03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Michael Kavanagh discusses the problems afflicting the DRC

An interview by Worldfocus with Michael Kavanagh

January 7, 2010

Contributor Michael J. Kavanagh reported for Worldfocus last year on
the crisis in eastern Congo. He's currently based in the DR Congo's
capital, Kinshasa.

He discusses the controversy surrounding the United Nations'
peacekeeping mission, the problems with integration of rebels into
Congolese Army ranks and the economic future of this resource-rich,
war-torn country.

Q: Why has the UN's peacekeeping mission come under such intense criticism in eastern Congo?

Michael J. Kavanagh: For the past year, the Congolese army has
been fighting a group of Rwandan rebels known as the FDLR (Democratic
Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) who've lived in eastern Congo for
around 15 years.         

A UN peacekeeping armored personnel carrier patrols the roads. Rutshuru, North Kivu, 2008. Photo: Michael J. KavanaghThey're mostly Hutu and some of their leaders are implicated in the
Rwandan Genocide of 1994. This military mission began in concert with
the Rwandan army in January and February 2009. Since March, it's been
supported by the UN peacekeepers.

This has been hugely controversial because the military operations
have caused the deaths of well over a thousand civilians, the rape of
several thousand and the displacement of around a million people.
Rwandan rebels and the Congolese army are both accused of war crimes
and crimes against humanity. 

Peacekeepers were put in a difficult position as the operations
progressed because their mandate essentially became contradictory:
They're supposed to protect civilians while at the same time support a
Congolese army that's often killing civilians.

Q: Earlier this year, as part of a deal between Rwanda and Congo,
the Rwandan-backed CNDP rebel group was integrated into the ranks of
the Cong
olese army. How has this impacted the conflict in eastern Congo?

Michael J. Kavanagh: A year ago the UN released a report saying
that Rwanda was supporting a rebel group in eastern Congo known as the
National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP. The
international community pressured Rwanda to stop this and now after
nearly 15 years of fighting each other,Rwanda and Congo are nominally

The CNDP has been integrating into the Congolese army over the past
year as part of a peace deal, but they are still committing massive
atrocities in eastern Congo, they're just now wearing Congolese Army
uniforms. Their leader, Bosco Ntaganda, is wanted by the International
Criminal Court for war crimes. 

Various human rights groups and even the UN itself have documented
these atrocities by ex-CNDP forces, but the Congolese government has
been hesitant to complain because they don't want to upset their new
(peaceful) relationship with Rwanda.
A former CNDP rebel holds a rocket propelled grenade at a ceremony for rebel integration into the Congolese army. Masisi, North Kivu, 2009. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

Meanwhile, tiny-but-powerful Rwanda benefits from the illegal trade
in natural resources in eastern Congo, as do other neighboring
countries like Uganda and Burundi and Tanzania. So this is still a
regional problem that requires a regional, political solution as much
as a military one.

Q: The peacekeeping mission in Congo is the UN's largest. How
relevant is the UN's mission there? What will happen when the mandate
s in five months?

Michael J. Kavanagh: The UN mission in Congo is huge - its
budget is more than $1.4 billion a year and over 20,000 soldiers and
civilians work for it. But you need to remember how big Congo is - it's
the size of western Europe with 60+ million people.

We're asking a lot of these peacekeepers -- probably more than they
can provide given their resources and the difficulty of operating in
Congo. Besides basic logistical issues, the Congolese government and
army have not always been partners in good faith, nor have other
regional partners like Rwanda and Uganda.

Over the last 10 years, the results of the peacekeeping mission have
been mixed. So on December 23, the UN renewed its mandate for only five
months instead of the usual 12, to send a sign that they were
rethinking how the mission would do business. 

They're attaching conditionality to the support of the Congolese army --
no civilian protection, no support. The UN is also asking for
mechanisms to regulate the flow of illegal natural resources that are
being used to enrich elements in various armed groups as well as some
international companies.
Displaced families finding shelter in a school. Kiwanja, North Kivu, 2008. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

Congo will celebrate 50 years of independence in June, and the
government wants the UN to start drawing down its troops, but with
major security issues in the east and other problems in the northeast
(with the Lord's Resistance Army) and center (a new insurgency) of the
country, it's hard to see how the Congo can afford to let UN
peacekeepers leave. 

For all its problems, the UN mission still provides essential services
in Congo - perhaps too many, some argue - and the new mandate says
another year will be added to the mandate in June.

Q: How do Congo's rich natural resources play into the

Michael J. Kavanagh: In December, the annual UN group of experts
report on Congo outlined how armed groups were exploiting minerals like
gold and tin ore to support their fighting. Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania
and Rwanda were all implicated in the trafficking, as were a number of
international companies. 

Non-governmental armed groups control some mines and they tax transport
routes in eastern Congo. The Congolese army - in particular ex-CNDP
elements - also control mines and transport routes. The illegal
trafficking is worth tens of millions of dollars, if not more. 

The UN, EU, and U.S., among others, are all working on mechanisms to
regulate the exploitation of minerals - something Congo needs for
development - and hold individuals and companies accountable for
illegal trafficking.

Q: Recently the IMF gave Congo a new loan of more than $500 million
for showing signs of economic progress. What do you make of this? 

Michael J. Kavanagh: It's a big deal. The IMF will be giving
Congo well over half a billion dollars in loans over the next three
years through a program intended to increase growth and reduce poverty. 

The loan program is an explicit signal to international donors that in
spite of ongoing conflict in the east, Congo is making macroeconomic
progress, and if that progress continues, Congo could be eligible for
debt relief under a World Bank and IMF program called the Highly
Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, or HIPC.
Rwandan Defense Forces march through Pinga, North Kivu, a former FDLR stronghold, in 2009. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

You have to remember that after 15 years of war, years of
dictatorship and rapacious colonialism before that, Congo is one of the
poorest countries in the world. 

Even with vast natural resources, the government is struggling to fix
its infrastructure and pay its army, police and civil servants. IMF and
World Bank loans and debt forgiveness are critical for the country to
rebuild itself.

Forgiveness of most of Congo's old debt (much of which was
accumulated during years of dictatorship and war) would allow Congo to
take on new debt to pay for new development and services.

Q: Are foreign investors optimistic about investing in Congo? 

Michael J. Kavanagh:
A few months ago, Congo completed a two
and a half year review of international mining contracts, which was
necessary but has been highly controversial. 

At the moment, Congo is still renegotiating its mining contract with
Phoenix-based Freeport McMoRan over one of the biggest copper and
cobalt deposits in the world and it canceled a huge copper and cobalt
contract with Canadian mining giant First Quantum last Fall. 

This has created uncertainty regarding foreign investment in Congo.

On the one hand, many of these contracts were negotiated during the war
and even if they're legal, they're not necessarily fair and needed to
be renegotiated. 

A construction worker at a refugee camp takes a break during a rainstorm. Goma, North Kivu, 2009. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh
On the other hand, the mining review was far from transparent. It's
created an uneasy environment for potential and existing investors. 

Growing and regulating its mining sector is probably the most important
thing Congo can do to extricate itself from poverty; it's also the
sector most vulnerable to corruption.

One final prediction for the coming year: Angola and Congo have been
allies for years, but there's now a dispute over huge oil deposits off
the coast of the two countries. It looks like Angola has been
exploiting oil belonging to Congo, and the case has been sent to an
international arbiter.

Angola is quietly furious, and this could seriously damage the
relationship between the two countries and be a source of conflict over
the next year. Something to think about, because Angola has always been
the Congo's ally of last resort when it's faced serious security

- Lisa Biagiotti and Christine Kiernan 

For more of Michael's reporting, visit Worldfocus' Crisis in Congo extended coverage page.

Read more on Pulitzer Center.