The 7 Deadly Sins of Congo’s Peace Process

Congo is an object lesson in how not to resolve conflicts. It's time we changed that.


Only in the Alice in Wonderland world of war-torn eastern Congo would the withdrawal of M23 rebels from Congo’s eastern provincial capital of Goma be cause for major celebration. The truth is that the retreat is just the latest chapter in a long story involving competing mafia-like political and military alliances controlled by leaders in the capitals of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, all of whom justify their actions in terms of national security concerns to mask economic and political interests. Sometimes these competing elites fight each other and sometimes they cooperate for control of lucrative resources such as land, livestock, minerals, and timber.

The opportunity that the rebel withdrawal presents should not be squandered by leaving the resolution of the conflict solely to these three governments while ignoring the root causes and the real representatives of the local communities most affected by the bloody conflict in eastern Congo. The time has come, finally, for a real international peace effort — the kind that actually has a chance of ending the deadliest war the world has witnessed since World War II. This week, the biggest guns are once again assembling to re-divide the pie — this time in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where peace talks are beginning between the main combatants.  

By global standards, the effort to construct a credible peace process for Congo is manifestly derelict, and has only condemned that country to further cycles of devastating conflict. Each time that Rwandan-backed Congolese rebels with shifting acronyms have taken or threatened Goma over the past decade, hasty backroom negotiations have produced deeply flawed deals that have reduced the military pressure on Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s weakened government and permitted the Rwandan-backed rebels to administer strategic eastern zones and oversee taxation and resource looting. When one looks behind the occasional United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for an end to violence, the international diplomatic response is exposed as shockingly ineffective — perhaps even violating the Hippocratic Oath’s command to "do no harm."

An entire semester’s curriculum could be built around Congo as a case study for how not to run a peace process. Every item on any conflict resolution 101 checklist has been violated or neglected. But I’ll limit myself here to the seven sins that are most responsible for dooming the chances of an enduring peace.

First, the latest non-transparent peace initiative has been largely left to the three actors who have benefited most from the absence of the rule of law: the leaders of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. As in previous processes, the interests of rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda will be represented overwhelmingly by Kigali and Kampala.

Second, these backroom deals have led in the past to short-term security arrangements that address none of the economic and political root causes of the conflict — a pattern that is repeating itself in the current effort. Previous deals have involved total impunity for war criminals, poorly conceived plans for integrating rights-abusing rebels into the Congolese army, and secret deals outlining governing arrangements.  

Third, diverse stakeholders from civil society, political parties, and even other armed groups such as local self-defense militias have virtually no role in the negotiations, effectively silencing grassroots Congolese voices.

Fourth, there is no credible senior mediator from either the African Union or the United Nations who has the gravitas and international backing to introduce an agenda that would go beyond short-term deals cut by those with the biggest guns. The United States has supported the current peace effort — putting a particular emphasis on Rwanda’s participation in the talks — but has not addressed the fundamentally flawed structure of the process itself.  

Fifth, there are no expert teams such as those that supported previous African peace deals everywhere from Sudan to Mozambique to Burundi to support protracted negotiations over tough issues and draw on best practices from other peacemaking efforts around the world.

Sixth, there is no internationally coordinated leverage — in the form of additional sanctions, aid suspensions, or war crimes investigations — to compel intransigent parties to consider compromises and no effective approach to create real accountability for committing, orchestrating, or funding crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for a few Congolese militia leaders, but no plans have been developed to execute the warrants of those who remain at large, including M23 leader Bosco "The Terminator" Ntaganda.

Seventh, there are no special envoys from the United Nations and United States at the talks, which only adds to the vacuum of diplomatic leadership and undermines any chance for peace.

There is no excuse for this sorry state of affairs. And rectifying the situation does not require huge amounts of money or wrenchingly divisive moves within the U.N. Security Council. It requires leadership — from the African Union, from the U.N. secretary general, and from President Barack Obama, who has a history of clarity on Congo going back to his days in the U.S. Senate, when he sponsored legislation that — had it been implemented — would have long ago cut aid to neighboring countries for destabilizing Congo and supporting proxies that plunder Congolese resources.  

The answers to this diplomatic train wreck lie in the successful peace processes that have ended previous African wars. First, a highly respected senior U.N. envoy should be appointed to work with an African Union envoy to craft and lead a transparent and inclusive peace process. Beyond the Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan governments, the initiative should involve armed and unarmed representatives from throughout eastern Congo — in particular civil society representatives and political party officials — to ensure that any agreement has the buy-in of a wide swath of stakeholders. Key regional governments such as Angola and South Africa must also be involved to apply leverage for a solution. A senior U.S. special envoy should be appointed to support the mediation and identify opportunities for the international community to exert leverage, including U.N. sanctions and war crimes accountability.

For the first time ever in a Congolese peace process, stakeholders must address root causes and adopt creative approaches — informed by best practices from successful mediation efforts — to incentivize the peaceful and legal development of Congo’s natural resource sector. And once a comprehensive deal is struck, special forces should be added to the existing U.N. peacekeeping force to counter the Rwandan FDLR militia and other armed groups that could undermine progress toward peace.

A credible international process in eastern Congo doesn’t guarantee peace. Its absence, however, guarantees further war.

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