Goma — The new rebellion in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has brought unwanted celebrity back to this particularly restive part of central Africa.
While most attention has been fixed on the military front and the diplomatic wrangling between the DRC and its neighbour Rwanda, which is allegedly supporting the rebels, the huge political challenge facing President Joseph Kabila of the DRC has gone largely unnoticed. The crisis may prove to be the beginning of the end of his reign.
The rebels are almost at the gates of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, following an advance reminiscent of that made by the National Congress Defence of the People (CNDP) rebel movement in 2008. Having proved they could threaten Goma, the CNDP were able to extract significant privileges in a peace deal signed on March 23, 2009. The current rebels - called M23 in a reference to that date - are made up of many former CNDP fighters who complain that the deal was not properly implemented. Kabila is now living through the consequences of his weak position at those negotiations.
As part of the 2009 deal, the CNDP fighters were integrated into the Congolese army but were able to maintain a parallel chain of command in North and South Kivu. Leading ex-CNDP figures profited enormously from mineral-smuggling into Rwanda, which had backed the CNDP movement. When Kabila attempted to dismantle ex-CNDP power in the Kivus, the former rebels mutinied.
To end the current rebellion, which has displaced some 470,000 civilians since April, Kabila can either continue fighting or negotiate. The former option is risky. The Congolese army suffered significant setbacks in June, defections to M23 continue apace, and elements loyal to M23 remain in army ranks, supplying materials and intelligence to the rebels. A convincing military victory is unlikely, would probably require foreign support and come at great cost.
Negotiation would be far from straightforward option. The Congolese government has so far refused to negotiate directly with the rebels, insisting that M23 is a proxy force for Rwanda and that negotiations must be between the two states. The former leadership of the CNDP, and now of M23, is Tutsi, as is the regime in Kigali. And the UN Group of Experts on the Congo has provided substantial evidence of Rwandan support for M23. Despite this, Rwanda strenuously denies its involvement and has sought a regional solution instead.
To that end, the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region has held a series of summits, most recently in Kampala, looking at diplomatic and military options. A neutral international force had been suggested, but was later rejected by the Congolese government who favour an expanded role for the current United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) instead. By and large, the Kampala talks resulted in nothing more than vague statements and the formation of a new committee of defence ministers to consult on the issue.
More pressingly for Kabila, there is little support for negotiation among the Congolese population or army. This is mainly because any negotiation would have to focus on M23's main concern: the proper implementation of the 2009 deal, which integrated the ex-CNDP into the army.
"The worst thing the Congolese government ever did was to integrate the CNDP [into the army]," a high-ranking Congolese army officer tells Think Africa Press on condition of anonymity. "These people will fight all their lives unless we put them in prison. It's difficult to trust the ex-CNDP guys who are still [in the army]. I'm supposed to go to the front with these guys - how can I do that?"
"Kabila should not negotiate," explains a student at the University of Goma campus. "We negotiated with the CNDP in 2009 and it just led to this. If he negotiates, we'll have another rebellion in a few years."
M23 has more recently begun to criticise the Kabila regime for an allegedly fraudulent election in November 2011, ongoing Congolese poverty, the dire state of the country's infrastructure, and the treatment of soldiers, who regularly go unpaid and are currently drastically undersupplied. Many in the DRC agree with the critique, even if they are suspicious of the rebels' true motives.
"People here say that they agree with what they hear from M23 on the radio," says a civil society leader in M23-occupied Kiwanja. "They suspect that there's something else behind the movement, that M23 is just trying to win acceptance, but they also know that what the rebels are saying is true." Kiwanja was the site of a notorious massacre by the CNDP in 2008 so for civilians here to accept M23's critiques is a sign of the shaky ground on which Kabila stands.
For now, though, the president does still retain the conditional support of parts of the population. "We're with Kabila until he gives in," says another resident of Kiwanja. "For now he has my support, because he's working on the problem. But if he doesn't react, when he's no longer able to find a solution to the problem, we will be obliged to seek a change."
Distractions, symptoms and solutions
Onesphore Sematumba of the Pole Institute, a peace institute in Goma, claims that Kabila in fact depends on the rebellion, and its links to Rwanda, for whatever mitigated support he still enjoys. "The Rwandan link [to M23] has had the perverse effect of drawing attention away from the failings of the government and the global problems in the DRC," says Sematumba. "People are focused on M23 and Rwanda; they have forgotten about the problems in the army, and all of the other armed groups in North Kivu."
There is certainly an overriding perception in eastern DRC that Rwanda - and, to an extent, Uganda - seeks the balkanisation of the DRC. This fear tends to override domestic complaints, and playing the 'Rwanda card' can shift attention onto a common external enemy. However this solution has a built-in expiry date; the absence of functioning state institutions in the east has allowed Rwanda and its CNDP - now M23 - proxies to operate with relative impunity. "When it confronts the M23 crisis, the government is dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause of our problems," says Sematumba.
"Kabila needs to turn this problem into an opportunity," suggests Sematumba. "He needs to identify and address the global problems in the Congo. He can't just focus on the M23, which is very new. Above all he needs to rebuild a new, functioning army; integration of various rebels will never work. It has to be done through dialogue. Kabila is not responsible for this mess, but as the head of state it's his responsibility to end it."
That is quite a challenge. Whether Kabila possesses the political will or capacity to do so is the question. He and his entourage have also profited from the disorder in the Congo, including through the smuggling of minerals. That disorder could now, however, fatally undermine his administration. "This is the last war," says M23 spokesman Vianney Kazarama at a rebel base in Rutshuru. That seems unlikely in this war-torn region, but it may well be Kabila's last stand.
Peter Jones is a freelance journalist working in east and central Africa, with a particular concentration on eastern Congo. He has written for various international media outlets, including the Guardian, Radio Netherlands Worldwide and Africa Confidential. His focus is on African politics and on natural resource governance and management. He is based in Kampala, Uganda. Follow him on twitter @PSJones01