SA troops stand down as UN suspends DRC mission

SA troops stand down as UN suspends DRC mission

The United Nations has halted a planned offensive against rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, citing its unwillingness to work with dodgy Congolese generals. This is a respite for South African troops in the area, who would have led the charge, but gives under-fire Congolese President Joseph Kabila yet another headache. By SIMON ALLISON.

On Tuesday, the United Nations suspended its support for a military operation in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo designed to drive out rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The operation was supposed to complement a Congolese army offensive against the same rebels, but the United Nations refused to work with two of the Congolese generals in charge while unresolved war crimes allegations hang over their heads.

“The UN mission in the DRC has raised concerns linking two [Congolese army] generals to human rights violations, and therefore we have paused our support to [the Congolese army] on anti-FDLR operations,” a UN official told AFP. “We intend to fully support the FDLR operations as soon as the outstanding issues regarding command of the operations are resolved.”

This news has immediate implications for the 1,000-odd South African National Defence Force soldiers who are stationed in the eastern DRC. The South African contingent is part of the Force Intervention Brigade, a special unit of the UN mission that is authorised to go on the offensive against rebel groups. This is a break from peacekeeping tradition, and something of an experiment for the UN. So far, it seems to have worked, with the FIB – composed of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops – proving instrumental in the dismantling of the M23 rebel group in the same area in 2013.

The FIB would have led the charge against the FDLR too, and may still. For now, though, the unit has been stood down, and the South African troops with it. A SANDF spokesperson told the Daily Maverick that it has no quarrel with the UN decision. “We are a troop contributing country to the UN, so it’s their operation, their decision, and we will fall in line with them,” said Captain Jaco Theunissen. In fact, the SANDF might be grateful for the respite as it scrambles to prepare for the launch of President Zuma’s new continental intervention brigade, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises.

To resume operations, the UN is demanding that the Congolese government remove both tainted generals from command until the accusations against them are resolved. This may not happen any time soon, if the government’s public stance is anything to go by.

“For us, we would only replace someone in the [army high] command if that person had been convicted by our military courts. Yet, no such thing has happened,” said government spokesperson Lambert Mende, bristling at the perceived slight to the DRC’s sovereignty. Mende said that, in the UN’s absence, the government had decided to go it alone, launching its own independent operations.

According to the BBC’s Maude Julien, the reality on the ground is somewhat different. Reporting from a Congolese army base near rebel territory, she says that Congolese soldiers had yet to receive any orders to attack and instead were entertaining themselves with shots of a local home brew. This seems symptomatic of what is a disorganised, dysfunctional fighting force, and highlights the need for UN involvement if any serious progress is to be made against the rebels.

For Congolese President Joseph Kabila, the UN decision comes at a particularly delicate time. With plenty of problems closer to home, he’d prefer to avoid complications in the country’s remote eastern regions.

As author and DRC expert Jason Stearns observed from Kinshasa: “…in the embassies and upscale restaurants of the capital, the buzz was all about political wrangling among elites ahead of elections still two years away. The populist governor of mining-rich Katanga had just given a fiery speech challenging President Joseph Kabila, who appears to be trying to illegally extend his presidential mandate. Several weeks later, police broke up widespread protests in Kinshasa with live bullets and tear gas as the populations protested a controversial electoral law. The war in the distant and mountainous east seemed a faint murmur.”

Kabila is manoeuvring ahead of the presidential elections in 2016, which he is not constitutionally entitled to participate in – not yet, anyway. Opponents are worried that he’ll try and amend the constitution in his favour, or find a pretext on which to delay the vote (doubtless he’ll be watching closely what happens in Nigeria, where the presidential election has been delayed by six weeks on security grounds). His allies are worried about who will succeed the president, and are making power plays of their own.

The situation is unstable and potentially volatile. Already 42 people have been killed in protests (according to some estimates), while more than 300 have been detained.

All this adds up to good news for the FDLR. With the UN halting its operations, and Kabila distracted, the rebels have somehow earned themselves a stay of execution. DM

Photo: Congolese government soldiers aboard a pick up truck leave their headquarters to escort Lieutenant General Olenga Francois in the town of Minova, some 45km from the provincial capital Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, 25 November 2012. The M23 rebel group in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is ending its insurgency, it was announced 05 November 2013. In a statement the movement said it would adopt ‘purely political means’ to achieve its goals and urged its fighters to disarm and demobilise. EPA/DAI KUROKAWA


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