How to Stop The Killing in Congo

The story is depressingly familiar. Once again, war pushes an African nation to the verge of catastrophe, calls go out for foreign military intervention, and the proposed solution is unlikely to help. It could even make things worse, broadening the fight and distracting attention from more-promising solutions.

Congo has been at civil war for 12 years, leaving some 5 million dead and this year alone displacing about 1.5 million. In the past month, new battles in North Kivu province between government troops and rebels led by Laurent Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi, have sent an estimated 250,000 civilians fleeing their homes and threatened relief efforts. This is despite the fact that Congo is already host to the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world. The U.N.'s 17,000 troops lack air support and robust rules of engagement and have proved unable to halt the rebels or rampages by government soldiers.

In recent weeks the U.N. Security Council has authorized 3,000 more troops and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an additional interim European Union force. Even if the U.N. troops can be found, it will take months to deploy them. An EU force could faster, but many European leaders oppose sending it. Moreover, adding more troops—or promising to—could actually do more harm than good. Those already there haven't proved effective. Even proponents of increased military intervention admit that beefing up MONUC (as the U.N. mission is known) won't solve much. Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch, who has publicly called for more troops, concedes that "there will be no solution to the eastern Congo through the barrel of a gun."

That's especially true if Congo's neighbors get involved. The Southern African Development Community has also offered to send troops. Congo has been down this road before, with disastrous consequences. Between 1998 and 2003, eight other African countries sent their armies into the war zone, undermining the Congolese government and setting up militias, some of which remain active. Now both Angola and Rwanda are rumored to have dispatched military advisers once more. Open participation by these countries this time around could spark a "regional conflagration and possibly genocide," says Knox Chitiyo, head of the Africa program at the Royal United Services Institute, a respected London think tank.

Foreign troops have proved successful in ending certain African crises before (such as Sierra Leone's in 2002). But Congo's problems are more daunting. The country is vast—the capital, Kinshasa, is more than 1,600 kilometers from Goma—and the conflict is extremely complex, involving some 20 militias and ethnic (Hutu vs. Tutsi) hostilities. "You would need a minimum of 100,000 soldiers to have a credible peacekeeping force," says Chitiyo. "Nineteen or twenty thousand just doesn't cut it."

A better approach would recognize the sources of the conflict and address them. "This is a resource war," says Muzong Kodi of Chatham House, another British think tank. "There won't be a long-term solution if the issue of illicit exploitation is not solved." Eastern Congo is a treasure house of natural resources, especially cassiterite, the ore from which tin is made, as well as gold, diamonds and coltan, an essential mobile-phone component. Kodi says some of the rebel groups "spend more time mining than fighting," and the country's neighbors have all exploited the conflict in the past to enrich themselves.

So far most peace efforts, including the shuttle diplomacy being undertaken by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, haven't dealt with the resource question. That has to change. Carina Tersakian, the Congo team leader for Global Witness, an advocacy group, says the trick is to get companies that profit from Congolese resources "to ask serious questions about where their minerals are coming from." If countries enacted a ban on the purchase of minerals from militia-controlled territory, that could deprive the belligerents of their profit motive and bring them to the table. The success of such efforts might sound farfetched, but Kodi says "the companies and the countries [involved] are known, and we need to pressure them to exercise due diligence." An international boycott of "blood diamonds" from Liberia and Sierra Leone is credited with helping bring rebel movements in those countries to peace talks.

Key in any such effort would be Rwanda, through which most of Congo's looted riches are smuggled. Until a recent find in Australia, Congo sat on 85 percent of the world's known coltan supply, yet Rwanda—which has no reserves of the mineral itself—was one of the world's largest exporters. Rwanda was also a key player in earlier phases of the Congo conflict, partly because hundreds of thousands of Hutus, including génocidaires, fled Rwanda for Congo after Rwanda's own 1994 civil war.

Effective action on the resource and the regional front will require some serious arm-twisting from the West. Britain, France and the United States all have significant diplomatic clout in the area; as Van Woudenberg points out, Congo and its neighbors "are very heavily aid dependent." Many think it would also help to appoint an envoy with more gravitas and clout than Obasanjo; Chitiyo suggests someone like Kofi Annan or Pope Benedict (Roman Catholicism is strong in Africa's Great Lakes region).

If experts agree on anything, it's that no solution will be simple. "If there were something easy that could fix the Congo, it would have been done," says Van Woudenberg. "There is no magic bullet." Shutting off the militias' illicit income stream, pressuring neighbors to police their borders and bring their proxies to heel and finally forcing the players to sit down for serious negotiations don't have the simplicity or rhetorical appeal of sending in the gendarmes. What such moves do have, however, is at least some prospect of success—and that's more than any foreign military mission to Congo has so far enjoyed.