Declaring that the situation in war-torn eastern Congo had dramatically improved over the past year, UN envoy Olusegun Obasanjo announced plans to scale back his regional mediation efforts.
Obasanjo, a former president of Nigeria, told the UN Security Council improved ties between presidents Joseph Kabila of Congo and Paul Kagame of neighbouring Rwanda had been key to reducing violence, but admitted underlying problems remained.
Obasanjo said he and fellow mediator, former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, would submit a final report to an African Union summit in January, but would remain “on alert” should their services be needed again. He proposed turning his support office in Nairobi into a “listening post.”
Obasanjo was appointed a year ago after a revolt by Tutsi insurgents caused 250,000 people to be driven from their homes in eastern Congo, the latest chapter in a conflict that has led to more than 5 million deaths since 1998.
Obasanjo and Mkapa mediated peace talks in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, but the breakthrough came when Rwanda decided to help end the rebellion it had previously been accused of backing. A peace deal was signed in March.
“Today the situation has been dramatically transformed,” Obasanjo said. Many refugees were returning home, the Tutsi rebel group had become a political party and the threat from other armed groups had diminished, he said.
“Mediators should be mindful never to overstay their welcome,” he said, and he and Mkapa would now “take a step back from an active role in the peace process in eastern (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the Great Lakes region.”
But Obasanjo, whose official title is special envoy for the Great Lakes, said it was hard to tell how deep the rapprochement between Kabila and Kagame really was.
“The slide to war that threatened the region last year was effectively reversed,” he said. “But what we have successfully treated were only the symptoms, not the underlying ailments that have led to repeated crises in the region.”
One of those ailments was the weakness of governing institutions and especially the armed forces in Congo, he said.
Human rights groups say the Congolese army is almost as lawless as the rebel groups and the United Nations said this month it was suspending support for some army units accused of murdering civilians.
Obasanjo nevertheless praised an UN-backed army operation against a Rwandan Hutu rebel group based in eastern Congo, despite charges by rights activists that it has prompted savage reprisals by the group against civilians. He said the campaign was “achieving reasonable success.”
Obasanjo’s announcement that he was winding down his mission comes as the 17 000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Congo is also looking at an eventual exit strategy. Diplomats say, however, that the annual renewal of the force’s mandate next month is not expected to provide for any reductions.