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Interview: Prospects for Peace in the DRC

John Katunga, senior advisor on the DRC's peace processes, discusses the importance of sustained engagement by both citizens and external actors if the negotiations are to lead to a stable transition.


Question: Today we’re joined at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies by John Katunga, who is here to talk about the situation in the DRC and the prospects for peace. John Katunga has been involved in peace building in the Great Lakes region of Africa for years and has worked on many peace processes. He currently is the Senior Technical Advisor for Peace Building for Catholic Relief Services, where he oversees peace building activities for the agency. John, we’re very happy to have you here at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

John Katunga: Thank you.

Q: Regarding the agreement that was brokered in December by the Catholic Church between President Kabila and the opposition: What is the status of this process? Where do you see the process leading?

Katunga: Thank you for the question. Actually the agreement itself was based on a prior agreement that was brokered on October 18th and is supported by the African Union and the international community. The result of that agreement was the basis of the 31st December agreement.

So the December 31st agreement has the advantage of being more inclusive than the previous agreement, and it crystalized a process to set up a new government that will lead the transition during the 12 months that were agreed upon.

Today, that agreement is still holding. The discussion is now about special clauses that will accompany the agreement. The agreement offered a framework between all the political parties and all the actors, including the civil society. It was a large consensus, but it did not have the details, and you know the devil is in the details. The details—what they call special arrangements—are what puts into motion the implementation of the agreement. So we are at that level.

Discussions among politicians are going on how best they will implement every single clause of the agreement itself. So of course this has been interrupted now by the death of Étienne Tshisekedi. His death has kind of put a halt on the whole discussion process. They want to bury him first and then probably continue the discussion. Others are saying yes, the committee can continue discussing this arrangement while the funeral ceremony is being organized and the main service is being organized so that is what I can say now at this moment.

Q: You mentioned the high level of awareness in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the response of the population to these different political events. I wonder if you could say something about that?

“[The Congolese people] have invested so much hope in this process to have an opportunity to elect their leaders and have finally a government that they consider to be accountable to them.”

Katunga: The population in Congo is extremely aware about the discussions that are going on among politicians. They are very sensitive on following up on these discussions and this is all coming by luck. It is coming from the fact that people have really suffered and people are suffering as we speak now. And this process is where their hope is relying.

They have invested so much hope in this process to have an opportunity to elect their leaders and have finally a government that they consider to be accountable to them. That’s the biggest hope people are investing. Even in the villages, in towns, everywhere, people are looking at this process, this agreement that the politicians have signed.

They are impatient to see it implemented so that they can have the opportunity to vote for their leaders now who will lead them because suffering is so high. The inflation is very high. The price of basic commodities has increased tremendously. The salaries are meager, so the social difficulties that people are now facing are exponential. This is a fertile ground for any explosion that can happen so this peace process has been kind of a buffer zone to that explosion because people have invested so much in this process to see it through. And they hold hope that at the end of it, it will resolve most of their problems.

The awareness is very high at all levels. The civil society, even those in the government, many are not really in tune with the government itself. Civil servants, all sections of the population, the women, the youth. The youth are creating all sorts of groups to voice their concerns and these groups are everywhere in the country. They cut across political tendencies or regional tendencies. These are the dynamics in the Congo. But everyone is looking for what? To see these discussions through and the agreement that was signed on the 31st of December. They want to see it implemented.

In fact, they are becoming impatient because the more people delay the implementation of the agreement the more suffering people are getting and the more impatient they are becoming. So we hope after the death of Tshisekedi there will be an acceleration in reaching finally the appointment of the prime minister and to see his government at work, especially in implementing the electoral process up to December this year if possible.

Q: You say that population is becoming impatient. What role should international actors play?

“Engagement from the international community should remain, otherwise political actors will feel like they’re now completely left alone and they can do anything and mess up everything.”

Katunga: Congolese are extremely sensitive about what people think about them. In other words, the Congolese can work inside and try to resolve their own issues like we are doing now because this dialogue is really, really between Congolese without any external kind of interference. It’s the same goal, which is the Conference of Catholic Bishops who is mediating between the different political forces in Congo. So Congo issues are being resolved by Congolese themselves.

But that can be a misleading picture because Congolese, as I said, pay greater attention on what the rest of the world is thinking and what they are doing. In other words they have friends in the United States, in Belgium, in Paris, in London, in many capitals of the world and the wave of relationships they have built. They may be discussing there and getting advice from the various sources around the world. So at the end of the day it is not really Congolese among Congolese alone but it is Congolese with the wave of relationships that are outside. And there are many countries that are friendly with the Congolese, and Congolese are very appreciative of those countries so they listen to what those countries are saying.

The United States for example, they appreciate the very encouraging and positive engagement that the United States of America has made through the process of discussions, including the sanction of some individuals within the government which was absolutely appreciated by the people. And we can say they have helped us accelerate the process inside to reach the compromise that many people are enjoying today: the tensions have been reduced and people have hope in the process.

That is a huge help. So the international community should continue to get engaged, especially now that Tshisekedi is dead because Tshisekedi was kind of the counter to the government. He was one who was doing the checks and balances with the action of the government. His departure can create a void, and the void must be filled very quickly. Nature has an aura of void, do you know? The vacuum is not helpful, and in politics it’s even magnified. So that needs to be filled in very quickly by the renewed engagement of the international community.

I was pleading that the United States should take the lead, not only because it’s the first developed country in the world, but it’s a friend of Congo of many years, and Congolese appreciate the effort that the government does, especially of late. They’re bringing in the support, the presence of the special representative [Laurence Wohlers], having an effort around MONUSCO, and helping the different resolutions that were done. They really appreciate the support of the international conference on the Great Lakes region, even the Tripartite Plus mechanism. That was absolutely key to bring the trust building between Rwanda and Congo and Uganda and Burundi and maintained stability in the region by engaging these different actors from security point of view so that everyone could be comfortable and not suspect the other. That helped a great deal to create the consensus that culminated later on with the accord that was signed that we are implementing today.

So engagement from the international community should remain, otherwise political actors will feel like they’re now completely left alone and they can do anything and mess up everything. And people can take to the streets before the tensions that we have can become very uncontrollable if we take the consequences.

Q: So John, what I hear you saying is that contrary to the conventional view that political actors in Congo are impervious to international engagement, are impervious to that external engagement. Neighbors of the DRC seem to have been very isolated from the international community. You seem to be saying the opposite with regard to Congolese actors.

“That is what we are really, really wishing in the Congo. Don’t isolate them. Engage them and they can listen.”

Katunga: Yeah, and I think sometimes these are the mistakes that the international community makes. The international community sometimes makes mistakes by supposing that people are not engaged, people are disengaging because some leaders have been labeled in a particular way. Then isolation becomes the matter of the day rather than engagement. And isolation—rather than bringing peace, it brings the radical position of that leader, who creates more suffering for the people.

But take the case of our neighbors in Burundi. Pierre Nkurunziza was completely isolated. The international community came, with the UN first. Ban Ki-moon himself came to visit Burundi. The Congolese did not engage. The African Union sent seven presidents to visit. He did not engage. The regional powers, the neighbors in the East African region, they themselves have their own personal interest that contradicted the capacity. They did not give the moral authority to inflict and influence consequences in Burundi. The result? They isolated the president, and he had no accountability to anybody so he could do anything he wanted inside the country.

In fact, my fear is that Nkurunziza may change it in the constitution and scrap the term limit. That is a possibility because there is nobody who is engaging him constructively. So that constructive engagement must remain so that the person does not feel completely isolated and takes actions that are more radical and more harmful to the community he is serving. By keeping the engagement, the person also feels that “I am part of the international community. I can listen to the international community.”

That’s the case in Congo. They don’t feel that the international community should come and dictate to them exactly what to do. No. That’s not what I am advocating for. I’m advocating for the fact that you keep a line of communication with the people, the actors in the country so that they can listen and then you can have an influence on them. Not necessarily dictating to them what you want, but giving them space to express what they feel and you express advice you can give them and let them now interact and filter the support that you’re giving so that they can reach a compromise.

That is what we are really, really wishing in the Congo. Don’t isolate them. Engage them and they can listen. These are people who studied in the US. They are people who studied in Britain. These are people who studied in Paris, in other capitals in the world. They have that sentimental touch for these countries. They want to go to those countries. Nobody wants to be sanctioned and because of that the international community has leverage on the people inside the country who can help them reach a compromise that is beneficial for the communities and the international community at large.

Q: So, more engagement and interaction with the Congolese political players.

Katunga: Absolutely. It is key. It needs to be maintained.

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