THE thing that struck me on my first visit to Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a few years ago was its beautiful location on the edge of Lake Kivu. Opulent resorts, restaurants and homes with verdant green lawns and banks of tropical plants line the lakeshore. But just a few streets inland, the sprawling town bears the scars of a turbulent past characterised by conflict and poverty.
The presence of United Nations (UN) peacekeepers are a stark reminder of the insecurity of life there.
Even nature has not been kind to Goma, the main city in eastern Congo. Its citizens live in the shadow of the Nyiragongo volcano, which in 2002 poured molten lava into the town, killing 150 people, destroying 14,000 homes, burying buildings and forcing 300,000 people to run for their lives.
The rutted lava roads are reminders of this event. The experts believe this was just a taste of what the volcano is capable of and warn that Goma is one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Lake Kivu’s beauty masks the potential danger that lurks in its waters. The deep reaches of the lake have high levels of carbon dioxide and methane gas that occur as a result of unusual geological and biological processes.
Scientists say that when the build-up reaches a critical mass, the lake could explode or produce a toxic gas cloud above the water, affecting the health of everyone around it.
Rwanda, which shares the lake, is extracting the methane for energy. That also presents risks — changes in the water’s chemical composition could affect fish stocks that people rely on for food.
The beautiful mountains and jungles that form the backdrop to Goma not only contain vast mineral wealth but are also breeding grounds for rebel insurgency groups, illegal miners and petty warlords.
Eastern Congo has been relatively peaceful since Rwanda captured rebel leader Laurent Nkunda in 2009 as part of a ceasefire agreement between the Congo and Rwanda.
The Tutsi fighter led a five-year rebellion in the area, ostensibly to counter the persecution of ethnic Rwandan Tutsis in the region by Hutus working with the Congolese army.
The Tutsi-dominated M23, which recently took over Goma after chasing out the army, was formed earlier this year by breakaway soldiers. It is named after the March 23 2009 ceasefire agreement between Nkunda’s forces and the government, which the M23 says has not been honoured. Ethnic tension spilling over from Rwanda is at the heart of recent conflict in the region. Persistent reports that the Tutsi-led government in Kigali was backing first Nkunda and now the M23 have been strenuously denied by Rwanda.
The politics of the region are highly complex and the geographical and political isolation of a huge swathe of the Congo has allowed regional actors into the vacuum. The high-stakes resources game in this part of the world means there is no shortage of groups willing to fight for economic and political control of the frontier region.
President Joseph Kabila seldom visits people in the eastern Congo and only to inspect troops or campaign for votes.
In 2006, he won 96% of the vote in Goma. Last year, the voter response was less enthusiastic. Locals have become used to a life dominated by rebel militias and local warlords who terrorise the population and extort commissions from people carrying anything from illegally mined coltan to tin. The $1.5bn annual budget for the large UN peacekeeping force could have been better spent on building infrastructure and opening up the area, something Kabila has promised, but failed, to do. As a Congolese academic in Goma told me: “The president hardly visits us and most people here have never been to Kinshasa. We are so isolated that we have had to invent the state here.”
The combination of intricate regional politics, poor leadership and entrenched dysfunction suggest that an ever-changing array of rebel groups will continue to harass the people of Goma for years to come.
• Games is CE of Africa At Work, an African business consultancy.