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

Kinshasa stands accused of killing a British worker from the oil-exploring Heritage Corp 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 prospecting in 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 southwestern 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 diplomatic consultation to resolve the latest crisis fails, the Congo could see itself entangled in yet another conflict with its neighbours -- one that could potentially spill well beyond their shared borders.

All does not bode well for a country that is slowly emerging from the brink of total state collapse and regional conflict, which was regarded as the deadliest since the end of the Second World War, 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 Congo's belligerent population living in the turbulent eastern provinces, Yakin Erturk, special representative of the UN Human Rights Council, recently gave a haunting summary of the extreme human rights violations that seemingly had become characteristic in many parts of the country.

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

Her latest report found that extreme sexual violence against women was pervasive to a point where local authorities have stopped prosecuting perpetrators. On her visit to the region, she met with rape victims whose gruesome accounts told 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 had often been 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.

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 multi-party elections since independence in 1960, peace and stability remain elusive for many people outside Kinshasa and its surrounding areas.

More than one million people remain internally displaced in the east of the country. Relief agencies warned that if the situation did not improve, this might result in the country experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis, caused by malnutrition, disease and the consequences of violence and abuse. Operations by the reunified Congolese Armed Forces against militias, and 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 rain forest 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 per cent 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 program 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.

More particularly, the central feature of the security reform and state-building measures, i.e., the reintegration of combatants from different factions of the war into the reunified Congolese Armed Forced, has turned foul. Low salaries, poor living conditions, the absence of a legal structure, and the lack of training and monitoring of military personnel has 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, and 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 rein 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, 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, particularly among disgruntled former militias and army personnel.

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