Photos: AFP/Getty Images

Fragile states back on global agenda

By By Peter Guest | Published:  28 December, 2009

Commitments from a number of nations look set to push state-building into the spotlight, and policymakers would do well to learn the lessons of the recent past.

Goma is an NGO boom town, a sprawling fish-scale expanse of corrugated metal roofs on the edge of Lake Kivu. The airport’s runway is much shortened: a third of it was covered by lava from the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in 2002, which destroyed more than 4,500 buildings in the town. Planes caught on the wrong side sit rusting, while crews with earthmovers hack away at volcanic rock.

Goma is the capital of the North Kivu province in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, close to the border with Rwanda. Aside from the imposing, visible threat of the still active volcano, the Kivus – North and South – sit on a no less hazardous political and ethnic fault line that has kept the region in almost perpetual unrest for upwards of 20 years. Discovered by the international media in the mid-90s in the wake of the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, the area is an archetypal border province of a fragile state.

The protagonists in the violence have for some time been fluid and interchangeable, but the situation in the past year has crystallised, pitting the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda – a force formed through the combination of local militias and fleeing members of the interhamwe, perpetrators of the genocide – against the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique de Congo. FARDC itself is a chimera of government soldiers, former rebel factions and untrained “Mai-mai” militia. Monuc, the UN peacekeeping mission, is tasked with supporting the government forces in their campaign against the FDLR.

It was not always so. The FDLR was, since its formation in 2000, a proxy of the central government in Kinshasa, used to move against perceived Rwandan interference in the border region. A rare passage of cooperation in January 2009 between Kinshasa and Kigali saw FARDC and Rwandan government forces attempt to squeeze out the FDLR. The operation was at best a qualified success, with the near impassable terrain – dense forests clinging to vertiginous peaks – slowing the offensive. It did, however, fragment the FDLR and cut them off from the civilian population that fed and housed them. Since then, the group has been raiding villages and engaging in retaliatory attacks on civilians. Constrained by the geography and a lack of airlift capacity, the peacekeepers risk being completely ineffective. The FARDC, lacking training, discipline and central control, and composed of more than 50 factions of differing loyalties, is often accused of atrocities against civilian populations which match the FDLR for violence.

It is into this environment that the UK’s Department for International Development is preparing to deploy a new surge of development assistance, as the agency begins to shift its focus towards fragile states, as laid out in its 2009 white paper. At least half of new UK development assistance will be directed towards conflict-affected and fragile states.

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