With its enormous size and almost unparalleled bounty of natural resources, you might expect the Democratic Republic of Congo to be one of the most developed countries in Africa. However, history has been unkind to this rich and fertile country. Decades of brutal rule by Belgian colonialists have been followed by years of dictatorship and endless civil war. Since the fall of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, the DRC has been subject to the most deadly armed conflict since WWII (known as “Africa’s World War”) in which more than 5 million citizens have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13283212). As a result, the DRC, in spite of its potential wealth, consistently ranks at or near the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index (http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/table-1-human-development-index-and-its-components).
While the country is still hampered by poverty, poor infrastructure, lack of government capacity and the continuing presence of armed groups in its eastern provinces, recent developments have led some to believe that a lasting peace for this war-torn region may be in sight. The last year has been a time of almost unprecedented optimism in the DRC, with diplomatic pressure and military interventions leading to significant improvements in regional stability and security.
In late 2013 the Rwanda-backed rebel group M23 – responsible for numerous human rights abuses since its formation in 2012 – was defeated thanks to a joint offensive by U.N. and Congolese Army (FARDC) forces. Since then, DRC officials and members of the international community have focused their attention on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu-led rebel group known for its ties to the 1994 Rwandan genocide (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/05/us-tells-armed-group-drc-surrender-military-option).
As the largest remaining rebel group in eastern DRC, and a major destabilizing factor in DRC-Rwanda relations, the disarmament of the FDLR would represent a significant step forward in the peace process.
In April of this year, the DRC government and the South African Development Community began programs to encourage FDLR fighters to hand over their weapons in exchange for potential amnesty and resettlement. As a result, more than 200 fighters have since surrendered to authorities, although as many as 1,500 may still remain in hiding (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13283212).
These improvements have been brought about by several factors. Particularly important has been the creation of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) which for the first time has been allowed to directly confront armed groups as ‘peacemakers’ rather than as passive ‘peacekeepers’ (http://www.newsrecord.co/the-u-n-s-new-force-redefines-intervention/). Political pressure from outside the DRC has also proven effective, with the withdrawal of U.S. military aid to Rwanda in 2013 playing a crucial role in the defeat of M23 rebels (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-24802888).
There is certainly still a long way to go in achieving peace in the DRC, with as many as 10 rebel groups still operating in the region. However, the last 12 months have shown that concerted pressure from the international community and national governments can be an effective force for good, even in complex and lengthy conflicts such as this. Rather than a cause for complacency, however, these developments should serve as a rallying cry for governments and concerned citizens around to globe to bring more pressure to bear and, hopefully, to create a better future for the long suffering citizens of the Congo.