By David Lewis
Pressure is mounting on the European Union peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo to stay on well after an Oct. 29 presidential run-off, to head off the risk of violence in the aftermath of the vote.
A 1,000-strong EU forc
e is due to begin packing up and heading home on Dec. 1, days after the planned announcement of results of a run-off between President Joseph Kabila and Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba.
“It’s absolutely imperative that the EU extend their mandate until the end of the electoral cycle, which means the end of January,” said Jason Stearns, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank.
“It doesn’t make much sense for the EU to withdraw troops only a week after the announcement of the election results.”
Congo’s elections — the first free polls in the former Belgian colony for more than 40 years — are meant to draw a line under Africa’s bloodiest conflict, which has killed 4 million people since 1998.
Polling day for the first round on July 30 passed relatively smoothly but private armies loyal to the president and the former rebel leader clashed in the capital last month and at least 30 people were killed in three days of fighting.
The violence highlighted the fragility of the polls, which have cost over $460 million and are supported by a $1 billion-a-year U.N. force. Calls have grown for European troops to remain despite promises not to extend their 4-month mandate.
“The EU troops led by Germany should prolong their mandate until the new administration is sworn in,” Chris Patten, a former EU external relations commissioner, wrote this week in an editorial for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
The EU flew in reinforcements from neighbouring Gabon to support U.N. peacekeepers during the August fighting and its troops still patrol the chaotic city ahead of the second round.
But there is political pressure, especially in Germany, one of the main contributors, to ensure the mandate is not extended.
“I expect that we will be home by Christmas,” German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said during a recent trip to Kinshasa.
Rather than look towards withdrawal, Stearns said the EU should bolster the Kinshasa contingent, currently numbering just over 100 combat troops, with reinforcements from Gabon. “Peace in the Congo should trump the domestic politics,” he added.
The U.N. peacekeeping force, diplomats and ordinary Congolese are bracing for turbulence around the presidential run-off, which Kabila is a heavy favourite to win.
“It is calm but not stable. (It) could degenerate quickly, like it did in August,” said Admiral Henning Bess, deputy commander of the EU mission, when asked to comment on the situation in Kinshasa.
Congo’s foreign minister, Ramazani Baya, told Reuters on Thursday he hoped the situation would remain calm and he believed a truce between the Kabila and Bemba camps would hold.
“The political actors are committed to that and I think it will be respected … at this moment there is nothing to worry about,” Baya, who belongs to Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), said on the sidelines of a summit of French-speaking countries in Bucharest.
Any extension of the European force’s mandate would have to be agreed through talks between the EU and the United Nations and have the blessing of the Congolese government. — Reuter