New Zealand lawyer Chris Mahony is currently studying African affairs at Oxford University. He says the arrest last week of Laurent Nkunda in the Democratic Republic of Congo offers a chance for change in the region.

Key Points:

According to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee, over 5.4 million people have died in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the last decade. This amounts to the largest loss of life in any conflict since WWII.

Last week's arrest of Laurent Nkunda, rebel leader of the National Congress for the Defence of the People, marks a potential turning point in Congo/Rwandan relations. The two Central African neighbours have long been at war in the Eastern Congolese provinces of North and South Kivu.

However, the recently formed military alliance of Congolese and Rwandan troops, which went after Nkunda and a part of his CNDP militia this week, represents a collaboration of timely convenience rather than a long term solution to the conflict.

Earlier this year, Congolese President Joseph Kabila gained Chinese support by signing China's largest deal with Africa, worth US$9 billion dollars. The deal provides the Congo with US$6 billion dollars worth of infrastructure including roads and hospitals, in exchange for 10 million tons of copper and 400,000 tons of cobalt in the South Eastern Province of Katanga.

The Congo holds 34 per cent of the world's reserves of cobalt and 10 per cent of global copper reserves. The Congolese armed forces are weak and incapable of securing a country the size of Western Europe with the east and west not connected by road. This emphasizes the importance of the Congolese deal with China.

The UN mission in the Congo is comprised of 17,000 troops. However, it has been largely ineffective other than to provide tacit support for the Congolese armed forces despite espousing the principle of impartiality. Officially the UN mission was not even informed of the joint Congo/Rwandan operation until it was already underway. This indicates its perceived irrelevance.

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According to Rwandan and Congolese officials, Nkunda was arrested late Thursday evening after fleeing into Rwandan territory. Early last week at least 3,500 Rwandan troops entered Eastern Congo at the request of the Congolese government to participate in the disarmament operations of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and other affiliated Hutu and anti-Tutsi militias.

The fighting in North and South Kivu emanated from the spillover of the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi by Hutu militia in 1994 with Tutsis and Hutus setting up militia and continuing to fight in the Congo.

Nkunda's rebel CNDP militia are Tutsi's formerly supported by Rwanda. This suggests an agreed Congo/Rwandan strategy to remove militias they had formerly supported against one another.

The UN has called Nkunda's arrest "a major development in the peace process". What has really happened is that Rwanda has replaced the CNDP followers of Laurent Nkunda with the Rwandan army.

The Rwandan army has been supported in its pursuit of Nkunda by a break away faction of the CNDP led by Nkunda's former deputy, Bosco Ntaganda. Ntaganda is currently wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for forcibly recruiting child soldiers.

Rwanda/Congo Cooperation

Nkunda had recently taken the towns of Rutshuru and Bunagana which border Uganda and had begun to charge taxes on goods crossing the Uganda/Congo border. This lessened his dependency on financial support from Rwanda and gave him greater military autonomy, diminishing Rwandan control of North and South Kivu. He had recently been demanding direct talks with the Congolese government as well as a revision of the deal with the Chinese.

Ostensibly Nkunda's CNDP and the Rwandan government want the same thing - protection for the Tutsi minority in the Kivus. Local Tutsi have suffered at the hands of anti-Tutsi militias including the FDLR who have been backed by the Congolese government. These militias are partly made up by Rwandan Hutu's responsible for the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda.

From the Congolese perspective, cooperation with Rwanda has become a preferable alternative to supporting militia against Rwanda. This strategy had been previously pursued and brought about the large scale abuses particularly by the FDLR which caught the world's attention last year.

Congolese officials said they expected the joint operation with Rwanda to last ten to fifteen days. However, it is difficult to see the Rwandan military leaving without a military presence they control to protect vulnerable Tutsi as well as gold, coltan and other commercial interests from which it derives benefit.

What we are likely to see is either continued occupation by Rwandan armed forces under some agreement with the Congolese government or the substitution of CNDP leadership that exudes greater loyalty to Rwanda than Nkunda. Either way, the cooperation of the Congolese government would suggest an agreement has been reached on the outcome.

It is difficult to say which is preferable for the innocent civilians of North and South Kivu. A sudden retraction of Rwandan armed forces would likely leave a power vacuum causing renewed militia fighting and abuse of the civilian population. The continued occupation by Rwandan troops under agreement with the Congolese government appears to be the best option for peace and security in the short term.

Conflict will arise when the Rwandans or their proxy militia are finally pressed to withdraw or disarm. Rwanda still has legitimate concern for minority Tutsis in the Kivus as well as an economic interest in controlling the gold and coltan resources in the provinces. At the same time, the Congo still has a right to control its own territory despite not having the military means to do so.

So can Rwanda trust the Congolese not to persecute local Tutsis by allowing the CNDP to reintegrate into the Congolese armed forces? Can the Congolese trust the Rwandans not to occupy a larger part of the Eastern Congo were they to integrate the FDLR and other anti-Tutsi militias they have been supporting? Will these militias be prepared to be reintegrated or will they resist, causing hostilities and further suffering?

These leaps of faith need to be taken in order to facilitate the security needed for the reconciliation of local antagonisms. Reports on Sunday of FDLR casualties at the hands of the Rwandan lead offensive would suggest the Congolese government is taking that leap, however the FDLR appear willing to resist for the time being.

Similar circumstances have occurred before. After peace talks with the Congolese government in 2006, Rwanda agreed to withdraw its own forces from officially supporting Tutsi militia. The agreement was based on the disarmament of Tutsi and non-Tutsi militias in the region.

Rwanda kept its side of the bargain then, but the Congolese government did not. For this reason the Rwandans may be reluctant to trust the Congolese this time. If Rwanda withdrew, this would leave local Tutsi vulnerable to the same abuse they suffered after the 2006 withdrawal. Thus Rwanda has insisted upon its own role in ending FDLR and other militia activity his time.

The International Criminal Court

Militia leaders are unlikely to be concerned about potential prosecution by the International Criminal Court. The ICC has refrained from looking into abuses in the Kivus focusing instead upon rebel leader Thomas Lubanga whose trial, the first for the ICC, commenced at The Hague on Monday.

The Congolese government already had Lubanga in captivity on murder charges for atrocities committed in the Ituri region North of the Kivus. Incidentally, Lubanga is being tried by the ICC for recruiting child soldiers, a lesser charge than those he faced when in custody in the Congo.

A dissimilar situation confronts Nkunda and other rebel leaders in the Kivus. Nkunda is currently in Rwandan custody. Consequently, Rwanda does not want Nkunda informing the international community about its culpability in supporting his atrocities, especially from an international platform such as the ICC. The Congolese government has similar concerns relating to the FDLR and other supported militia.

The Role of World Powers

Throughout the conflict major world powers have supported both warring parties and have clearly pushed Rwanda and the Congo towards recent cooperation.

Britain has supported Rwanda since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It has gained commercially through Anglo-American subsidiary Anglo Gold Ashanti's mining of gold in South Kivu. France aligns itself with the Congolese government as it opposes the Tutsi lead Rwandans. The Rwandan government accuses France of arming and supporting Hutu militia that conducted genocide against the Rwandan Tutsi in 1994.

Additionally, the Congo presents a test case for a new US administration to impose real constructive 'change' in Africa. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited the Congo crisis as third on a list of crises in the 70 days preceding the Obama inauguration.

It was preceded only by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza strip and the terrorist bombings in Mumbai. With a history of supporting both the Rwandan and Congolese governments, albeit for strategic self interest rather than as a principled stance relating to the actions of either party, the US could provide the mediator role to build upon the momentary cooperation of these two formerly antagonistic African states.

In such a complicated crisis where so much suffering has occurred, only one thing is certain. The issues to be resolved are far more complicated than is possible to summarize here.

Any resolution must ensure local Tutsi are protected. It must also put in place a mechanism with grass roots legitimacy to bring about reconciliation of localized antagonisms. Finally, regional military cooperation as well as resource allocation must be negotiated with the outcome laid out in transparent detail. This is crucial to avoiding disagreement between parties and a return to hostilities in the future.

Negotiated peace has previously ignored the need to address the localized dynamics of the conflict. When negotiating peace in the past, the leaders of the parties to the conflict have been happy to focus on the short term military and resource outcomes. This serves the interest of external commercial interests who can continue to manipulate local antagonisms to cheaply extract rich mineral resources.

If a new US administration is serious about change then surely, if anyone, the Congolese deserve engagement of a different nature. Previously, the US supported the execution of the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and then the tyrannical Mobutu Sese Seko for commercial and geo-politcal gain. 'Change' in US priorities needs to come to the Congo. However, the arrest of Jean Pierre Bemba by the ICC for war crimes in 2007 has left an absence of alternative leadership to President Kabila.

The US may be tempted to engage with the Congo as a competitor of China, France and Britain instead of as a partner who considers the interests of the Congolese people. This must be resisted.

The next few months will indicate whether President Obama's new Africa team have the will to pursue a new course. The right course must be to convince leadership in the region, and that of the British and French to engage divisive local issues rather than commercial and strategic pragmatics. Meanwhile, the Congolese people, particularly those of North and South Kivu, wait with baited breath.

* Chris Mahony has a masters degree in African Studies from Oxford
University and is currently there pursuing his PhD in Politics. He
authored the recommendations on governance for the Sierra Leone Truth
and Reconciliation Commission and has worked on justice sector reform
in Africa for the United Nations. He studied and practised law in New
Zealand and was also a member of Auckland's Air New Zealand Cup
rugby team from 2006 to 2008.