Averting the Nightmare Scenario in Eastern Congo

With tensions between Tutsi dissidents and Hutu rebels intensifying in recent weeks, ENOUGH provides solutions for averting the potential crisis.

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Between 1996 and 2002, the two massive wars fought in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were arguably the world’s deadliest since World War II. With almost no international fanfare, Congo is on the brink of its third major war in the last decade, and almost nothing is being done to stop it.

A dissident Congolese Tutsi General named Laurent Nkunda and at least 3,000 loyal forces have carved out control of parts of North Kivu Province. The Congolese government has responded by realigning itself with the FDLR—a militia composed of more than 6,000 Rwandan Hutu rebels, many with links to the 1994 genocide in their home country—to fight Nkunda’s more effective force.

Fighting between the two sides has intensified in recent weeks. Troops are being deployed to the front line and more are being forcibly recruited, and the potential for Rwanda to be drawn back into Congo—as it was in the two previous wars—increases with each day the international community drags its feet.

War in the Great Lakes region has been in a state of suspension over the last few years, despite the Congolese peace deal, and it ominously appears that the conflict has not yet reached its conclusion. Despite a complex peace deal and successful Congolese elections in late 2006, Congo will head down the road to a third cataclysm if the international community does not take much more robust action.

Incredibly, the world’s largest peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Mission in the Congo, or MONUC, is not engaging in any official dialogue with Nkunda, and there is no comprehensive diplomatic effort to head off what could return eastern Congo to the status it has held for much of the past decade as the world’s deadliest war zone. And while the UN Security Council President issued a statement in July urging all actors in the conflict to use diplomatic and political means to resolve the crisis, no one has stepped up to make that happen. The international community is not bringing strong pressure to bear on the Congolese government or Nkunda and his backers to negotiate. To arrest a bloody slide toward a catastrophic regional war, the international community must act quickly to implement a comprehensive political, economic, and military strategy, which involves launching negotiations between the Congolese government and Nkunda and dealing concurrently with the pretext for his rebellion—the FDLR.

Nkunda and the FDLR are inexorably entwined. The continued presence of the FDLR, the danger they pose to civilians, and the failure of the Congolese army to protect its citizens enables Nkunda to portray himself as a protector of his Tutsi community. At the same time, human rights abuses by Nkunda’s forces reinforce anti-Tutsi and anti-Rwandan sentiment in the region, and bolster calls for a decisive military solution to his rebellion. “Nkunda is a pyromaniac masquerading as a firefighter”, says Congo expert Jason Stearns. “The abuses committed by forces under his control fuel pervasive anti-Tutsi sentiment in the Kivus, yet he claims to be the only person who can protect his people.”

Recent attempts by Kabila’s government to co-opt Nkunda and his forces have backfired, strengthening Nkunda’s hand and emboldening hardliners in the Presidential circle who prefer a military solution. Given the systemic weaknesses of the Congolese army, the Congolese government has allied itself with the FDLR for military operations against Nkunda.

In a true nightmare scenario, the Congolese alliance with the FDLR could draw Rwanda back into eastern Congo, and full-scale war could again engulf the Great Lakes. Rwandan President Paul Kagame recently told ENOUGH, “The FDLR is not a strategic threat as long as there is no one behind them, supporting them. They become a strategic threat only if someone uses them.”

Inevitably, civilians are caught in the crossfire of military operations, and the prevailing climate of impunity allows all sides—Nkunda, the FDLR, the Congolese army, and local militias—to exploit the local population without fear of consequences.

Within the context of the ENOUGH Project’s 3P’s of crisis response (Peacemaking, Protection, and Punishment), the international community must immediately develop a “carrots and sticks” approach to avoid the resumption of full-scale war and deal with the intertwined challenges of Nkunda and the FDLR.


Peacemaking: MONUC must enlist strong support from the United States, EU, and key African states such as Rwanda and South Africa for a diplomatic initiative that focuses on the carrots: political negotiations to integrate Nkunda’s forces into the Congolese army and a redoubled effort to demobilize willing FDLR forces.

Protection: While maintaining its focus on protecting civilians and humanitarian operations, MONUC must assume the lead in developing the military sticks necessary to concentrate minds on finding non-violent solutions to the crisis. These sticks include credible military threats both to deal with Nkunda if political talks fail and to go after FDLR units that refuse to demobilize.

Punishment: Non-military sticks are also needed. The international community must move aggressively on three fronts: cutting off supply lines to belligerent parties in eastern Congo; collecting data on new crimes against humanity to support future prosecution by the International Criminal Court; and increasing support for military justice reform and capacity building to effectively punish crimes committed by the Congolese military and ensure that a responsible, professional, and capable military force emerges over time.

John Prendergast is Co-Chair and Colin Thomas-Jensen is Policy Advisor to the ENOUGH Project.

The mission of ENOUGH, a joint initiative founded by the International Crisis Group and the Center for American Progress, is to end crimes against humanity in Darfur, northern Uganda and eastern Congo, and to prevent future mass atrocities wherever they may occur. For more information, visit

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