"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


MONUSCO in decline

There's been a flurry of coverage on the crisis in DRC this week (see especially Melanie Gouby's excellent Le Figaro piece on M23's motives. Lots of people are writing about M23, but Gouby actually went to Kavumu to talk to them.). One analysis that seems to have escaped much media attention was the Monday release of an open letter to the UN Security Council from International Crisis Group President and CEO Louise Arbour on the status of Congo's UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO. The mission is up for renewal, and Arbour raises several serious concerns about the mission's status, its ability to protect civilians, and its neutrality:
MONUSCO has lost credibility on several fronts and urgently needs to reorient its efforts. 
First, the mission has had strikingly little success at fulfilling its primary objective to protect civilians, though some of its innovative operational improvements should be acknowledged and encouraged. The population remains profoundly vulnerable to violence and frustrated by the lack of protection as illustrated by the recent attack on UN peacekeepers in Bunyiakiri, South Kivu. Despite progress against the FDLR, the threat of armed groups remains pervasive and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) cites an additional 218,000 internally displaced persons in North Kivu between 1 April and 31 May 2012. Durable protection of civilians will only come through an enhanced political process and the establishment of accountable state institutions. 
Secondly, MONUSCO technical and logistical support to deeply flawed elections in 2011 and the inability to successfully promote dialogue between the parties has altered perceptions about the mission's impartiality. Neither the Security Council nor MONUSCO articulated clear red lines for the credibility of the process, and the good offices role of the mission appeared underutilised. With the failed decentralisation agenda, constitutional reforms that further expanded the power of the presidency and little accountability for violence and massive fraud associated with the elections, the evidence continues to mount in support of the concerns Crisis Group expressed to the Security Council last year about the potential for authoritarian drift and consequences of the failure to resolve grievances through elections. If not corrected, international involvement in the DRC, including through MONUSCO, risks entrenching an unaccountable government and undermining its own eventual rule of law and peacebuilding efforts.
Arbour goes on to recommend that the Security Council should undertake a full review of MONUSCO's strategy rather than simply adhering to its

I could not agree more. In the seven years that I've been conducting research in eastern Congo, I have never seen the UN mission in such terrible shape. The 2010 shift to being a "stabilization" mission under the MONUSCO  name (rather than its former moniker, MONUC) was a response to Congolese President Joseph Kabila's desire to see the mission downsize and leave the DRC. While Kabila at the time preferred that this happened before the 2011 presidential elections, it was obvious to most Congolese that the east would be in even worse shape without the presence of the overstretched peacekeepers, who at least manage to protect some of the . Hence, the mission became a stabilization mission, with the idea that MONUSCO would move into more of a "support" function to assist the Congolese government and national army in protecting civilians and responding to outbreaks of violence.  Never mind that the FARDC and government's capacity are still weak, or that the national army was at the time responsible for more human rights abuses than were other armed groups combined.

Shifting to a stabilization function, coupled with the "Congo fatigue" phenomenon, whereby donors are ostensibly getting tired of funding an expensive mission while the situation in DRC does not improve, has also meant budget cutbacks.  Nowhere was this more evident to me than while traveling to and from Goma on a MONUSCO flight earlier this month.

(Warning: Tom Friedmanesque generalizations based on my personal travel experiences ahead.)

Flying with MONUSCO is a privilege, and one for which I am very grateful. Commercial air travel in DRC is incredibly dangerous; flying with the UN generally guarantees that one will at least be on an air-worthy craft and that the pilots will be sober.  It is difficult to get on these flights as non-UN personnel, and I always have last priority for a seat. I am used to having bad experiences on MONUSCO flights, getting bumped at the last second and taking hours and hours to get somewhere.  It's part of the DRC travel experience.

What I'm not used to is seeing members of the mission treated the same way. In the past, MONUSCO flights have not involved the massive incompetence, lack of aircraft, and other failures of chains of command and communications.  It was really unbelievable. In taking what should have been two, one-hour flights, I ended up waiting at MONUSCO air bases for a total of 24 hours over the course of four days. As did 30 of my new, closest peacekeeper friends.  We experienced everything from sitting for 8 hours at Entebbe only to be told that a plane (rumor on the street is that it was full of weapons for the FARDC) was stuck on the tarmac at Goma International, thus preventing any planes from landing at all. The next day, we were loaded on a flight "to Goma," only to be told when on board that it was a flight to Bukavu, where we spent the night despite promises of helicopters to get us to Goma that evening.

When you sit around on uncomfortable chairs in UN air bases for days on end with the same 30 people, you have two options. One is to stage an impromptu production of  "No Exit," the other is to talk. And talk the peacekeepers did. Both civilian and military members of the mission are furious with the way they were being treated. Most had served in other missions and consider MONUSCO by far the worst administered and least effective mission in the world. Nothing works as it is supposed to, and there are no contingency plans when things go wrong. Like, say, a tow for a cargo plane full of light artillery.

One peacekeeper, whom I'll call the Angry Bosnian, not only taught me to curse in Serbo-Croat, but also yelled a lot at local staff in each place, finally lost it on day 2 in Bukavu and started yelling, "This is why you can't protect civilians! You can't even procure a helicopter!"

He's right. The basic problem of MONUSCO is that it is operating on a tight budget, with very little creativity in its response to crises and very few contingency options when things go wrong. While it was a minor inconvenience for me and my peacekeeper buddies to take days on end to travel to Goma, imagine what happens when violence breaks out and the same problems occur.

I have not been one to bash MONUC/MONUSCO over the years. The mission has never been adequately staffed, funded, or authorized to do what is actually necessary to maintain peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is absurd to think that the maximum authorization of 21,000 troops (or the current strength of about 17,000) could protect civilians in such a large, inaccessible country when it took 50,000 NATO troops to stabilize tiny Kosovo. Add to this the lack of adequate resources, from cars to jet fuel, and  the language barriers (at one point last week, I was translating French-to-English for a Nepalese, as well as Spanish-to-English for a contingent of Guatemalans) and lack of translators and it's a wonder that MONUSCO manages to protect anyone. The Security Council and UN member states have never adequately supported MONUSCO; it is unfair to judge the mission's outcomes as though they had done so.

Yet they do protect civilians. Despite all the obstacles, there is no question that the DRC is better off with MONUSCO than without it.  The situation is far from perfect, but MONUSCO is absolutely necessary for the foreseeable future. As Arbour and ICG have aptly noted, however, the mission is in desperate need of rethinking and retooling. A realistic, pragmatic strategic reassessment of the mission's role and future is absolutely necessary and should be undertaken without delay.  As Arbour notes, "Without a new approach and re-engagement by the Security Council, MONUSCO risks becoming a $1.5 billion empty shell." It is already well on the way.


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