In the past three months two Italian-made, snub-nosed craft with the UN logo painted on their sides have been taking off from Goma in eastern Congo to scan rebel-infested hill regions with high-tech cameras. Intelligence is beamed back to units trying to flush out homicidal groups. At 1% of the mission’s annual budget, the drones are considered good value. Three more will be launched this month to cover remote areas. The problem now is a lack of manpower to follow up intelligence.
But the number of boots on the ground is growing. The long-standing peacekeeping force in the country was boosted last year by 3,000 troops from various African countries, and was given the mission of actively fighting the rebels. The intervention force, another UN first, is modelled on a surprisingly effective African Union effort in Somalia. Deployment around Goma is almost complete and already having an effect. UN teams relying on drone imagery have dismantled M23, a rebel group that had repeatedly attacked Goma; other mobs are on the defensive, at least for now.
The Congolese army has rejoined the fight alongside the UN after overcoming severe discipline problems. Together they have pushed an originally Ugandan group called the Allied Democratic Forces out of its base in the town of Makoyoya. UN helicopter attacks were followed by a Congolese ground assault, which killed 22 rebels on March 11th. The army says it has destroyed the bases supporting the group’s supply lines; it will be overcome “in a few days”, a spokesman says.
Optimism is spreading among diplomats after months of worrying that the UN intervention brigade might get bogged down in endless skirmishes. The mood was buoyed by the conviction of a Congolese militia leader at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on March 7th, only the second time the 12-year-old court has succeeded in a prosecution. Germain Katanga was found guilty of ordering the massacre of an entire village in 2003, killing hundreds of non-combatants.
The economic situation is brightening, too. Copper output reached record levels last year, though much of it came from outside the rebel strongholds in eastern Congo, where the population is still crushingly poor and vulnerable. Investors remain wary of American legal constraints on sourcing minerals from the region around Goma, where warlords have long controlled trade.
With the rebel threat receding, the most urgent problems are the supply of food and electricity. The World Food Programme says a funding gap is forcing it to reduce rations. The prime minister has warned foreign mining firms such as Glencore and Freeport-McMoRan against expanding their operations, because of power shortages.
America’s special envoy to Congo, Russ Feingold, visited the country on March 10th to urge measures that could eventually make the calm permanent. The next two steps should be the reform of the army, which has been undermined by corruption and the willy-nilly integration of former rebels, and the creation of a state apparatus that can work under someone other than President Joseph Kabila. Because of term limits, he cannot run in elections in 2016 but is trying anyway. If Congo can realise those aims, the fertile and mineral-rich east of the country could start feeding itself again. As the UN’s drones whirr over Goma, that dream is still hard to picture.