Interview with Kris Berwouts

Below is an interview I conducted with Kris Berwouts, the director of the Belgium-based European Network for Central Africa (EurAc), a network of 46 non-governmental organizations that work on Central Africa. Kris has been working on the region since the 1980s and just came back from a research and advocacy trip to Kinshasa and the Kivus.1. Kris, you just came back from a long trip to Kinshasa and the Kivus. What was your impression of the preparations for the 2011 elections? Who are the main potential candidates and what are their chances?

In a way, Kabila feels comfortable about the elections. Not because he is popular (he knows he isn’t) but because there is no real challenger. The MLC has never been able to get over the departure from the scene of Jean-Pierre Bemba in March 2007. Tshisekedi’s UDPS has indicated that it wants to take part in the local elections but did not give much evidence of unity, clear leadership or the ability to mobilise support now that its chairman is absent due to his age and poor health. PALU, a member of the ruling coalition, has also lost its unity after the sidelining of former Prime Minister Gizenga and the fact that his successor Muzito never could make any difference. N’Zanga Mobutu has a long-term political capital but his political movement does not seem to have much potential for mobilisation outside Equateur Province. Within the presidential alliance people seem happy in Kabila’s shadow. Olivier Kamitatu is respected by many and he is considered one of the most effective ministers but he is not a electoral heavyweight. Today he does not show great ambitions to offer the electorate any independent political option. By introducing the debate on changing the constitution (including a longer mandate and unlimited re-election for the president), he confirms that he has set his sights on being Prime Minister by remaining in the presidential camp. Pierre Lumbi’s Movement for Social Reform (MSR) does not seem very keen to act as an autonomous party either, and is happy to share power in the margin of the PPRD. The party, from the time of its inception, was intended to consolidate loyalty to Kabila in civil society. Vital Kamerhe seems to have good cards in his hands, although he was forced to resign as the president of the Parliament in March 2008. On the one hand the government is aware that there is no credible opposition and that the regime has no other opponent of his stature, should he wish to stand. On the other hand, the government is conscious of its own unpopularity, even in the east where it was elected. It may hope for an easy re-election, but it will need Kamerhe. Many observers expect that he will have to choose between setting up his own political party or rejoining the President’s entourage on terms very favourable to himself but unpopular with at least one section of the entourage. In either scenario Kamerhe will play a leading role. Kabila of course wants to be re-elected and counts on his propaganda machinery supported by the media. His main hope seems to be the acceleration of the implementation of the Chinese contracts that have to materialise at least a part of the “cinq chantiers” which were the core of his campaign promises in 2006.
2. It now seems inevitable that the local elections will be held in 2011. Is this so? Why are these elections important? EurAc has always stressed the importance of citizen participation in the process of national reconstruction. Local elections should have an essential role in the rehabilitation of governance in the DRC. They are not only essential to rebuild legitimacy in a state which was dismembered less than a week after its independence; they are also an essential element in the development from an embryonic democracy to an operational one. We consider that the procedure of elections is a kind of apprenticeship for democracy and will contribute to the renewal of the political landscape and the emergence of new leadership from the grass roots. However, the local elections are not giving rise to tremendous enthusiasm, either among the Congolese political elite, or in the international community, or in the general population. The government reproaches the international community of being slow to pledge financial support; the international community reproaches the Congo government of lacking the political will to organise elections; and the general population is frustrated because it still is confronted with the guilty absence of the state. When visiting the embassies, it becomes obvious that there are countries and international institutions that do not accord any kind of priority to local elections. But others are genuinely involved and have already allocated $139 million of the $163 million that the elections will cost. The countries supporting the local elections in the Congo expect a clear indication from the Congo government that it is also committed, including in financial terms. Everybody is wondering whether it is still possible to organise local elections in a reasonably short time. But the key question is: is there, behind all the discussion of practicalities and logistics, enough political will to organise the elections? In the absence of a strong opposition the current regime feels that its victory in the 2011 presidential and legislative elections will be easily won. They see the local elections as one of the rare factors that may disrupt that outcome. They could provide the space for new or existing political groups to find a new spring in their step, a new discourse, a new electorate. 3. You also visited the Kivus – what was your impression of the state of the FDLR after the Kimia II operations?
The military operations have solved nothing. The FDLR has avoided confrontation, retreating from its positions and then regaining most of them, taking revenge on the local Congolese civilians even more violently than we have seen in recent years. I was shown a letter of the FDLR command to the different brigades ordering violent action to be carried out against the Congolese civilian population in order to create chaos and bring about negotiations with the FDLR. The Commander in Chief of Kimia II’s euphoric communiqué at the closing ceremony listed figures of neutralised FDLR fighters but did not mention in the same detail the price paid by the Congolese population. It also forgets to say that the FDLR is like a vase that is emptied and refilled at the same time: some people leave and others join. FARDC deserters coming from former Mai Mai and Pareco, demobilised FNL fighters, and new recruits from within Rwanda. The final assessment of Kimia II, given by its Commander, is that it has reduced the nuisance value of the FDLR but we strongly doubt that. Their operational capacity is not weakened and their chain of command remained intact. The military operations contributed to their radicalisation, as did the arrest of their leaders in Germany. We consider the FDLR problem as political, so the solution needs to be political as well. We have no taboos about a military dimension, but only when it’s focused, and when it’s part of a broader political approach. A military solution does not exist. But the chances for a diplomatic approach to succeed will also depend on Rwanda: today, the outlook is gloomy as far as democratic participation, guaranteed human rights and socio-economic opportunities are concerned. Yet if the FDLR combatants are to return home, they need to be sure that they can live in future in peace and dignity. A huge stumbling block comes from the fact that an entire community is blamed for the genocide. The génocidaire label is applied to a whole group and not to individuals. The only way to make progress on this question is to be more explicit as to which persons are to blame and of what they are accused. 4. Do you feel that any serious steps are being made, by donors or the Congolese government, to reform the security services? What are the main obstacles to such reform?The Congolese army remains one of the main actors of human rights violations and still is much more part of the problem then part of the solution. The reasons are many: there are no caserns to barrack soldiers and the lack of confidence between the previous rebellions and the “regular” army still is insurmountable,. The involvement of armed groups, including the FARDC, in the illegal exploitation of the natural resources is one of the main obstacles in the security sector reform, and the army in its present forms gives a lot of opportunities for corruption and theft. Too much people earn too much money in the grey zones that exist in the army today. A lot of efforts have been done and a lot of money spent, but without results. The creation of a truly unified, effective and disciplined army is the backbone of lasting security in the eastern Congo. But it is important that the different international partners involved in the army reforms manage to work out a better coordinated and complementary approach, and that a screening mechanism is introduced as a means of excluding from the army and the police any individuals guilty of human rights violations, including sexual abuse. Another priority is a working military tribunal with the courage to judge officers who have committed abuses, including sexual violence.
5. Is the integration of the CNDP into the Congolese army sustainable? Has the peace deal between Kigali and Kinshasa brought a lasting truce, if not necessarily peace, to North Kivu? A year after the launch of the military operations, it is clear that they have not attained their objectives. The CNDP was decapitated by the arrest of Laurent Nkunda but proper integration into the Congolese state has not happened. Part of the CNDP never got integrated into the army and for the part that did the question was: “Who finally integrated whom?” The result of the integration of the CNDP is that it is larger than before and that it controls more troops and a greater geographical area. CNDP’s chain of command still exists. In many parts of Kivu CNDP’s parallel administration, including road blocks, remains in place, and its units have gained access to economically interesting places. Previously, CNDP financially depended on what it was given from various Rwandan sources, from the business community in Goma and by controlling imports and exports at the Bunagana frontier post, but the military operations has given it a grip on one of the most lucrative mineral areas in the DRC. Still, the movement has been undermining itself through its disunity. It split into factions which were on several occasions about to fight each other. Similarly in its civil structure new men have come and gone. The Congo and Rwanda began 2009 with a surprise – their rapprochement and the joint operation. For Kabila as for Kagame, this rapprochement was a marriage of reason rather than of love: neither of them had other options. Twelve months later the Congo is weaker: neither the political institutions of the Third Republic nor the administration function any better than they did a year ago. Insecurity continues to reign in the east of the country. Even if the relationship of the forces on the ground has changed, impunity and the militarisation of the economy remain as they were. Rwanda, for its part, has quickly recovered from its moment of weakness and relative isolation. Its participation in a joint military operation with the Congolese army and its withdrawal within the due time was seen as a serious indication of good intentions. Rwanda’s access to minerals and grazing land in Kivu is greater than a year ago and its ally in the Congo’s politico-military context, the CNDP, is today in a position it could only dream of a year ago. Rwanda is once again considered to be a stabilising factor in the region and this has been confirmed by its acceptance into the Commonwealth (in spite of a very critical independent report) and by the visit of the French President to Kigali.
6. What is the mood amongst the important international actors in Kinshasa? Is there a feeling of coordination and a vision for how to engage with the Congo? At present there is hardly any dialogue between the international community and the Congo government. Diplomats have difficulty in gaining access to those who hold real power and take decisions. We continue to lobby for an explicitly political dialogue between the international community and the government, based on a genuine will to contribute loyally to the country’s development (with funding and expertise), as well as serious pressure in priority areas (human rights, good governance, democratic participation etc). What is needed is a road map with bench marks reached by common agreement. Such criteria will allow progress in different sectors to be monitored. Of course this dialogue must be one of mutual respect and partnership, recognising the legitimacy and sovereignty of the Third Republic. But to be effective, it is vital to advocate a greater degree of multilateralism and coordination of the international community’s actions. If the international community wants to make a difference, it must show that its members are working together in coherence. Yet it is divided at the present time by strong bilateral interests. There is no unity and no single voice. To succeed, China will have to be included in the search for such a unified position.