DRC: Back from the brink, for now

By Simon Allison 3 December 2012

Everyone breathe a small sigh of relief: rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo have pulled out of Goma, relaxing tensions slightly and making the prospect of an all-out civil war (or even regional war) a little more remote. But don’t get too comfortable. The rebels say they’ll take the city back if the negotiations don’t go well, and – with good faith even rarer than coltan – those negotiations don’t look too promising. By SIMON ALLISON. 

After much initial confusion, reports indicate that rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo have finally withdrawn from the eastern city of Goma. This is, very tentatively, good news. Just a week ago, no one was quite sure whether the rebels intended to make good on their threat to march on the capital Kinshasa and overthrow the Congolese government, a move that could well have escalated into another regional war centred on the DRC.

This seems unlikely now. With a minimum of fuss, the rebels belonging to the M23 movement piled into trucks and retreated to a town 20km away from Goma (not before helping themselves to a few million dollars from the central bank, some weapons and a few nice new cars, according to some reports). Congolese police have arrived in Goma to restore the state’s tenuous authority there, with soldiers due to follow shortly. The airport, the city’s most important asset from a military perspective, will be guarded by 100 men each from M23, the Congolese Army, and the United Nations peacekeeping force, which has come in for so much criticism after its passive response to the crisis.

The withdrawal came after an agreement was reached last week at a conference in Uganda, where M23 representatives met with the Congolese government to discuss a way out of the conflict. Also present at the talks were senior officials from neighbouring countries, most notably Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries have been accused, with some degree of accuracy, of supporting M23’s rebellion.

There is plenty of speculation over why exactly M23 agreed to a withdrawal, which doesn’t seem to make all that much sense; it’s a bit like a kidnapper releasing his hostage before receiving the ransom. Some analysts speculate the increased international pressure on Rwanda – such as the recent announcement that the UK will withhold £21 million (R299 million) of aid from President Paul Kagame’s government – forced Rwanda to, in turn, pressure M23 into the retreat (or order it, depending on how deeply involved Kigali really is).

A more convincing explanation comes from researcher Jason Stearns, an expert in the politics and history of the conflict. He told AFP that the retreat was purely tactical. “The M23 needed very much to start winning the PR [public relations] battle that they had been beginning to lose, they were being seen as the aggressors… now they are seen to be acting in good faith,” he said.

This theory was substantiated by several M23 fighters, who told the Los Angeles Times that the rebels could re-take Goma any time they wanted. “We are pulling out but we can come back anytime. We have thousands of tons of ammunition,” said one, ominously.

The spectre of renewed violence will hang over talks designed to reach a longer-lasting settlement in the area, which are supposed to begin shortly. Good faith, however, is in short supply on both sides of the divide. “We are also certain that [DRC president Joseph Kabila] won’t negotiate. There is no credibility in his promises,” said M23 spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa in an interview with Stearns. Bisimwa argued that M23’s willingness to sacrifice Goma illustrated, in this context, just how serious the movement is about making peace. “Our objective is to finish the war as soon as possible and have negotiations. We have always said that we want negotiations, that’s it. We are even willing to make very big concessions – we are leaving Goma, a very big town, that is a big concession for us.”

Not everyone buys into M23’s idealism, however. This has a lot to do with the group’s history: it is the latest evolution of various rebel groups that have been operating in the area for nearly two decades, originally supposed to be fighting the Rwandan genocidaires that fled into eastern DRC after the 1994 genocide. In whatever guise, these rebels have been responsible for committing gross human rights violations and have been involved in a number of other peace treaties and negotiations, to little effect.

“Past truces have issued from internationally brokered negotiations that were in reality exchanges of franchises and benefits. None has lasted. On past performance, we’re probably heading for yet another of these,” said Willet Weeks, a Nairobi-based regional affairs consultant. By franchises and benefits, Weeks means a range of activities which have proved lucrative for unscrupulous armed groups, be they army officers, rebel commanders of foreign generals. These include control over the lucrative minerals industry, food staples and export crops, the development aid industry (including housing and feeding aid workers) and land titles.

For now, even an imperfect agreement – such as the one leading to M23’s withdrawal – will come as a relief to the region’s long-suffering citizens. The UN estimates there are 140,000 internally displaced people in 12 sites in and around Goma alone, with more large-scale displacements happening every day. For many of these people, this will not be the first time they have had to flee their homes and livelihoods.

Nor, tragically, is it likely to be the last. There is little reason so far to believe that any of the main actors involved – M23, the DRC government, Rwanda, and others – are willing to address the deep roots of the conflict, or make the necessary political and financial sacrifices that might prevent it from flaring up again. Negotiations could well produce a temporary fix, one which realigns the balance of power and the wealth which accompanies it; but it’s highly unlikely to provide a more permanent solution. DM

Read more:

  • Congo M23 rebels withdraw from strategic city of Goma in LA Times
  • Growing humanitarian needs in Goma on IRIN News
  • Time for impatience in Congo in the New York Times
  • Goma needs aid, but an effective state would be nice Reuters AlertNet

Photo: M-23 rebel fighters are transported on trucks as they withdraw from Goma December 1, 2012. Rebel fighters, singing and brandishing weapons, pulled out of Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern border city of Goma on Saturday, raising hopes regional peace efforts could advance negotiations to end the insurgency. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic


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