Looking After the Crops:
Monusco's Mandate in the DR Congo
by Cecilia Arregui
Monusco troops patrol in Goma, April 2016. Photo by C.Arregui
Fidèle Bahati is sitting at his office, writing a message. It's raining: outside and in. Drops of water infiltrate most rooms of the destroyed, roofless house. A strong, elegant structure evidences a splendid past. Now, what has left serves as a precarious shelter for 72 children.
The Amour orphanage is set in Goma, the capital city of North Kivu, in the violent east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was founded in 1999 by Fidèle and his colleagues, also orphans, in an attempt to provide kids with the most basic needs. Food, a bed (in the best cases they share one mattress among five), and education. But the institution has no funding, it relies only on the help provided by the Uruguayan troops from the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country.

Two years ago, they were daily visited by a group of blue helmets who brought drinking water and food. Once in a while, a donation with clothes and medicine would also arrive. The children "were saved" thanks to the help offered by the soldiers, Fidèle used to say in 2016. Today, they rarely bring food. The support is not up to the needs of the kids. "There have been long promises to help us remedy the roof situation. We are still waiting".

The reputation of Monusco — how the mission is called — is certainly doubtful. A 2016 poll, conducted by the independent organizations Congo Research Group (CRG) and Berci, showed that almost 57% of respondents from North Kivu think the operation "should simply leave". People have reasons to be skeptical: the DRC is on the brink of chaos. After almost two decades of deployment, the mandate of protecting civilians and consolidating peace still hasn't been fulfilled. Why?

The Solution. Or Part of the Problem?

Since the 1960s, the West has been obsessed with aiding African countries, probably, partly due to colonial guilt. United Nations' peacekeeping operations, refugee-camps, health, food, and education programs dramatically increased in the post-Cold War period.

The DRC is one of the most intervened countries in the world. UN started the first peacekeeping mission there in 1999, during the Second Congo War. They have yet to leave. With around 18,000 uniformed personnel and a budget of 1.14 billion dollars a year, it is the longest, biggest, and most expensive operation in the history of the organization.

But what if all that help is precisely the reason why Congo is still a failed state? That is the logic behind Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo's celebrated book. "The trouble with the aid-dependency model is, of course, that Africa is fundamentally kept in its perpetual childlike state", the Oxford-educated Zambian author wrote. And although she centered her argument on systemic economic support, a similar reasoning can be applied to the DRC's peacebuilding efforts.

The Congolese Hell

Alex Ntung lived in a paradise. Born in a semi-nomadic tribe — Banyamulenge, in South Kivu — his lifestyle back then is hard to imagine for anybody raised in the modern world. Once, he spent six months in the rainforest, farming cows and living exclusively on milk. "I lived in a poverty that is richness", he recalls.

Everything changed when a militia came into his village, carrying guns. Alex was curious. He had never seen anything like that before. A group of kids got closer to them, but they were not the kind of people to be approached: they stabbed the man that was looking after the children.

'What kind of place do we live in?', Alex asked his dad. That day he learnt about Congo's history, from king Leopold to Mobutu. The boy realized that the DRC was not only a paradise, it was also a hell. DR Congo is one of the worst places in the world to live in. It's ranked 178th in the Human Development Index, out of 188 countries taken into account. The life expectancy is 59 years-old, and almost 64% of the population live with less than 1.9 dollars a day, according to the World Bank data. Yet it's home to around 78 million people.

Kidnap, rape, murder, and any imaginable kind of violence is common currency in the DRC. The territory is huge, and large parts of the resource-rich east go ungoverned. This has been going on for decades. What changed now is the macro-political situation.

President Joseph Kabila took office in 2001 after his father, Laurent-Désiré, was assassinated. Now, he's trying hard to cling to power. His second term ended two years ago, and he is forbidden by the Constitution to run again. Yet he has been finding excuses to postpone the elections that were supposed to have taken place in late 2016. They are now rescheduled for December 2018.

In the midst of such political turmoil, violence is on the rise. Kabila is an awfully disliked leader: no more than 20% of the Congolese back him, according to CRG and Berci poll from March 2018. Citizens of various cities, including the capital Kinshasa, started protesting. The demonstrators have been severely repressed by the security forces. Some of them were killed.

There are armed conflicts in 10 of the 26 provinces. Just in the Kivu province, the number of militias increased from around 70 in 2015 to over 120 today, published CRG. And there are 4.5 million Congolese displaced, almost twice as many as two years ago.

A Toothless Lion

To mark a new phase of intervention, the peacekeeping operation changed its name from Monuc to Monusco, the French acronym for United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo, in 2010. They had achieved some major milestones, such as the planning of general elections in 2006 and the assistance in drafting a constitution.

They were doing "fairly well" at the time, in Alex Ntung's opinion. He left his village in the DRC long ago and is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre of Conflicts Research Analysis, Kent. But with the change of mandate, Monusco became a "useless powerful thing, a lion without teeth".

Not all peacekeeping efforts have been ineffective. Namibia (1989-1990), Mozambique (1992-1994), Côte d'Ivoire (2004-2017), and Liberia (2003-2018) are some prosperous cases in Africa. "Limiting violence, reducing human suffering, containing the conflict", and "fulfilling the mission's mandate" are some of the broad ways to define success, published researcher Darya Pushkina in 2006. Monusco has yet to accomplish all of them. And while it is not the only failed mission, is it by far the most symbolic: due to the amount of resources put into it and, in contrast, the little improvement of life in the DRC.

The fact that DRC is a country the size of Western Europe with deplorable infrastructure has a lot to do with it. So does its richness in natural resources. Gold, diamond, copper, and coltan attract a lot of interested actors, constantly fueling the country. But beyond these challenges, a more structural problem lies: the mission is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The longer the UN is intervening in the nation, the more dependent the DRC becomes of it.

And the more a country depends on the mission, the less it works towards self-development. Following Moyo's reasoning: without the threat that Monusco might leave soon, there are no incentives for the Congolese authorities to gain control of their vast territory and fight against poverty and violence. Instead, Kabila disappears from the public sphere, and works hard to make his family richer, while "the government reassigns the abstract notion of accountability to its international partners", writes Théodore Trefon in the book The Congo Masquerade.

Better the Devil You Know

Joseph Kabila does not have personality of a strong leader. Shy and quiet, he rarely speaks in public. His declarations in January 2018 were a big surprise: it was his first press conference in five years. Besides promising elections would be held, he took the chance to insinuate that the UN mission had overstayed in the DRC.

The mission's mandate, nonetheless, was extended for another year on March 27th. "The two priorities in the country are to protect civilians and contribute to the organization of fair and peaceful elections by the end of the year", says Florence Marchal, Monusco's spokesperson, addressing Security Council Resolution 2409. In response, Congolese Foreign Minister She Okitundu affirmed in a press conference in Kinshasa that "the current mandate is considered to be the penultimate one, before the force leaves our country definitively".

Although it may sound antagonistic, Marchal declares that Monusco is on good working relations with the Congolese government. In fact, Leila Zerrougui, the new Special Representative to the Secretary General, meets officials almost every day. As most states with colonial past, the DRC is "very touchy" about their sovereignty, says Trefon, who holds a PhD in Politics and African Studies from Boston University. Then, why has the Kinshasa government allowed for the extension of the mandate?

The obvious reason, the expert speculates, is that people don't like changes. The mission has been going on for so long that many Congolese don't even remember how it was before the intervention. Nobody really knows what would happen if they leave. It also gives the authorities somebody else to blame when things in the country are not going well. Better the devil you know.

Exit Strategy

The longer Monusco stays, the harder it is to leave. Congo depends on it on so many levels that the absence of the mission could bring even greater chaos. Take the practical case of mobility: due to its size and lack of infrastructure, transportation is one of DRC's main challenges. And the UN's planes and helicopters are not only at the disposal of its staff but also for its partners.

The number of troops and humanitarian workers that have moved to Goma is enormous. This has kick-started an important service industry that employs many locals: restaurants, shops, and hotels survive mainly due to all the foreigners coming in and out of the city. If such a big operation left from one day to the next, there would be a vacuum. Somebody needs to take over all the activities the blue helmets have been in charge of in the past two decades. Marchal confirms they have been working on an exit strategy for several years now. It's a process, and it entails a lot of diplomacy.

The Monusco Paradox

In the village of Runundu, Alex Ntung's job was to look after the crops. It was vital that no monkey would mess-up the plantations. Four decades later, he compares his task as a kid to that of the UN troops in the DRC: "They keep an eye on the situation but there's not much they can do about it".

It's a huge paradox. Monusco works "in the name of peacekeeping", in Marchal's words. But the way of doing so is by deploying military personnel with top-tier weapons and equipment. Their presence, therefore, symbolizes war.

The region is highly militarized. The Congolese are used to seeing –and using– guns. In an environment full of rivalries and distrust, "when you add the explosive consideration of all these men with firearms, of course there is going to be a lot of mayhem", reflects Trefon.

The government is not responsible for its citizenry, so armed groups proliferate: it is the only way to access political power in the DRC, and fight for their needs. Militias are like business start-ups, says Ntung. Their biggest achievement is when Monusco fights them: it means they have reached status, that they are influential enough and need to be controlled.

Putting the Fire Out

The holding of fair elections is the next obvious achievement, though not the only one to measure progress. The international community is focusing their efforts at governmental level, instead of the people. Kinshasa, the capital, is over 2,000 kilometers away from the east of the DRC. There is less distance between London and Moscow.

Of course, Monusco is not the sole responsible for the lack of peace in the DRC. "The most blameworthy are certain Congolese actors at all levels, regional leaders, and individuals and companies involved in arms trafficking and illegal exploitation of natural resources", argues Séverine Autesserre in the book "The Trouble with the Congo". But there is no doubt that the mission has been missing its target.

Monusco is like a firefighter, according to Ntung. For a long time, it has been putting fires out, instead of addressing the causes of the fire. Grassroots conflicts require bottom-up processes in addition to the top-down peacebuilding, writes Autesserre, a professor specialized in international relations and African studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. Such strategy includes resolving land disputes, reconstructing institutions for the peaceful resolution of conflict, and promoting reconciliation within divided communities. And while it is true that most of Monusco's troops are present in the east, Congolese citizens are still unsure what it is they do. "They patrol every day just to show they are there", explains Ntung, who regularly travels to South Kivu to visit his family. "But villagers know that, really, they are the ones looking after themselves".

Time to Grow Up

"If Monusco wasn't here, it would be the opportunity for the Congolese to face our own responsibility", concludes Fiston Muhindo, a young journalist from Goma. A gradual, well-defined exit strategy is the only way to move forward. In the meantime, still, Monusco needs to address the root causes of the conflict and give Congolese citizens basic tools to survive on their own. "The nature of a peacekeeping mission is that it's not supposed to last for long", states Marchal. Two decades is more than enough.

Yes, somebody should help Fidèle Bahati to fix the roof, so that the 72 children that live in the Amour orphanage can sleep warm and dry. But that shouldn't be the job of the UN peacekeepers. Moyo's solution for sustainable development in Dead Aid "requires Africans to be treated as adults". It may hurt for a while, but everybody has to grow up at some point, even the Democratic Republic of Congo.
About the author: Cecilia is a multimedia journalist from Montevideo, Uruguay. Her dream is to become a foreign video correspondent. Previously, she worked as a video and print journalist for El Observador, a Uruguayan newspaper, as well as Ikusi's Production Manager for the TV show Premio Destacados. In 2016, Cecilia was video editing professor at the University of Montevideo, where she also got her Bachelor's Degree in Communications. In 2014, she interned at Storyhunter in New York, and in the Broadcast and Digital Media department at Chapman University, in Orange, California, the year before.

Cecilia Arregui
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