If recent events in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo seem familiar, it is because in many ways they are. History is repeating itself – as it tends to in places where deep-seated problems are left to fester.
The chaos threatening to engulf the region provides a salutary reminder that while, on many fronts, the African continent is emerging buoyant, at its volatile centre it is anything but.
This is the fourth time in 16 years that rebels which UN experts have said are backed by Rwanda have overrun – or come close to – the mineral trading city of Goma, displacing hundreds of thousands of people as they advanced.
The first time, in 1996, they went on to overthrow the government 1,500 kilometres away in Kinshasa. The second, they were halted by the intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe that led to a five-year regional war. The third conflict was more limited. Secret deals were cut that led to the integration of the rebels into the Congolese army, where they remained a parallel force protecting their own and Rwanda’s mining and other interests until the latest outbreak of violence.
This time, and following the failure of the army integration process, there is no obvious way out. The rebels have threatened to go all the way to Kinshasa, but are unlikely to get anywhere near that far. They command little support, and a long march would expose Rwanda’s hand in backing them.
In the event of an escalation, a more likely scenario is the intervention of other neighbouring armies on Kinshasa’s side and the break-up of the state into separate fiefdoms – as happened at the cost of unknown numbers of lives between 1998 and 2003.
There appeared to be some progress on Tuesday in halting this downward momentum when Colonel Sultani Makenga, the rebel commander, agreed to withdraw unconditionally from Goma as a prelude to negotiations with President Joseph Kabila.
But other rebel leaders contradicted him – instead piling new demands on Kinshasa that would be political suicide for Mr Kabila to meet. The loss of Goma has already galvanised opposition, sparking protests in several cities.
Meanwhile, there was no clear sign of the rebels retreating to the hills. Even if they do go, the big questions left unanswered by a decade of halfhearted UN peacekeeping and ineffectual state-building will have to be tackled if there is to be any hope of sustainable peace.
Jason Stearns, a Congo expert at the Rift Valley Institute in Kenya, sums these up neatly: “How can Rwanda and Rwanda’s clients in the eastern DRC be persuaded that they do not need to support armed groups to protect their interests? And how can the Congolese state overcome inertia and vested interests to reform its decrepit state apparatus?”
The recent past does not provide much ground for hope. In his first term as elected president, Mr Kabila made scant progress in reforming the army and establishing the rule of law. Instead, he and the cabal around him have been linked to a vast mining fiasco that stunted Congo’s opportunity to ride the global commodities boom.
Across the border, Rwanda has played a double game. Its clients in Congo never stood to gain much from the political process or elections. Like the leadership in Rwanda, they are minority ethnic Tutsis, in a region infected with anti-Tutsi sentiment.
Kigali has always retained a Plan B, maintaining links to an allied buffer force to secure its economic and security interests in the face of continuing threats from extremists from the Hutu majority and other dissident forces. In doing so, Kigali has consistently undermined Congo’s peace process.
Western diplomacy has been clumsy, too. International donors turned a blind eye to the election-rigging that saw Mr Kabila returned to power last year. Until recently, they also ignored Rwanda’s meddling.
The result is a government with little legitimacy in Kinshasa, struggling to stamp its authority over a vast failing state; and, in Kigali, a regime that is all too effective at controlling events within its borders, but is both paranoid and opportunistic about the chaos on the other side.
Both countries benefited from an exponential increase in trade during the uneasy calm that existed from 2009 to 2011. Restoring that is part of the answer. But in the continuing absence of a functioning Congolese state, prospects for peace will always be shaky.