In August, Uganda's Security Minister, Amama Mbabazi, threatened to re-enter the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following two cross-border incursions by Congolese gunmen thought to have been linked to the army.

Kinshasa stands accused of killing a British worker from the oil-exploring Heritage Corporation after a 15-minute exchange of fire with the Uganda People's Defence Force and private guards.

The oil company is believed to have carried out illegal oil prospecting in the DRC's half of Lake Albert, which the company shares with Uganda. During the skirmishes, four Ugandan soldiers were captured by Congolese government soldiers while patrolling the lake. This came days after some armed persons had crossed over from the DRC and killed three civilians in Butogota's Kanungu district in south-western Uganda.

The raid escalated tensions, with both armies reinforcing their presence on the border. Many people in the region are worried that if cross-border incursions continue and current diplomatic consultation to resolve the latest crisis fails, the DRC could see itself entangled in yet another conflict with its neighbours -- one that could potentially spill well beyond their shared borders.

This does not bode well for a country that is slowly emerging from the brink of total state collapse and regional conflict regarded as the deadliest since the end of World War II and in which an estimated 3,8-million people died, mostly from starvation and disease, while millions of others were displaced between 1998 and 2003.

To add to the misery of the DRC's belligerent population living in the turbulent eastern provinces, Yakin Ertürk, a special representative of the United Nations Human Rights Council, recently provided a haunting summary of the extreme human rights violations that seemingly have become characteristic in many parts of the country.

Ertürk warns that, as a result of five years of civil war and the ongoing power struggle between internal and external actors, violence and sexual abuse as a means of ethnic or political strife has become a way of life for many people in the region.

Her latest report finds that extreme sexual violence against women is pervasive to a point where local authorities have stopped prosecuting the perpetrators. On her visit to the region, she met rape victims with gruesome tales of how they had been forced to eat excrement off the flesh of their murdered relatives, or how they had been raped while their male relatives were held at gunpoint by gangs and rebels roaming the forests, as well as by government soldiers sent to keep the peace in the volatile region.

Humanitarian crisis
Despite an improvement in the overall security situation in the country following the pull-out of Ugandan-Rwandese troops after the signing of peace accords between the DRC and its two neighbours in the east; despite the formation of a transitional government from the main warring factions in 2003, which had been supported by both the Rwandan and Ugandan governments during the previous conflict; and despite last year's first multiparty elections since independence in 1960, peace and stability remain elusive for many people outside the capital, Kinshasa, and its surrounding areas.

More than one million people remain internally displaced in the east of the country. Relief agencies warn that, if the situation does not improve, a severe humanitarian crisis might follow, caused by malnutrition, disease and the consequences of physical violence and abuse. Ongoing operations by the reunified Congolese armed forces against militias, as well as human rights violations committed by both the Congolese army and militias, still cause people to flee their villages.

Often, alongside ethnic constellations, confrontations represent a struggle for political influence and control over the country's natural and human resources, such as the ample rainfall, fertile soil and the second-largest rainforest in the world, as well as a variety of mineral resources.

Historically, the mining of diamonds, copper, cobalt, zinc and other base metals, as well as petroleum extraction, accounted for approximately 75% of total export revenue. However, to the government's detriment, conflict is often incited by former local leaders who fear losing their sphere of influence in the region, due to the disarmament programme aimed at their combatants.

Thus far, most government reforms directed at security and at regaining control over the country's land mass of forests have been less than successful, which is partially due to a lack of political will. And, in particular, the central feature of the security-reform and state-building measures -- that is, the reintegration of combatants from different factions of the war into the reunified Congolese armed forces -- has turned foul.

Low salaries, poor living conditions, the absence of a legal structure and a lack of training and monitoring of military personnel have resulted in the reunified forces becoming a major source of human rights violations and a threat to the volatile peace in the country's hinterland, while neighbouring states -- Uganda in particular -- reflect the current heightened tensions between Kampala and Kinshasa.

As both countries scramble to avoid another all-out war, pressure is mounting on the Congolese authorities to reign in their ill-disciplined forces in the east, who have become a liability rather than an asset to the state's security dilemma. Given the government's lack of capacity to control the national territory and fully integrate former militias into unified armed forces and retrain army personnel, renewed instability in more parts of the country is an ever-present reality.

In recent months, the Congolese government has come to learn an all-important lesson: in order to augment its authority across the country, it must not only strengthen the rule of law in the east, but also raise the revenue necessary to distribute peace dividends among all sectors of society and, in particular, among disgruntled former militias and army personnel.

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