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A Gordian Knot Could Produce Partition

Congo: The paradox is that a solution that helps the giant land can't satisfy the interests of countries dispatching soldiers.

October 19, 1998|NELSON KASFIR and SCOTT STRAUS | Nelson Kasfir, professor of government at Dartmouth College, is the editor and co-author of "Civil Society and Democracy in Africa." Scott Straus is a graduate student of political science at UC Berkeley who covered the war in Congo in 1996

Since its birth, Congo has been teaching us that a combination of distrusted leaders and incompetent armed forces invites foreign interests to act with impunity. Outside actors have freely entered Congo for all sorts of economic, political and military purposes, but Congo remained whole. Today's war is different. The presence of at least seven African governments and almost as many foreign rebel groups may lead to its partition.

In the second war in two years, foreigners are doing most of the fighting. The crucial difference from last year's overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko's disastrous three-decade rule is that foreign actors are no longer cooperating. Now they are shooting at one another, making this conflict deadlier and harder to settle. Then Congo remained united. This time Congo may fragment into two or even more states.

In addition, this war is the fifth major African foreign military intervention in the last two years. The precedents now being established are potentially devastating for the entire continent. If foreign military intervention becomes the norm in Africa, more precious resources will flow into building bigger war machines rather than into laying democratic foundations to tackle crippling social problems.

The roots of today's conflict lie in the contradictions created by President Laurent Kabila's rise to power last year. Plucked from obscurity to head a foreign-dominated rebel alliance, he had no popular support. His political power rested entirely on soldiers from several foreign armies, particularly Rwanda's. But this was his undoing: Rwandan and Congolese Tutsi soldiers, seen as foreign oppressors, are deeply unpopular in Congo.

To gain support, Kabila expelled Tutsi military elements from the Congolese army at the end of July. "A mouse cannot swallow an elephant," insisted Kabila, claiming tiny Rwanda wanted to annex Congo. But with the expulsion of its most battle-hardened soldiers, it was Congo's army that had become the mouse. The Tutsi reconstituted themselves as rebels, put a little known Congolese academic at the head of an insurgent organization and began taking town after town. Kabila was on the brink of losing the capital, Kinshasa, when Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia came to his rescue in late August and pushed the rebel soldiers back to their eastern strongholds.

Why is this a recipe for partition? For decades, outsiders wrongly predicted that African states would break up because colonial borders were drawn arbitrarily. Up to now, Congo held together even though it never controlled its destiny. Partition is a real possibility because Angola, Chad, Zimbabwe and Namibia support the Kinshasa government in western Congo, while Rwanda and Uganda are helping the rebel movement in eastern Congo. The domestic interests of these states explain why they got involved and why they cannot easily withdraw.

Eastern Congo matters for Rwanda and Uganda because each country is fighting a rebel movement with bases there. Western Congo matters to the Angolan government because its peace agreement with its long-time enemy, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, has failed and the long border with Congo provides UNITA with a springboard for attack. Angola also needs secure passage across western Congo to Cabinda, its oil-producing region. Zimbabwe has no common border with Congo, but its government wants a diversion from domestic problems that brought public demonstrations this year.

However, despite their reasons to intervene, none of these governments has the money or the popular support to root the others out of Congo. Congo is an immensely difficult place to fight a war. It is huge, has no passable roads and little to keep an army going. Domestic opponents eventually will force the intervening states to focus on problems at home rather than on their goals in Congo. None of these governments is likely to stay long enough to produce a single Congo. Each probably will settle for marginal improvements in its domestic position. And that spells partition.

What Congo so desperately needs and never has enjoyed is a democratic assembly, one that can establish a constitution that will allow the country's next president to enjoy sufficient legitimacy to get started on a long overdue development agenda. The paradox here is that a solution that helps Congo cannot satisfy the immediate interests of the countries that have sent in their soldiers.

Could international pressure from other countries in Africa--or the rest of the world--untie this Gordian knot? In the short run, this may be the time and the place to introduce the African peacekeeping force that the United States government has promoted and helped to train under its African Crisis Response Initiative.

But in the longer run, neither national nor international military force will end long-standing political problems. That requires a willingness of all participants in this war to work toward political compromises, not military quick fixes. Otherwise, Africa faces the consequences of Congo's permanent partition.

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