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The Democratic Republic of Congo is descending into chaos as rebels take over cities and the nation’s army does nothing to stop them. Kojo explores the conflict in this severely poor African nation that has vast reserves of gold, diamonds and other minerals.
- Laura Seay Assistant Professor, Political Science, Morehouse College (Atlanta, Ga.)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Rain Pryor with a career update and why she is now running a small theater in Baltimore.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, the Democratic Republic of Congo is reeling this week as rebels roll across the country and take control of one town after another while the Congolese Army does little to stop this eight-month-old insurgency. The situation took on new urgency after the rebels took the provincial capital city of Goma and said they would withdraw only if President Joseph Kabila meets all their demands.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey want him to hold talks, release political prisoners and disband the Electoral Commission that many believe handed him an illegitimate second term last year. The Democratic Republic of Congo is roughly one third the size of the United States. It has valuable mineral resources, including gold and diamonds, but it's one of the poorest and hungriest countries in the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's also a nation that has suffered from years of violence, experts estimating that unrest there over the past decade has killed millions of people. With the rebels' advance this week, there are new fears of an all-out war as Congolese citizens riot and demand the ouster of President Kabila.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to try to make sense of all of this is Laura Seay, professor of political science at Morehouse College. She joins us from studios at WCLK in Atlanta. Laura Seay, thank you for joining us.
MS. LAURA SEAYThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIExplain who these rebels are and what prompted their new surge of fighting this month.
SEAYWell, the M23 is a rebel group that formed back in April. It is led by several Tutsi-Congolese citizens who are Tutsis who were part of another rebel movement that technically disbanded in 2009 called the CNDP. And the CNDP was one of the eastern Congo's rebel movements.
SEAYThey made an agreement with the Congolese government to stop fighting in 2009 and the conditions of that agreement were that they would join what's called the integration into the national army of Congo. So they would stop being a rebel movement and become soldiers in the national army.
SEAYThat agreement was made on March 23, 2009, which is where these rebels take their name. And they believe that the president has broken that agreement and this arose out of disagreements earlier this year within the ranks of the army. The CNDP soldiers never fully integrated into the Congolese Army. Instead, they maintained parallel chains of command, parallel structures.
SEAYThey essentially were governing a small portion of territory in North Kivu Province. They were taxing residents, taxing the trade, taxing mineral wealth and benefiting from the sales of minerals. And earlier this year, President Kabila made indications that he was not going to tolerate this situation anymore, that he wanted them to either fully integrate into the Congolese Army or to go away.
SEAYAnd so with those indications, you had a major mutiny in April that happened with a lot of these ex-CNDP officers pulling out. So now they are a group that called themselves the M23. They're also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army and they have been advancing and took the city of Goma last week.
NNAMDIIf you have comments or questions about what's going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you can call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Laura Seay. She's a professor of political science at Morehouse College.
SEAYWhat do these rebels want and how likely is it that Congolese President Joseph Kabila will meet their demands?
SEAYYeah, well, you know, what they want is not entirely clear. They have stated a wide variety of demands ranging from everything to letting them return to something like the status quo under the 2009 agreement to asking for the president to disband the country's Electoral Commission and fix all of Congo's corruption problems.
SEAYAnd there seems to be -- we're learning today there seems to be a divide within the M23 movement. This morning, there have been negotiations in Kampala over the past few days and this morning some people and part of the movement leadership announced that they would withdrawing from Goma without condition to undergo negotiations with the government.
SEAYBut another wing of the group announced a long list of conditions in a press conference in Goma this morning and so I think that one of the issues here is that the goals are really unclear. One of the things that we do know, in terms of sort of long-term goals, is that this is a movement in which people of Tutsi ethnicity and their allies are very concerned about their status in the eastern Congo, about their citizenship rights, about their access to land and their access to other resources.
SEAYTutsis are heavily discriminated against in the eastern Congo. Many people see them as the source of the region's problems. And so they really do have a legitimate grievance in that they are in some danger. I mean, we've had several attempts at ethnic killings over the years, of targeted killings of Tutsis and of other Kinyawanda speakers, namely Congolese Hutus.
SEAYSo this group of people, they do have grievances. Their access to the mineral wealth is part of the equation. And then, you just have the fundamental problem that the eastern Congo is very poorly governed. It is not really under anybody's control and some of what the M23 claim they want to do is just establish order and establish governance.
SEAYAnd they have, you know, they've done an okay job, in a relative sense, of doing that in the territories that they control. Now, the counterbalance to that, of course, is that they are responsible for a very large number of human rights abuses.
NNAMDIAnd so you're saying that as of today, it would, however, appear that the M23 itself is split into those who want to continue the rebellion and others who have announced that they have been negotiating with the government. How is all of this affecting daily life for the Congolese right now? It's my understanding there are lots of power outages in a country that has spotty electric power anyway.
SEAYYes, the situation for Congolese is really dire and really critical. You had about -- there are about 2.5 million people all total displaced in Congo right now. Of that, about 140,000 to 150,000 have been displaced in the course of the last two weeks with this round of fighting and they are in camps around Goma.
SEAYWe have only just today, so we're talking eight days after the invasion, started to see some promising signs that humanitarian aid is getting to those people in the numbers and amount that it is needed. But life is extraordinarily difficult. The price of food, the cost of living has almost doubled in the course of a week.
SEAYAnd there's great difficulty transporting agricultural products to the city. This is why commodity prices have gone so high. So the main agricultural region is to the west of Goma in a place called Masisi and the farmers in Masisi, those who have not fled their homes, they can't get their products through the front lines to the markets in Goma and so food is becoming more scarce.
SEAYThe issue with the electricity, the Congolese Army apparently sabotaged the electrical grid in Goma before they left so that the M23 rebels would not be able to benefit from it. This poses a problem both because there's no electricity and because Goma's water system is tied to the electrical grid. So when the electrical grid is out, there's no running water and this poses a huge risk of cholera, you know, which is already very risky in a situation like this when you have internally-displaced people, when they're in new camps that don't have proper latrines and when they don't have any clean sources of water.
SEAYAnd so that's -- getting the electrical grid back on and getting water running again as well as distributing emergency water through trucks and providing chlorination services on the site of Lake Kivu has been a really high priority for humanitarian actors.
SEAYBut they are having problems as well because since the invasion last week, the airport in Goma has been closed so they can't fly in extra aid workers. They can't fly in supplies. And at the Rwandan border, efforts to bring trucks overland are being greatly hampered by the M23's border administration. They're doing a lot to try to establish a taxation regime there and it's slowing down the wait to get these critical humanitarian supplies across the border.
NNAMDIOne is tempted to ask is there any good news at all? But we press on. People have criticized the United Nations peacekeeping troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo for not doing more to stop the rebel advance. What is their status and what is their mission there?
SEAYYes, so the peacekeeping mission is called MONUSCO, which is a French acronym for United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Congo. And MONUSCO, last week when the rebels approached Goma, in the fighting the week before leading up to that in the areas to the north of Goma, they had performed what is part of their mandate, which is to support the Congolese Army in its efforts to fight rebels.
SEAYAnd so MONUSCO was running air raids, you know how they had helicopter gunships out, that sort of thing, supporting the army. But when the rebels got to the gates of Goma, the Congolese National Army turned and ran and retreated from the city. They did not attempt to defend it in any kind of meaningful way.
SEAYAnd at that point, MONUSCO was really put between a rock and a hard place and they've gotten a lot of criticism for just standing by as the rebels marched into Goma. But the fact of the matter is that their mandate, which is given by the Security Council, does not allow them to unilaterally fight against rebels. They have to be doing it in a support role.
SEAYAnd when the Congolese Army walked away, they had no choice. Now another part of their mandate is civilian protection, but because the Congolese Army fled M23's entry into the city of Goma was largely peaceful and the argument made by MONUSCO commanders is that if they had started fighting unilaterally against the M23, there certainly would have been serious injuries to civilians.
SEAYSo I think that this is a serious issue and one that has embarrassed MONUSCO, but also that, you know, really the commanders on the ground followed the rules that the diplomats in New York had given them.
NNAMDIAnd as for the Congolese Army, it's our understanding that the Congolese, which was supposed to be fighting the rebels, apparently turned and ran and didn't attempt to fight the rebels?
SEAYRight, and this is pretty much their standard mode of operation when they are met with an overwhelming force. They don't even attempt to fight or to defend the population. They ran. They are currently, largely camped out at a front, around a city called Minova, which is on the western shore of Lake Kivu, maybe about an hour's drive depending on the roads from Goma.
SEAYBut instead, what they've been doing in Minova, rather than, you know, really making serious preparations to mount an offense to retake Goma, they've been getting drunk, harassing the population, raping women, looting and engaging in very, very bad behavior. And this has echoes of a similar situation in 2008-2009 when there was another, almost battle for Goma, this time with the CNDP forces that led to that March 23rd agreement.
SEAYAnd at that point, the Congolese Army broke ranks in the city of Goma and went on a spree of terrorizing the population that was quite horrific and resulted in a lot of death, a lot of women and girls being raped and that sort of thing. So...
SEAY...the Congolese Army, it's difficult to see it as a source of future stability and I think that, you know, if anything good has come out of this, it is that there is a discussion now going on in New York about whether MONUSCO's mandate is appropriate and whether it needs to be expanded out to sort of a classic chapter seven mission, a peace enforcement mission that would allow these troops to make civilian protection their absolute priority and to fight rebels if they need to because they're far more competent and far more professional than the army that they're supposed to be supporting.
SEAYAnd that army that they're supposed to be supporting does not always have protecting civilians as its goal.
NNAMDIIndeed, rape and violence against women being one of the characteristics of the internal warfare in the Congo resulting in the performance of the play, "Ruin" that we saw here in Washington a couple of years ago and it seems as if the same kind of thing might be recurring again.
NNAMDIHere is Natal in Laurel, Md. Natal, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
NATALThank you, Kojo, and hello to your guest.
NNAMDIGo right ahead.
NATALYes, I have a quick comment and a question. The first comment is what your guest just said about MONUSCO. Yesterday, the daily brief -- I mean, press briefing, Miss Nuland of the Department of State said clearly, MONUSCO was not able to do what it was mandated to do because part of what they are supposed to do, and this was told to us by Ambassador Walkley, was that whenever the Congolese would hold the position like if they won in the war, then MONUSCO was supposed to be the one that would safeguard that position. And in this particular case, you know, I'm just giving you what was in the briefing.
NATALBut my question has to do with what the United States is doing. We know that when Ambassador Walkley was sent to Kigali when this war conflict started, President Kagame refused to receive him. And subsequently, at the U.N., Ambassador Rice was the one who has been protecting Rwanda's involvement in this conflict. So my question really has to do with what is the game that is being played. The State Department has one position and we know that Ambassador Carson, the Assistant Deputy of State is in Kampala and he's going to Kigali today. And then we have another position coming from Ambassador Rice at the UN.
NNAMDILaura Seay, obviously our caller Natal has been following this situation fairly closely. He's talking about diplomatic efforts taking place in Uganda. He's talking about the possible involvement of Rwanda in what's taking place there. But what is the U.S.'s position at this point as far as you know?
SEAYThis is a great question and I think that, you know, our caller is very well informed and points to the fact that there is an ongoing argument within the United States government as to precisely what the position should be. At the moment the official position is that the U.S. supports negotiations between the parties and believes that any external actor providing support to either -- any parties in this conflict should stop doing so.
SEAYWhere the issue has come out is through these debates at the Security Council. And the caller's correct. There have been efforts. The Ambassador of France last week wanted to pass a resolution on this crisis after the fall of Goma that named Rwanda as a sponsor of the M23 group,. And of course we haven't talked about that but there's very strong evidence compiled by the United Nations group of experts by Human Rights Watch, by Amnesty International showing that Rwanda is providing substantial support to the M23 rebels.
SEAYAnd Ambassador Rice blocked that language from the bill and instead had this more ambiguous phrasing of it being, you know, anyone providing external support. There is apparently quite a bit of disagreement with that in the State Department in the Africa Bureau and in the offices. They're charged with dealing with central African affairs. The diplomats there feel that it is important to call out Rwanda for their actions in this situation. But Ambassador Rice's position has been that one needs to keep the doors to negotiation open.
SEAYNow there are a lot of people asking questions about that. Ambassador Rice is known for having a long relationship with President Paul Kagame as well as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
NNAMDIPaul Kagame in Rwanda, correct.
SEAYRight. Paul Kagame in Rwanda, sorry. And so there are some who think that her judgment or her position on this has somewhat been clouded or influenced by that relationship and that perhaps she listens to the Rwandan perspective, which has been to deny involvement and to deny the extent of involvement that's been documented by the UN group of experts. And so there's quite a kind of internal bureaucratic battle going on over what this is.
SEAYBut I think it's very important to understand that Ambassador Rice is one of President Obama's most trusted foreign policy advisors. And she probably has more influence over the White House and thus the official policy than anyone else working on Africa.
NNAMDINatal, thank you very much for your call. We're running out of time very quickly but can you talk a little bit about who the Congolese people support, President Kabila and the government or the M23 rebels, and what is your prediction for how this will all play out?
SEAYSure. Well, of course there are 70 million Congolese so I think you'll find a lot of different people supporting different places. But I think that, you know, for many people in these conflict-affected areas the answer is none of the above. They do not like the M23. They do not trust them even though heir army has largely behaved better than the national army. And they certainly don't believe that Kabila can protect them. And they've had evidence that he cannot do so over and over again.
SEAYKabila was reelected last November in national presidential elections. Most Congolese believe that those elections were illegitimate, believe that they were stolen. And certainly there were a very high number of irregularities documented by international and local observers at the time. And he really is facing a difficult domestic situation in which, you know, if he makes a deal with M23 to resolve this peacefully, on the one hand that's good because it means no more fighting.
SEAYBut on the other hand many Congolese are suspicious of his motives. There's a sort of birther movement in DRC where a very large percentage of the population believes that he is actually Rwandan and of Rwandan descent. And they see any kind of feel...
NNAMDIThey also believe that his assassinated father, the former President Laurent Kabila was also Rwandan?
SEAYThey do -- well, some do, but most do not. Most believe that his mother -- that Kabila's -- that the woman Kabila says is his mother is not actually his mother and that his father had a Rwandan companion who is actually his mother. I mean, this is not supported by the available evidence. But perception can be more important than reality. And this is widely perceived to be true. And so if he makes a deal with the M23 that gives any kind of concessions at all he's going to be seen as -- it's just going to add fuel to the fire of people claiming that he's not really Congolese. He's not really a legitimate leader of their country.
SEAYOn the other hand there is not a military solution. I mean, the FARDC is not strong enough to retake this territory and to fight back effectively. And so I think what we're going to see, you know, is efforts at a peaceful solution but it's going to be very, very difficult and very costly for Kabila in terms of domestic politics going forward.
NNAMDILaura Seay is a professor of political science at Morehouse College. Laura Seay, thank you so much for joining us. Obviously this is a situation that is ongoing s they say. We'll probably have to revisit it later. Thank you so much for joining us.
SEAYMy pleasure. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, Rain Pryor, career update and why she's now running a small theater in Baltimore. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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