UN chief has plan for eventual peacekeeping exit from Congo

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has proposed a plan with benchmarks that would allow the more than 18,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo to progressively transfer its activities to Congolese authorities.

In a 15-page letter to the U.N. Security Council obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, the U.N. chief said the peacekeeping mission and the Congolese government agreed on the broad strategy on Oct. 19 and will continue a dialogue on “the creation of the conditions for a successful, gradual and responsible exit of the mission.”

If the council endorses the overall direction of the joint strategy, he said, the U.N. will develop a transition plan with additional measurable benchmarks, a risk assessment, and roles and responsibilities.

A huge country the size of Western Europe in central Africa, Congo has seen immeasurable cruelty and greed as a result of its vast mineral resources in the east. The nation suffered through one of the most brutal colonial reigns ever known before undergoing decades of corrupt dictatorship. Back-to-back civil wars later drew in a number of neighboring countries. And many rebel groups have come and gone during the U.N. mission’s years of operation, at times invading the eastern regional capital, Goma.

In January 2019, Congo experienced its first peaceful democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960 following the election of President Felix Tshisekedi. He succeeded strongman Joseph Kabila in a disputed election marked by allegations of large-scale fraud and suspicions of a backroom deal by Kabila to install Tshisekedi over an opposition candidate who, according to leaked electoral data, was the real winner.

Guterres said that “a key condition for MONUSCO’s sustainable drawdown is that in the build-up to 2023 elections, political processes will continue to be undertaken peacefully through the appropriate structures.” He stressed that this will require engagement with all key players including the government, political parties, civil society, and women’s groups and youth groups “to encourage constructive dialogue and the peaceful management of political differences.”

The secretary-general said MONUSCO and the government agreed that because of the complexity of the conflict situation in Congo, there should be a series of region-specific strategies for the U.N. mission’s drawdown, tailored to the six provinces outside the capital Kinshasa where U.N. peacekeepers are present.

He said the government agreed that in the eastern provinces where active conflicts persist — North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri — “it is envisaged that in the coming years MONUSCO will gradually consolidate its footprint.”

He gave no timetable for the departure of the mission, whose budget is nearly $1.1 billion annually, from the three provinces.

In Ituri and North Kivu, he said a drawdown will only be possible under certain conditions including the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of armed groups and progress in addressing underlying causes.

In South Kivu, he said there must be progress toward extending government authority and reducing the size and capabilities of major armed groups, particularly the Mai-Mai, “to a level at which security forces can manage them and the local authorities are able to disarm and demobilize them, with foreign combatants returning to their countries of origin.”

But Guterres said the government agreed that MONUSCO “should be able to withdraw from the Kasai region, which is in a phase of post-conflict consolidation, by June 2021.”

And in Tanganyika, he said, “recent improvements in the security situation should enable the mission to reduce its military footprint in 2022, despite continued, domestic armed group activity in the north and low-level inter-community conflict in some areas.”

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