Guardian | 19 Oct 2011
The humanitarian situation in Congo's eastern provinces is unlikely to bolster regional support for President Joseph Kabila
By Kristin Palitza, Bukavu
The army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has had a rough ride since May 2009. That was when President Joseph Kabila started to integrate into the force about half of the estimated 330,000 militia who waged an eight-year civil war. Around 5 million people were killed in the conflict.
Two years later, as a presidential election looms, it is obvious the integration strategy has failed. Internal power disputes along old militia and tribal lines, ineffective control of troops, lack of training and low pay have destroyed the the military's morale. The civilian population regards the army as a corrupt body of murderers, rapists and thieves.
"We don't have a professional national army yet. There are elements that loot and rape," says Lieutenant Colonel Muhima Busanga, who is stationed in Bukavu, in eastern Congo. He feels the situation is difficult to resolve if soldiers don't receive an appropriate salary.
According to Busanga, soldiers are paid an average of $50 a month - if they are paid at all - an amount hardly sufficient to feed their families. "Proper pay will stabilise soldiers. They will not go and steal from civilians to survive," the lieutenant explains, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
The condition of the army barracks in Bukavu demonstrates that soldiers' lives are far from comfortable. The run-down brick dwellings are interspersed with rickety shacks built with discarded planks of wood and plastic. Soldiers and their families live like squatters, largely without running water or electricity.
"The reintegration of armed groups has not been successful because the government ordered different militia to be grouped together, without a proper integration mechanism," says Professor Gustave Nachigera, political analyst and rector of Bukavu's Evangelical University in Africa. "Men who used to torture, rape and kill are from one day to the next supposed to protect the population. That's impossible."
The humanitarian situation in the eastern provinces continues to deteriorate. Militia attacks remain the order of the day. In Katana, for example, a small village 50km north of Bukavu, women hide at night in banana plantations, fearful of attacks. "There is almost no one here who hasn't been raped," says Angelique Rusumba, a woman speaking on behalf of the village. "Rape is used as psychological warfare by all sides."
Militia fighters steal crops and livestock, forcing villagers into abject poverty, she says. According to a 2009 UN Human Development Report, almost 80% of the Congolese population live under the poverty line of $2 a day.
A few years ago, the village was protected by its own militia, the Maï-Maï, but such groups were demobilised in 2006 – and peace did not come as promised. "We are now unprotected, but the attacks continue. Just last week, armed men came at night to pillage and abducted eight men to carry their loot," says Claude Nyamwemera, 25, a former Maï-Maï fighter.
The lack of a functional peace process, and the failure to pursue perpetrators of abuse through recourse to the law, has been strongly criticised by human rights groups. "The inability to bring to justice members of its own army and armed groups for crimes under international law has fostered a culture of impunity, leading to attack after attack against civilians," says Amnesty International's Africa director, Erwin van der Borght.
Congo has officially been at peace since December 2002, when the warring parties signed an accord. This was followed in 2006 by the country's first democratic elections. Yet the country seems doomed to war and stagnation due to conflicting national and international interests in its vast mineral wealth. Much of the gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and coltan is concentrated in North and South Kivu provinces, but the population there has seen little of the profits.
Without the fundamental issues at the heart of the instability and insecurity being resolved, the estimated 9 million citizens of the Kivu provinces – about 13% of Congo's population – are unlikely to vote for Kabila at next month's election.