The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation in the world. As of March, there were 18,336 total uniformed personnel, including 16,594 troops, 713 military observers, and 1,029 police, costing over $1 billion per year. But the price of peace is still less than the cost of years of war in Congo, which claimed more lives than any other conflict since World War Two.
From 1998 to 2003 nearly 4 million people are thought to have perished in a civil war stoked by Congo’s neighbors. Today, that fighting has largely, but not completely, subsided. And while it is too early to call the DRC a UN Peacekeeping success story, it is clear that the United Nations Mission in the Congo (called by its French acronym, MONUC) is responsible for overseeing Congo’s significant strides toward peace and democracy in recent years.
For 37 years Mobutu Sesse Seko ruled Congo (then called Zaire) by enriching himself and impoverishing his citizens. Laurent Kabila, a rebel leader supported by some of Congo’s neighbors, overthrew Mobutu in 1997. The country soon plunged into brutal civil war, with various armed factions sometimes serving as proxies for Congo’s nine neighboring countries. In early 2001, the 29 year old Joseph Kabila assumed the presidency following his father’s assassination. Kabila the younger soon made significant efforts toward a comprehensive regional peace process, which became formalized in a 2003 agreement.
To prevent spoilers from undermining the agreement, the Security Council authorized a deployment of peacekeepers. (The United Nations has a long history in Congo. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold died in a plane crash while en route to negotiate a ceasefire in Congo back in 1961.) This newest round of UN intervention began in 1999 when MONUC military observers were deployed to monitor a nominal ceasefire agreement between Congo, a rebel movement within Congo, and five of Congo’s neighbors. In 2001, the Security Council expanded MONUC to 3,600 peacekeepers. The fighting, however, continued. In the north-eastern province Ituri, the fighting bordered on genocide, sparking the Security Council to dramatically expand the number of troops deployed there. Soon, there were over 10,000 troops in the DRC, many in Ituri.
These peacekeepers face grueling tasks. The country is the size of Western Europe, with few roads to support armored personnel carriers and other heavy military equipment. There were some setbacks. In 2004, an armed group overran UN forces and took over the town of Bukavu, killing many residents and looting their possessions. In response, the Security Council reinforced MONUC with additional 6,000 troops and expanded its mandate to ensure civilian protection. A newly emboldened Monuc force in Ituri began to experiment with more assertive peacekeeping tactics. Rather than simply provide protection to civilians and humanitarian workers, peacekeepers in Ituri sought to roll back militias by in aggressive tactical raids.
By 2005, MONUC’s most important task was deterring spoilers from undermining national elections planned for 2006. These elections, which took place in late July, were a logistical accomplishment of historical proportions. The United Nations registered some 25 million people throughout the country. Ballots were transported by truck, plane, helicopter and even canoe. 80% of the population voted, and after a runoff selected Joseph Kabila. For the first time in 40 years, the Congolese people had voted for in a multiparty election.
After years of war, the DRC remains a broken country. It consistently ranks near the top of Foreign Policy’s failed states index. Kabila’s government is unable to deliver basic services to most of its citizens and depends on foreign assistance. The largest, most expensive, and most accomplished peacekeeping mission in the world, however, continues to offer the Congolese people a blanket of protection while democracy takes root.