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Trade and Peace in Africa

December 23, 2008


Bad news out of the Congo and Sudan flows like muddy river water after a rainstorm. Herman J. Cohen, a former assistant secretary of state for Africa from 1989 to 1993, believes that the only way to clear the water and bring lasting peace to Africa is through increased trade [“Can Africa Trade Its Way to Peace?,” New York Times, 15 December 2008]. The focus of Cohen’s op-ed piece is the conflict in the border region between the Congo and Rwanda.

“The conflict in eastern Congo over the past 12 years has been as much a surrogate war between Congo and neighboring Rwanda as an internal ethnic insurgency, as a United Nations report underscored last week. The only way to end a war that has caused five million deaths and forced millions to flee their homes in Congo’s two eastern provinces is to address the conflict’s international dimensions. The role of Rwanda — which borders the provinces and which denied the accusations in the United Nations report over the weekend — is of prime importance. The international community has worked hard to resolve the conflicts among the various parties: the sovereign states of Rwanda and Congo as well as the assorted militias and private armies that are sponsored by these two governments and by opportunistic local warlords. But despite the deployment of 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers, and many efforts at mediation with constructive American support, the situation appears intractable.”

Cohen is reminding us of the aphorism, “A sign of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.” If negotiations and military force have not worked to solve the problem, he wonders what if anything will. Before providing his recommended solution, Cohen gives us a history lesson.

“The failure of international diplomacy is related to the economic roots of the problem, which began with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Until the economic conundrum is addressed, there is little prospect for a solution. The genocidal war between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi in Rwanda spilled into Congo, and the eastern part of that vast country has been unstable ever since. When Tutsi rebel forces took power in Rwanda in June 1994, more than a million Hutu fled to Congo, where they settled into refugee camps on the Rwandan border. After two years of cross-border raids from the refugee camps by exiled Hutu soldiers who had participated in the genocide, the Rwandan Army attacked and destroyed the camps, with the quiet but unambiguous approval of the United States in the absence of another solution to the violence. Most of the Hutu refugees returned to Rwanda, but about 100,000 of them, along with the exiled Hutu soldiers, moved westward as a disciplined group into Congo’s interior. The Rwandan Army pursued the escaping Hutu and caught up with them near the city of Kisangani at the headwaters of the Congo River. The refugees were massacred, but the former Hutu soldiers escaped to neighboring countries. The move against the refugee camps was the first step in a well-planned action by Rwanda in 1996 and 1997 to overwhelm the weak Congolese Army and, with the help of the Congolese opposition, overthrow the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. With logistical support from Uganda and Angola, the military action succeeded in less than three months. A new government in Congo was installed under President Laurent Kabila, an exile handpicked by the Rwandans. And from 1996 to today, the Tutsi-led Rwandan government has been in effective control of Congo’s eastern provinces of North and South Kivu. This control has been maintained through intermittent military occupation and the presence of Congolese militias financed and trained by the Rwandan Army.”

Cohen goes on to explain that Rwanda’s objectives are as much economic as they are security.

“During these 12 years of Rwandan control, the mineral-rich provinces have been economically integrated into Rwanda. During this time, Congo’s governments have been preoccupied with internal and external wars elsewhere, and have been unable to combat foreign control of the eastern provinces, a thousand miles from the capital, Kinshasa.”

As you can imagine, no government willingly gives up control of “mineral-rich” provinces. It was only a matter of time before leaders in the Congo were going to reassert themselves.

“Two years ago, Congo held multiparty elections that were judged to be transparent and credible by international observers. For the first time in a decade, there was hope for stability. President Joseph Kabila (the son of Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001) turned his attention to trying to gain control of the eastern provinces. Unfortunately, this has led to increased conflict and suffering. The main source of the current violence is an insurgent force of ethnic Congolese Tutsi commanded by Laurent Nkunda, a former general in the Congolese Army. He claims to be fighting to defend the Tutsi community from discrimination and from the former Rwandan Hutu fighters who have returned from neighboring countries and now operate in the forested hills of eastern Congo. General Nkunda’s military operations, however, are aimed mainly against the Congolese Army’s efforts to restore Congo’s sovereignty over its eastern provinces. His force is well armed and financed by the Rwandan government. The armed Hutu presence in the provinces provides the Rwandan government with a pretext to justify its interference there.”

Having set the stage, Cohen goes on to suggest that the solution to instability and conflict in the region is establishing a trading regime that benefits both the Congolese and Rwandan people.

“Having controlled the Kivu provinces for 12 years, Rwanda will not relinquish access to resources that constitute a significant percentage of its gross national product. At the same time, Congo’s government is within its rights to take control of the resources there for the benefit of the Congolese people. This economic conflict must be taken into account. This provides an opportunity for the incoming Obama administration. Acts of war and military occupation aside, there is a natural economic synergy between eastern Congo and the nations of East Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. The normal flow of trade from eastern Congo is to Indian Ocean ports rather than the Atlantic Ocean, which is more than a thousand miles away. After his inauguration, Barack Obama should appoint a special negotiator who would propose a framework for an economic common market encompassing Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. This agreement would allow the free movement of people and trade. It would give Rwandan businesses continued access to Congolese minerals and forests. The products made from those raw materials would continue to be exported through Rwanda. The big change would be the payment of royalties and taxes to the Congolese government. For most Rwandan businesses, those payments would be offset by increased revenues. In addition, the free movement of people would empty the refugee camps and would allow the densely populated countries of Rwanda and Burundi to supply needed labor to Congo and Tanzania.”

Although Cohen’s op-ed piece makes it sound like negotiating the establishment of economic common market will be easy, he understands it will be extremely difficult. People have long memories and embrace grudges for generations — especially when grudges concern bloody acts of murder. The genocide in Rwanda was a terrible, but Cohen is correct that the only way forward is to leave the past behind. One thing that is helping are convictions coming out of the International Criminal Court that stem from atrocities committed during the genocide [“Rwandan Officer Found Guilty of 1994 Genocide,” by Lydia Polgreen, New York Times, 18 December 2008]. But, as Polgreen points out, there is a long way to go.

“‘Everybody has dirty hands’ in eastern Congo, said [René Lemarchand, an Africa scholar who has been writing about the troubled Great Lakes region for decades]. ‘But I think it is a good time to take our distance toward Rwanda and recognize there is still an awful lot of dirty linen to be washed.'”

Even though negotiating a regional common market won’t be easy, the hardest part of what Cohen is suggesting will be to get the rebels to lay down their arms. Fighting and bullying have become a way of life for the rebels. And rebel leaders are like all leaders; they do not give up power easily. More often than not, they are criminals who have committed terrible atrocities and are deserving of standing trial before the International criminal court. Knowing that is their fate, however, is not an encouragement for them to stop fighting. General Nkunda, the rebel now in control of much of the Congolese territory that borders Rwanda, certainly shows no sign of giving up the fight [“Congo Warlord Linked to Abuses Seeks Bigger Stage,” by Lydia Polgreen, New York Times, 19 December 2008]. Polgreen reports:

“That General Nkunda, who is suspected of committing a litany human rights violations, could be a leading figure in [an alliance of convenience between General Nkunda and other enemies of the president could lead to the ouster of Congo’s first democratically elected government in four decades] is a chilling thought for many Congolese. A recent journey through territory he controls revealed a host of contradictions between the image he puts forward and reality, including evidence of mass killings, the extraction of onerous payments from residents, illegal profiteering from the mineral trade and the conscription of child soldiers.”

Cohen believes, however, that once rebels like Nkunda stop receiving financial support they can be dealt with in a more effective way.

“If such a common market could be negotiated, Rwanda and Congo would no longer need to finance and arm militias to wage war over the natural resources in Congo’s eastern provinces. Without government backing, the fighting groups would either dissolve on their own or be integrated into legitimate armed forces. If undertaken with enough will and persistence, an American-led mediation to create a common market in East Africa could end the war and transform the region.”

I’m all in favor of creating a regional common market. In fact, I have written that regionalization is going to be important for African development. But Cohen is wildly optimistic if he thinks that rebel groups will “dissolve on their own or be integrated into legitimate armed forces.” Before the rebels give up their arms, they need assurances that good jobs await them (preferably not in the military) and they will probably need to be trained for those jobs. Most rebel fighters have nothing else since they were youth. Without a significant rehabilitation program, rebels are more likely to become criminals than farmers or laborers. Many of them will have come to enjoy the feeling of superiority they feel when people cower before them or flee at their approach. Such men are probably best incarcerated until they have been given skills that make them fit to contribute to society.


The fact it will be difficult to negotiate a common market agreement and get the rebels to stop fighting doesn’t mean the international community shouldn’t try. It does mean that if they are going to attempt they can’t do it on the cheap. Real resources will have to be committed to establish conditions that foster success. Basically, Cohen wants to create a regional globalization that provides for the free movement of people, resources, and capital. It can work, but the path is steep and only the truly committed should start up that path.

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