14 December 2012

Africa: Negotiating With the DRC Rebels - First As Tragedy, Then As Farce?

Photo: Irin
A woman and her family flee ongoing fighting between M23 rebels and government forces outside Sake, near Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Kampala, Uganda — If talks with M23 are not responsibly managed and we see a repeat of the 2009 CNDP talks, we could also see another identikit conflict a few years down the line.

When on November 20 fighters from the M23 rebel forces seized control of Goma, the prize city in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it seemed that the initiative was firmly with the rebels and that the Congolese government would soon be forced to its knees at the negotiating table.

Instead, the fall of the strategically important town raised questions about the ambitions of the rebels and their backers - alleged by a group of UN investigators to be Rwanda and Uganda - and exposed divisions within M23. Just 11 days after the capture of Goma, M23 had withdrawn its forces from the city and agreed to direct negotiations in the Ugandan capital Kampala.

Climb-down, contradiction and confusion

The sudden withdrawal, and subsequent acceptance of peace talks, marked a dramatic climb-down from the pronouncements coming from M23 in the days following the fall of Goma. On November 21, the rebels' military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Vianney Kazarama told a crowd gathered in the main football stadium that M23 was ready to march on the capital Kinshasa.

On November 26, Sendugu Museveni, head of M23's political affairs and administration department, told Think Africa Press that he and his colleagues had formed four ad hoc committees that would turn into a public administration in Goma. The next day, M23's civilian president, Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga, bullishly rebuffed regional efforts to bring the rebels and the Congolese government to the negotiating table by refusing to accept withdrawal from Goma as a precondition of talks. He listed his own set of demands - including the release of political prisoners and the dissolution of the electoral commission - which, he said, should be met before withdrawal or talks could begin.

Within hours, however, word came from Kampala that M23's military leader, Brigadier General Sultani Makenga, had met with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and had agreed to withdraw. The M23 political spokesmen, Bertrand Bisimwa and Amani Kabasha, dodged questions and failed to respond to calls for a few hours until, finally, they agreed: M23 was withdrawing. By implication, all that Runiga had said earlier that day carried no weight; he had been overruled.

Explaining the withdrawal

The M23 withdrawal has puzzled observers and analysts. Goma would have made a decisive bargaining chip in any negotiations with Kinshasa. The city would also have proved a fruitful recruiting ground and an excellent base from which to strike towards other targets, including Bukavu to the south.

"The withdrawal [of M23 from Goma] seems like it had something to do with international pressure on Rwanda and Uganda", suggested Ida Sawyer of Human Rights Watch. Both of these countries have been accused by the UN Group of Experts on the Congo of sponsoring the rebellion, sending weapons, ammunition and recruits to M23 and even using units of their own armies to support M23 operations. Despite both countries' denials, their normally steadfast donor partners have cut aid and exerted diplomatic pressure on Rwanda and Uganda to rein in the rebels.

In the week of M23's withdrawal, rumours were circulating around Goma that Justine Greening, the British Secretary of State for International Development, would freeze a tranche of aid to Rwanda due to Kigali's links to M23. On November 30, while the withdrawal was still being negotiated and Makenga was yet to fully agree to the terms of the rebels' departure, the UK confirmed the £21 million ($34 million) aid freeze. The next day, M23 was gone.

Rwanda may also have been motivated to press M23 to pull back by recent attacks into Rwanda by the Rwandan Hutu militia FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda). This was the first time in years that the FDLR, which has operated out of eastern Congo since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, had made a significant attack on Rwandan soil. As M23 headed west from Goma towards Masisi territory, it left the Rwandan border poorly protected, allowing the FDLR to cross into Rwanda from Virunga National Park. The first of two attacks came in the early morning of November 27; by the afternoon, Makenga was agreeing to the pull back.

A rebellion divided?

If Rwandan and Ugandan pressure did prompt the withdrawal, it seems that those countries are in touch with the military, rather than political, leaders of M23. While Runiga sat in Goma listing his preconditions for withdrawal and negotiations, Makenga was in Kampala striking the deal that was actually seen through. It is clear that the rebel fighters are not always on the same page as their civilian counterparts, and that the military wing is the seat of real authority in the movement.

"There have been a lot of internal contradictions inside M23 exposed by this withdrawal", Jason Stearns, Director of the Rift Valley Institute, told Think Africa Press. "At the moment what the objectives are really depends on which stakeholder you're talking to. The different strands of M23 seem to want different things. The Rwandan government, which has been backing M23, may even have different objectives than the rebels."

While the political leaders, emboldened by the speed and ease of the capture of Goma, had begun talking about the overthrow of Kabila's government, the reality of concerted diplomatic pressure on M23's apparent backers, and the overstretching of the rebels' military resources, led to the opening of peace talks in Kampala on December 9.

Kampala talks: the real deal?

It is difficult to see whether anything substantive will come of these negotiations, however. The M23 delegation includes neither Makenga nor Runiga. Kabila has dispatched his minister for foreign affairs, Raymond Tshibanda, to lead the Congolese delegation. Museveni mandated the Ugandan defence minister, Crispus Kiyonga, to mediate. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has had no official input.

Even without the presence of the key actors in the affair, the negotiations began awkwardly. François Rucogoza, the M23 executive secretary and leader of the rebel delegation, launched a scathing attack on Kabila's government in his opening statement, accusing the president of carrying out human rights abuses, fomenting ethnic hatred, and stealing the 2011 elections. The Congolese delegation demanded the right to reply the following day, an event which the M23 delegates refused to attend. It is difficult to fathom what the negotiations might achieve when talks are repeatedly delayed by such animosity and point-scoring.

Worryingly, the negotiations look set to mirror those that led to a peace deal struck in 2009 with the CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People), a rebel group that was integrated into the army and from which much of the M23 top brass is drawn. "The key failure of the 2009 deal was that there was no international mediation", said Stearns. "It was all backroom deals with no real follow-up."

With Uganda - an implicated party - facilitating the talks, no firm and neutral international mediation, and all the key individuals absent, the risk is that these negotiations could repeat the failures of 2009, which laid the seeds for this year's insurrection.

History repeated

That 2009 deal allowed ex-CNDP fighters who integrated into the army to establish a parallel chain of command in eastern DRC. The CNDP had been backed by Rwanda, and those officers' ties to Kigali led to a lucrative smuggling racket from the mineral-rich eastern Congolese provinces into Rwanda. "At the moment it seems the key players want a return to the post-2009 situation," said Sawyer. "That means de facto control of the east of the DRC through military commanders in key positions being close to Rwanda." It seems it was Kabila's attempt to break up this 'mafia' that sparked the M23 rebellion.

The UN experts who first linked Rwanda to M23 claimed that the Rwandans' end game was secession of Congo's eastern Kivu provinces. Whether or not that was originally the aim, it seems that the capture of Goma constituted a red line for the international community, which has used its money and its diplomacy to force a retreat and, perhaps, a scaling-down of ambitions. Now, the key players would likely prefer a return to the post-2009 orthodoxy rather than a protracted conflict to control the Kivus or even unseat Kabila.

Not that this should be counted as a success for Western diplomacy; if the resultant talks are not responsibly managed, fighting will erupt again, or we will see a return to the unsustainable post-2009 situation. The re-establishment of parallel chains of command and external interests inside the DRC will merely sow the seeds for an identikit conflict a few years down the line.

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.

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