Congo peace talks as (un)promising as their moderator

Peace talks opened in Nairobi today between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rebel group led by General Laurent Nkunda. There is one reason — above the many other good ones — that I am unfortunately a skeptic: the U.N.-appointed moderator, Olusegun Obasanjo. At first glance, Obasanjo is a great pick. ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
591252_081208_obasanjo5.jpg
591252_081208_obasanjo5.jpg

Peace talks opened in Nairobi today between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rebel group led by General Laurent Nkunda. There is one reason -- above the many other good ones -- that I am unfortunately a skeptic: the U.N.-appointed moderator, Olusegun Obasanjo.

At first glance, Obasanjo is a great pick. He's an African statesman who helped bring democracy to Nigeria after a history that included a brutal civil war, a string of military dictators (he was one of them), and years of economic decline. "Baba," his nickname meaning "Papa', aptly characterized his ruling style: a benevolent elected dictator who -- for the most part -- had control over an unwieldly country.

But then there are the details. Obasanjo managed those various parties through patronage -- granting monies here and there, favoritism or punishment to this and that. He was the master of holding peace summits with little goal other than the summit itself. Behind the scenes, the governors under his watch paid off militants, sometimes supported them, and skimmed oil wealth off the top. The status quo was stable only so far as everyone could be paid off. Today, without his personality to manage the situation, the delta is on the brink of exploding.

Peace talks opened in Nairobi today between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rebel group led by General Laurent Nkunda. There is one reason — above the many other good ones — that I am unfortunately a skeptic: the U.N.-appointed moderator, Olusegun Obasanjo.

At first glance, Obasanjo is a great pick. He’s an African statesman who helped bring democracy to Nigeria after a history that included a brutal civil war, a string of military dictators (he was one of them), and years of economic decline. “Baba,” his nickname meaning “Papa’, aptly characterized his ruling style: a benevolent elected dictator who — for the most part — had control over an unwieldly country.

But then there are the details. Obasanjo managed those various parties through patronage — granting monies here and there, favoritism or punishment to this and that. He was the master of holding peace summits with little goal other than the summit itself. Behind the scenes, the governors under his watch paid off militants, sometimes supported them, and skimmed oil wealth off the top. The status quo was stable only so far as everyone could be paid off. Today, without his personality to manage the situation, the delta is on the brink of exploding.

Then there are the elections. In Obasanjo’s last days as president, he tried (unsuccesfully) to change the constitution so that he could run for a third term. In the neighborhood I used to live, rumor had it that truckloads of money were delivered to the homes of skeptical senators. When elections did take place, they were so massively rigged that the ruling party easily won.

So can Obasanjo bring the two sides together in the DR Congo? I sure hope so. Perhaps his wiley personality can do just that. I just hope his example isn’t the one they follow.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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