The January peace deal between the Congolese government and the North Kivu rebel groups, including General Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), is now history.
On October 2, amid rumours that he was dead or sick, the renegade general said in an interview with the BBC that he was fighting to "liberate" the whole of the country and that the CNDP was transforming itself into a national movement. And then this week his troops overran a government base and made off with a massive haul of arms and equipment. In his statement Nkunda said he was "calling on the people of Congo to stand up for their liberty, for their freedom". The recent history of the Congo has shown his claim to be less than massively hubristic, despite that his force is only a few thousand strong.
Laurent Kabila took over the capital from the ailing president Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 after being holed up in the east for decades, and President Joseph Kabila's army has thus far been as ineffectual and corrupt as Mobutu's forces. Laurent Kabila sailed into Kinshasa on the back of the Rwandan army, and the government's assertion this week that Rwandan troops had crossed the border again provoked these memories. But its claim at the UN Security Council was dismissed by diplomats, who noted that Nkunda obviously had little need of Rwandan help, and it was repudiated by Rwanda itself. Nkunda said he was walking out of the January peace deal after recent fighting between his troops and the army has led to more than 100,000 people fleeing. His statement represents a major shift since so far he has asserted that the CNDP's main purpose is to protect the Congolese Tutsi against the former Rwandan Hutu armed groups organised in the 'Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda' (FLDR) in the eastern Congo.
He clearly no longer believes that peace is possible between the CNDP and the government, which he believes wants to settle the issue on the battlefield.
Foreign diplomats told SouthScan that his grievances are to some extent understandable. Since June the Congolese army has tried to occupy CNDP positions with the strategic objective of wiping out one of Nkunda's territories, the 'Bunagana pocket' to the north of Goma, which is close to both the Ugandan and the Rwandan borders. The government's assumption was that if CNDP troops are eliminated here this would end supplies from Rwanda and as a result, Nkunda's other territory, in the Masisi area, would be deprived of arms and food and be forced to surrender. Further evidence of Kinshasa's intentions was the arrival during the first quarter of this year of between 15 and 20 T-55 tanks in Goma, brought all the way down from Kisangani, Bunia and Kanyabayonga, and the supply of 'Stalin organ' multiple missile launchers.
The CNDP also condemned what it considers the bias of the UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) troops, who shoot at its troops when they violate the ceasefire but only request the national army to stop when they commit similar violations. Added to that the government troops refused to resume negotiations.
The result has been the failure of the Amani programme for the security and the reconstruction of Kivu, launched in April by the international community, which had envisaged the implementation of the ceasefire, the demobilisation of troops and the creation of conditions for the return of refugees and internally displaced people.
Probably the last straw was the use of two FARDC battalions trained by MONUC specifically for fighting the Hutu-based FLDR but who instead on September 25 attacked Nkunda's forces in Kabiso and Tango in the north of his Masisi territory.
This is why Nkunda's troops decided to create a fait accompli and, despite international condemnations of Nkunda's October 1 statement, inflict a major blow on the FARDC to make them understand that they could not defeat the CNDP. Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht had called Nkunda's statement "irresponsible". DR Congo Defence Minister Chikez Diemu used the same word.
On Wednesday CNDP troops overran the military camp of Rumangabo, killing about 100 government soldiers and capturing tonnes of military hardware, including four Katyusha rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns, mortar launchers and vehicles.
In a way this was a repetition of the Mushoki disaster of December 2007, when after an attack on a FARDC military camp the CNDP captured six tons of ammunition, 45 armoured vehicles, 20 RPGs and 15,000 boxes of grenades.
The DRC government's first reaction on Thursday was to ask the UN Security Council to call an emergency meeting to censure what it described as an incursion into its territory by government forces from neighbouring Rwanda. Congolese UN ambassador Ileka Atoki said the Congo had hard proof that the
Rwandan forces had been on his country's soil. "We have captured some Rwandan soldiers," Atoki said, adding that his government would soon show them to the media.
But Rwandan President Paul Kagame's special envoy to the Great Lakes Region, Richard Sezibera, denied the allegation. "First of all, claims that Rwandan troops are in the town of Goma are ridiculous. Goma is the headquarters of MONUC," he pointed out at a press briefing in Kigali on Thursday. The UN force would have substantiated the report if it were true.
European diplomats also told SouthScan on Friday that they had no evidence of Rwandan military involvement. In any event in their view it was unlikely because Nkunda's troops, numbering somewhere between 3,500 and 6,000, did not need the support of the Rwandan Defence Force to face the FARDC - estimated at 25,000 troops in North Kivu and with logistical support from the 4,500 strong MONUC contingent in the area.
In their view Rwanda's support was not needed because Nkunda's troops were more disciplined, skilled and motivated and because after the Mushoki and Rumangabo battles they now have tons of military equipment. President Paul Kagame tried to explain in an interview with the Belgian daily Le Soir why the DRC would accuse Rwanda. "The Congolese like to portray themselves as innocent victims", he said.
A Western diplomat commented, "In the Congolese military's view, the defeats at Mushoki and Rumangabo are not their fault but the responsibility of the international community which should have supported them."
It may be difficult for the Congolese authorities to admit that for years they have been unable to win against the renegade general and his troops despite a ratio in their favour of five to one. They may believe that all the problems of the Congolese army will disappear once they beat Nkunda. But that is probably a mistake.
According to Kagame even if Nkunda is killed, other opponents may confront Kabila because there the need to protect the Congolese Banyarwanda is a serious cause, whether it is led by Nkunda or by another leader. Moreover, Kabila's militarist attitude is providing the rebels with reasons to fight on. In addition, according to Rwanda's envoy, Sezibera, the DRC government is holding tight to its alliance with the FDLR Hutu militia, who spearheaded the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
This is in violation of the Nairobi agreements signed at the end of 2007 - the expulsion of the FDLR remains a key issue that Kinshasa has consistently refused to address and Rwanda wants the international community to condemn this collaboration.
Instead of getting rid of the former Interahamwe and others in the FDLR top officers in the national army are in commercial and military deals with them as they jointly mine cassiterite and other minerals in the region. That said, although Nkunda finally agreed to withdraw his troops from the Rumangabo camp on Thursday, his call for insurrection makes him even likelier to be classed as an outlaw and gives more pretexts to the UN to support the Kinshasa authorities. In addition, the outstanding International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for his chief of staff Bosco Ntaganda puts Nkunda's movement in a politically fragile situation.
Eastern Province hotspot
The deterioration of the situation in the Kivus has distracted attention from the increasingly critical security situation elsewhere in the east where between 800 and 1,000 Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army fighters are based. Last month around 60 boys and girls were kidnapped in the Bita, Duru, Kiliwa and Enelve villages in the Dungu area, and houses were looted. Limolo village in the Upper Uele district was burnt down last month. About 20 people have been killed by the LRA over the last two weeks. In early October more than 1,000 Congolese sought refuge over the Sudanese border. MONUC's failure to react provoked an attack by local demonstrators who at the end of September destroyed the UN headquarters at Dungu.
Meanwhile a new guerrilla group has emerged in the Ituri district. It is called the 'Front populaire pour la justice au Congo' (FPJC). On Thursday it occupied the Kombokabo village, 20km southeast of Bunia.