got in the way of peace?

Political disputes have delayed a peace deal that could potentially affect millions of lives. As attention on the crisis in eastern DRC wanes, the humanitarian situation remains dire. We must ensure that this golden opportunity for peace is not lost for ever.

I spent most of the past week in Addis Ababa at the African Union Summit. Leaders gathered from across the continent and the crisis in eastern DRC was high on the agenda. It was a great opportunity to finally deal with one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest conflicts.

The current emergency affects hundreds of thousands of lives in North and South Kivu, but it is ultimately a 20-year-old regional crisis drawing in neighboring countries and affecting the whole of the Great Lakes. Any solution needs to see the AU taking the lead with the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR – a body made up of 11 African states) to resolve not just the immediate crisis but long-standing issues that underpin the conflict, such as poor governance, the need to reform the Congolese army, and tensions over land and resources.

For a while in Addis it looked like this was finally going to happen.

An agreement to protect the population

At the summit Oxfam and the AU held an exhibition with photos and testimonies capturing the human consequences of the conflict and the resilience of people caught up in the crisis. One of our partners from North Kivu spoke powerfully to a room full of ambassadors, dignitaries and journalists about the suffering and the urgent need for peace. A speech by the Commissioner of the AU Peace and Security Council echoed this.

In conversations in the room there was a sense of cautious enthusiasm. The AU had already planned a ceremony on Monday 28 January where an agreement would be signed by the leaders of DRC, Rwanda and Uganda – and other countries involved in peace talks and peacekeeping.

From what we know, the agreement tackled the hard issues that could really make a long-term difference. It would ensure the DRC government provides services to its population and that its security forces better protect people from violence (at the moment they are more often responsible for abuses against civilians than protecting them). A “non-interference” clause stressed how neighboring countries should play a positive role in the crisis. It also looked at enhancing the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, with 2500 further African troops to target the ever increasing number of armed groups in eastern DRC.

The ceremony was canceled, the deal collapsed

On paper it looked an enormously significant result, and on Sunday night it all looked set to be signed, sealed and delivered the following morning. Early the next day the signing ceremony was canceled and the deal collapsed.

Once again politics got in the way of peace.

It seems there were two main sticking points that stopped the agreement being signed:

  • The UN did not adequately consult with southern African countries about certain details;
  • And two countries – South Africa and Tanzania – disagreed about how the additional troops would be managed.

Both of these should be easily sorted but have delayed or even derailed an agreement that could positively affect millions of lives.

At the exhibition we heard the story of women like Kakuru, who fled fighting in Sake last year and whose 12 year old son was killed in an explosion. She is now sheltering with 35,000 other people in Mugunga camp on the edge of Goma. For them, every day delayed is another night stuck in a camp, constantly afraid of attack and uncertain when they can go home. As politicians argue, families are uprooted by more fighting, women are raped, children recruited into militias, farmers robbed as they try to plant their crops, and men forced into labor by armed groups.

The momentum must not be lost

The leaders have now left Addis, but we must ensure that the momentum is not lost and that an agreement that was so close to being signed does not slip away.

Of course, signing the agreement is not the end. The long road to peace in eastern Congo is littered with good agreements that were never implemented. But signing this agreement and ensuring that leaders do what they have promised would go a long way to enabling women like Kakuru to return home and start rebuilding their lives.

If we miss this opportunity now then it is likely that the crisis in DRC will rumble on for years to come. This has to be the last peace agreement signed on the Great Lakes, and it has to be signed now.

Related links

Voice of Congo: Testimonies of people who have fled the conflict

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

How does the AU work? The African Union Compendium explains

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