The future of MONUC (and debt relief)

For those who haven’t noticed, these are important days in the future of the Congo.

Two important decisions are being taken by the international community: debt relief and the future of the peacekeeping mission.

First, the end of MONUC. It so happens that there was a closed door session of the Security Council today, with the head of UN peacekeeping Alain Le Roy giving a briefing on his recent trip to Kinshasa. As reported here, Le Roy was told bluntly by the Congolese that MONUC needed to leave by the end of 2011. Now it’s up to the Security Council’s to figure out what to do. According to diplomats who attended the briefing today, the US was the most forceful in calling for MONUC to stay, saying that it was entirely premature for the peacekeeping mission to leave, that it was needed for two tasks: Protection of civilians and security sector reform. Unfortunately, as Le Roy told them, the Congolese have told MONUC that they won’t no multilateral (i.e. UN) interference in their efforts to reform, they “privilege bilateral engagement.”

The French, who usually take the lead on Congo matters, were also pushing for MONUC to stay. Pity, however, that their representative fell asleep for a full 15 minutes during the briefing.

Then, at the very end, came the Chinese. We are all used to their rhetoric about non-interference in sovereign countries, but this time they outdid themselves. Stability is returning to the eastern Congo, he said, and MONUC needs to respect the government’s wishes. Moreover, there will be no new beginning for the Congo as long as MONUC is there (!), and the Chinese government fully supports President Kabila’s desire “to fly with his own wings.” I loved this euphemism: We need to take advantage of this new opportunity in the relationship between the UN and the Congolese government. (The opportunity, of course, being the end of the peacekeeping mission.)

This is strong language. Basically, it looks like there will be a showdown between the Chinese and the Americans. I fear that, given all the other tensions between the two countries – google, currency depreciation, Dalai Lama – that the Congo will get short shrift. In April the Security Council is supposed to travel to Kinshasa, in May they have to decide on a new MONUC resolution. I don’t think we can shove anything down Kabila’s throat, but there are ways of finessing this. For example, we can withdraw troops from the West and drawdown several thousands (Le Roy has already proposed this), but insist on not committing on a final date for MONUC withdrawal, as Kabila wants.

Second, the debt: the country is saddled with $11 billion in debts, mostly from Mobutu’s period. (Reuters put out a nice factbox today with a breakdown of figures.) If they paid all of their interest, it would consume 10% of the budget each year (they only pay around half now). In February, the Paris Club decided to forgive $1,3 billion and it’s possible that the IMF & World Bank will cancel up to 90% of the remaining debt in June, when the Congo reaches completion point in the HIPC program. Hint to diplomats who constantly wring their hands about not having leverage on the Congo: you might want to think about asking for meaningful reform in return for debt cancellation.