Eastern Congo’s recent troubles: who pulls the strings, what is at stake, and why do things happen? – By Christophe Vogel
Considered an overview, this piece combines a wide range of events, observations, and consequent thoughts on the current situation in the eastern DRC. Focussing on M23 rebels, DRC government, and the UN mission it will also take into account main other dynamics and actors.
An accumulation of events
In the last few weeks, the often low-intensity conflict in eastern Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) became not so low in intensity with newsworthy events unfolding on an almost daily basis. North of Goma fresh clashes broke out between the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and the notorious M23 rebel movement.
During the ensuing bombing, various neighbourhoods in Goma were hit, as well as Rwandan territory in Rubavu district, bordering the DRC. The UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo, MONUSCO, for the first time engaged in offensive operations through its newly created Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) and faced fierce protests from residents of Goma resulting in tumultuous scenes in the bustling border town. One peacekeeper was killed andthe shelling of Rubavu provoked a military build-up by the Rwandan army on the border. After several days of joint FARDC-MONUSCO offensives (with losses suffered), M23 retreated from Kibati and announced a unilateral ceasefire, asking for the Kampala peace talks to resume.
Relations between the DRC government and its Rwandan counterparts have hit rock bottom and both regional and international mediation efforts have ground to a temporary halt. With opinions varying between anticipation of a window of opportunity and imminent regional war it is time to ask: Who pulls the strings, what is at stake, and why do things happen?
Shelling and protests in Goma
Skirmishes between FARDC and M23 resumed on August 23rd between Kibati and Kibumba at a spot locally known as ‘three antennae’. The following day, the city of Goma was hit by heavy shelling. Grenades landed close to the Mugunga IDP camps and in the busy neighbourhoods of Ndosho, Katindo, and Birere. Explosions were also reported from nearby sites in Rwanda. A total of at least four people died in a sequence of attacks which left dozens wounded, another two casualties resulted from a rocket that targeted the village of Kanyarucinya. On the Rwandan side, casualties have also been reported.
The renewed bombing of North Kivu’s capital created a climate of chaos and fear among residents. A few hours after the bombing, citizens took to the streets and engaged in protests against MONUSCO withcars burnt and civilians injured. The popular outburst focused on peacekeepers, and their intervention brigade in particular, accused of not protecting civilians despite the establishment of a security zone around Goma and the smaller town of Sake one month earlier. In what became a violent demonstration, the civilian population demanded that the Blue Helmets enlarge the security zone northwards to more aggressively engage M23. Stones were thrown at peacekeepers but the anger also turned against M23 as well as political and public authorities.
Following a series of popular protests in Goma, the demonstrations show how much the city’s inhabitants betrayed by all parties in the conflict. The demonstrations culminated in the deaths of 2 Congolese civilians – – allegedly shot by Uruguyan peacekeepers and Congolese policemen. MONUSCO refuted the allegations and an independent investigation is to follow. An indicator of how serious popular tensions in Goma have grown, Martin Kobler, the new head of MONUSCO, went on a PR offensive asking the population for its support and apologising for the general state of insecurity. Yet, Kobler stated that MONUSCO could not be held accountable for everything that went wrong in DRC.
Later on, the UN denounced M23 as being responsible for the shelling. The rebels in turn rejected this and claimed that FARDC elements had shot mortars into Rwandan territory. The Rwandan army’s spokesman, Joseph Nzabamwita, commented that his country could not accept the constant reoccurrence of such incidents and pointed the finger of blame at the DRC government. The blame game continued with DRC authorities accusing M23 of firing into Rwandan territory to create a motive for drawing in the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF). No independent assessment has provided any clarity thus far on this although the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM) is tasked with such a role.
After a troubled week, an uneasy calm reigns again around Goma, but the next attack on the city might well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. An economy of rumours and concomitant ‘radio trottoir’ being a well-known attribute of the agglomeration’s daily life, recent attacks also additionally created further mistrust among people and indiscriminate inculpation of rwandophone individuals.
What role for M23?
In various press communiqués, the political leadership of M23, centred on Bertrand Bisimwa, Rene Abandi, and Amani Kabasha, denounced war-mongering attitudes among the FARDC command and positioned itself as defensively reacting to renewed DRC offensives. A series of skirmishes in June had already pushed the insurgent army of ‘Brigadier-General’ Sultani Makenga back to a number of strategic hills between Kibati and Kibumba, around 15 kilometres from Goma (taking the airport as a reference point). It is unclear how much more the rebel forces will move behind that frontline, but the FARDC have already retaken Kibati.
Throughout its most recent press releases, the movement that is composed of ex-CNDP cadres and officers has repeatedly underlined how its forces have inflicted serious losses on the FARDC. Indeed, a recent Al Jazeera report indicates the military hospital in Goma is full and points to a restriction in access to the hospital zone to get further information on the numbers (not names, which would be a breach of medical ethics). However, the ceasefire proposed by Bisimwa triggers the impression that M23 might have suffered even more casualties. This would tally with reports indicating that South African snipers in the intervention brigade killed scores of Makenga’s men.
Rumours of Rwandan support have, as usual, also flared up – although on this occasion no proof has been delivered. On a different note: many M23 combatants do wear Rwandan uniforms (without the flag tag) but at least as many wear Congolese uniforms and others have Ugandan, US, UK, or Belgian fatigues. While nothing should be ruled out, the most plausible analysis is that M23 is consolidating its forces between Rutshuru, Bunagana, and Cyanzu and possibly regaining strength through taxation of incomes and is reorganisating its battalions.
M23’s propaganda channels have been surprisingly active in announcing how many hostile combatants had been captured and held in good conditions. Whilst they are generally cordial and open in their dealings with foreign visitors, almost no outsiders have so far managed to look behind the scenes of the rebel movement.
The state of the Congolese army
The ramshackle Congolese army appears to have been resurrected (in operational terms) after a its clear defeat last November when M23 took Goma and FARDC soldiers added another infamous chapter to their history by committing mass rapes while retreating to Minova and Bweremana. But the tide now seems to have turned. Propped up by various commando units (and perhaps also Republican Guards) the government troops have launched relatively impressive attacks against M23 positions close to Kibati since August 22, intensifying on August 23 and 24 and finally August 28 and 29.
Without public or official word from President Kabila, the commander-in-chief, this more aggressive and effective stance by the FARDC is difficult to explain. Headed by the Chief of Land Forces, General Olenga, and the Army Chief of Staff, General Etumba, the FARDC is led by a former bartender in Germany and a well-established career general whose shady networks have given rise to all sorts of speculation. Colonel Mamadou Ndala, the officer in charge of anti-M23 operations, employs an attitude reminiscent of Olenga’s statements and has, so far, transformed them into concrete military action. This was widely supported and backed up by MONUSCO. Etumba has, however, been criticised by civil society activists and local journalists for sabotaging FARDC supply lines.
A further reason for the FARDC’s improved battlefield performance may lie in a recent massive reshuffling of senior positions. Numerous generals have been retired while others were newly appointed. Despite including a range of fresh brigadiers with doubtful track records in terms of conduct and unit oversight, these measures have coincided with the turning point in M23-FARDC combat. On the battlefield, the recent desecration of enemy corpses added another chapter in a long list of inexcusable behaviour.
MONUSCO’s intervention brigade stepping up
In a first step, the intervention brigade rendered all prophecies of doom ridiculous: even before fully assembling its forces (the Malawian contingent still has not completely arrived and South African attack helicopters are scheduled to reach the frontlines soon) it has engaged in offensive operations alongside the FARDC. Ukrainian helicopters (which were a part of MONUSCO before the FIB) shot up M23 positions around the ‘three antennae’ while South African snipers and artillery bombarded the rebels from the UN’s Munigi base between Goma and Kibati as early as August 24. With M23 retaliating, one Tanzanian FIB soldier has been killed in action by mortar shells, while a handful of others suffered injuries. Despite the fact that FARDC infantry did the main job of engaging M23’s fighters, it can easily be argued that MONUSCO was instrumental in what turned out to be a preliminary military win by the Congolese forces with M23 retreating around five kilometres northwards.
Various statements made by new MONUSCO head Martin Kobler and the military spokesman,Lt.-Col. Felix-Prosper Basse, have underpinned actual behaviour. During the FIB’s military activities, the tone employed was clearly that of an alliance between DRC troops and the Blue Helmets. While this certainly allowed for more consistent collaboration on the ground too, it bears the danger of partiality and too much alignment towards the FARDC, which is one of the major human rights abusers in eastern Congo. However, it can also offer increased possibility of vetting Congolese units. The relative swiftness of last weeks’ MONUSCO-FARDC cooperation could also be attributed to other causes: troops currently engaged on the Congolese side are mostly commando divisions disposing of much better military, operational, and probably even IHL training. But this overtly intensive allegiance to FARDC not only calls into question the notion of civilian protection which,besides restoring state authority, is the key job of the Blue Helmets. It also contributes to MONUSCO’s continuing credibility problem.
In July, disorganisation in MONUSCO’s hierarchy reduced the coherence of its public statements and reaction capacity (the SRSG hiatus and the numerous personnel changes in the higher military echelons were the main causes of this) the mission’s performance has largely improved in that regard throughout August. Force Commander Dos Santos Cruz of Brazil and FIB commander James Mwakibolwa of Tanzania do not contradict each other and seem to pursue similarly tough agenda. Against this backdrop, the allegation (especially in UN circles) of continued Rwandan support to M23 is taken for granted – the positioning of Tanzania and South Africa fits well into this general school of thought.
Tanzania has recently suffered tensions in its relations with Rwanda when Jakaya Kikwete asked for negotiations with FDLR rebels (bearing in mind that parts of their senior command are old genocidaires). Paul Kagame bluntly rejected this suggestion. South Africa is also angry, as Rwandan secret services repeatedly launched operations to kill exiled Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former close aide to Kagame (turned oppositionist) on their soil. That does not mean these two main FIB protagonists are interested in waging war against Rwanda, but the intervention brigade’s presence and activities is following up on the political interest to signal to Kigali strong discontent over some of its recent foreign policy.
Kinshasa’s bargaining and Kigali’s lurking
Caught in the middle of two wary and differently thinking capitals, the Kivus in many regards depend on the decisions taken by the Congolese and Rwandan political establishment. Very quickly, it was obvious that Kinshasa, and Joseph Kabila in particular, have accommodated an offensive UN brigade deploying against rebel groups in the unstable east.
Kabila recently received Kobler in Kinshasa – this initial encounter was reportedly very cordial and framed by mutual respect. At the same time, a ministerial delegation was sent to Goma, where they went on a PR trip to officially deliver assets and items in support of the FARDC’s frontline troops and show solidarity with the people of Goma, as well as demonstrating unity with MONUSCO. Lambert Mende, the DRC’s government spokesman, admired by many nationalist Congolese while decried by Rwandans as ‘vuvuzela’, attempted to back up both the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign of the DRC government and MONUSCO as well as to interpret and multiply any international statement critical of M23 and/or Rwanda.
From Kinshasa’s perspective, the military developments made for a situation in which the Kampala talks are no longer part of perceived political reality. This viewpoint is, to an extent, justified: Although rhetorical commitment has been made to the Kampala talks by Kobler, Mary Robinson, and most of the UN Security Council as well as other key brokers, few of these actors have placed the diplomatic path over the military one in the last two weeks. In a joint press conference in Goma on September 2nd, Robinson is quoted stating that recent military action was conducive to future peace negotiations. The widespread relevance of article quinze and système D in DRC politics should serve as a reminder not to forget pressure on Kinshasa too. Otherwise, the upcoming concertations nationales (set to start on September 4) between government, opposition (not UDPS, MLC and UNC though), and civil society could easily become a farce.
On the Kigali side there is, however, a different picture: The Rwandan government was silent until shells landed on the soil of Rubavu disctrict and in Gisenyi’s urban areas. First, Brigadier General Nzabamwita, the RDF’s spokesperson, warned against the continuation of shelling. He firmly declared that subsequent violations of Rwandan territory could not remain unanswered and pointed the finger at the FARDC. Chief diplomat Louise Mushikiwabo followed with a similar statement, while President Kagame did not give any public statement on the recent events. It can be supposed that Kigali knows very well about its diplomatic and political leeway in the current situation.
Reports indicate that RDF units have consolidated along the DRC border while incursions into the latter seem to be happening in Congolese fantasy for the time being. While Rwanda’s announcement to not stand still in case of further bombs onto their territory is credible and justified, it is also clear that any action that may result in RDF opposing (directly or indirectly) UN troops (including Tanzania and South Africa) would come at a high cost for the Rwandan government too.
The wider conflict topography in eastern Congo
A narrow focus on the M23-FARDC showdown north of Goma has limited our observations on what else is happening in North and South Kivu. Certainly, in terms of regional and national stability and security, these may be second-range events. Being overlooked, they still bear medium-term risks of impacting on the overall situation as well.
A few frontlines and tension areas to keep in mind are summarised below:
A segment of Raia Mutomboki recently clashed with Mayi Mayi Kifuafua (a former segment of Raia Mutomboki) in Wanyanga, Walikale territory. After a series of confrontations throughout the last weeks, these opponents are reported to have agreed upon a ceasefire brokered by an alliance of government and customary authorities. An accord was signed in late August.
Other Raia Mutomboki in Shabunda and Kalehe remain active as well. Among the South Kivu groups, only the founding chapter referring to Jean Musumbu (the least active) has approached the government with an offer of integration. In northern Shabunda, a new coalition of various chapters and subchapters of the franchise-style militia phenomenon signed a partnership accord in June. They include a variety of commanders such as Sisawa Kindo, Donat Kengwa, Daniel Meshe, Albert Kahasha and others. Since the accord was signed, parts of the conglomerate not only caused trouble at the margins of Shabunda and Mwenga but also neutralised each other in internal disagreement during July and August.
On the Ruzizi Plain (Uvira territory) the fault lines between Barundi and Bafuliro communities created new troubles. However, as notorious Major Bede’s MCC is reported to be behind many of the security incidents, this ethnic framing could well be a smoke-screen for opportunistic politico-military elites such as the Mufuliro-but-M23-stooge Bede himself. It is unclear to what extent there might be a link to the remaining splinter groups among the high plateau’s Banyamulenge communities.
A new chapter of failed army integration features the Mayi Mayi Yakutumba/Aoci saga further south in Fizi. The men of William Amuri ‘Yakutumba’ have left transit centres in the area (i.e. Sebele) in absence of proper supplies and to follow up on their previous businesses. In the course of action, confrontations and skirmishes with government troops wreaked havoc in the area including urban fighting in the town of Baraka. One of Yakutumba’s main allies, the leader of Mayi Mayi Aoci, has reportedly been captured by the FARDC.
APCLS, MAC, Sheka – continued troubles in Pinga (Masisi): In Kashebere, the APCLS of ‘General’ Janvier Buingo Karairi (the Hunde-based part of former PARECO) have clashed with Mayi Mayi MAC.
Time and again, the M23 and local resources report incursion by the FDLR and some parts of a Congolese Hutu militia called Nyatura in the area of Kiwanja and Rutshuru. Without doubt recent weakening of M23 have – as the group’s infighting in February 2013 did – left security voids now used by these opponents of M23. Among others, the UN Group of Experts’ current midterm report suggests that these groups also act in alliance with the FARDC.
Around Ituri, FRPI forces of renegade commander Cobra Matata reignited their combat against FARDC troops (fighting centred around the town of Gety) and triggered the forced displacement of thousands. Meanwhile, the ADF-Nalu situation at the shores of Lake Edward remains highly volatile. Local communities and humanitarian actors face insecurity since recent ADF activities and the exodus of over 50,000 into Uganda.
Regional and international actors
Leaving Congolese ground, a short scan of regional actors beyond Rwanda may be surprising. Both the AU and the ICGLR have been unusually quiet. Is the AU overstretched with Egypt, Mali, Somalia, and the Central African Republic? Has SADC’s military approach in the guise of the MONUSCO intervention brigade prevailed over the diplomatic ICGLR version fostering Kampala talks? Yoweri Museveni has now called another ICGLR summit – possibly to deflect tensions exacerbated by the Gisenyi shelling and the subsequent military build-up of RDF along Rubavu.
Late July this year, a high-profile meeting on the ongoing turmoil in eastern DRC took place. Scheduled as a ‘ministerial meeting’, the world body’s 7011th session was chaired by US Secretary of State John Kerry (presiding as US representative), UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Ban’s Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Mary Robinson, AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra, the Foreign Ministers of DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda (Raymond Tshibanda, Louise Mushikiwabo, and Sam Kutesa), and other high-level diplomats. Attendees also included the US’s new Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, Russ Feingold, and MONUSCO’s new head, SRSG Martin Kobler.
Main concerns at the New York level remain centred on the intervention brigade’s ability to operationally take up the challenge of dealing with several armed groups at the same and live up to purely military expectations. Their ability to limit civilian distress while chasing militias will also be a major factor as increased humanitarian disaster is the last thing eastern Congo needs. With MONUSCO’s strengthened alignment to the DRC government and FARDC during Martin Kobler’s first weeks in office, the general UN stance appears to have become even more critical toward M23. France, as a permanent member of the Security Council and with former top-diplomat Ladsous at the helm of DPKO, plays a key role in this positioning resulting in a Rwanda-critical attitude as well.
After the skirmishes that marked the first offensive MONUSCO engagement and brigade casualty, the French pushed for a strong condemnation of M23 that was ultimately blocked by Rwanda. It has also called for the Security Council’s most recent briefing on the situation, after which M23 was condemned. As with the crisis in Syria, on eastern Congo France and the US appear to be more or less close allies, with the UK slightly adrift. In early September, Mary Robinson, Russ Feingold, and others are starting a visit to the region to upscale international diplomatic efforts in the aftermath of this most recent Goma crisis.
GWOT – the Goma War On Twitter
On Twitter, Facebook and other social networking websites to a lesser degree, the conflict is neatly represented by the accompanying battles over supremacy of commentary. M23 has, almost since its creation, been present through a number of ‘corporate accounts’ (@m23congodrc and @m23marscongo) and individual representatives (@kazaramavianney, @bbisimwa, @renabandi, and @benjioldman). The FARDC just recently joined the online fight (@FARDC13, it is doubtful that it is an official FARDC account, but it is at least a very well-connected individual close to the FARDC). There are a vast number of individuals either pushing for the FARDC’s or M23’s cause across Twitter. On the DRC government side, government spokesperson Lambert Mende (@lambert_mende) is the only salient voice. While none of the accounts have received any verification sign by Twitter, there is reason to believe they are to large extent authentic. Rwanda, in turn, has a verified account at government level with President Paul Kagame (@paulkagame). Much more vocal than the Head of State, however, is Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo (@lmushikiwabo), while Rwandan Defence Minister James Kabarebe (@kabarebejames) is also present.
Both on pro- and anti-M23 sides, among advocates for DRC and for Rwanda, there are plenty of private individuals, journalists, officials acting in private capacity and others (such as expatriates based in the region and international observers) engaging in the GWOT. Many moderate and impartial observers here merge with some of the most radical lunatics bordering on the sphere of hate speech
The shelling of Goma was ‘an event’ on Twitter as well, connected to reporting from the ground and speculation that largely did not come from individuals based in the region. While up to now it is unclear how the shelling actually happened, the twitter event ‘shelling of Goma and Rubavu’ has developed a virtual existence independent from the actual incidents. This is similar to earlier events such as the alleged presence of RDF soldiers on Congolese soil (which turned out to be wrong in almost all cases) and the ethnically motivated persecution of Rwandans in Goma (which turned out to be wrong in many cases, while true in many others). After all, the whole twitter conundrum makes a case for specific research concentrating on the conflicts seen from and carried out on Twitter (as well as other social networking sites).
Concluding Remarks and Outlook
Congo’s east is not at rest, as so often has been the case throughout the past two decades. These days, many aspects of the crisis appear especially massive, both on the side of threats (regional involvements, multitude of armed actors, etc.) and opportunities (Addis Ababa Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework of ICGLR, political commitment of UN and others, etc.). One big thing, however, is still missing. Without prejudice to the Kampala talks, concertations nationales, intervention brigade involvement, (all of those in theory have a chance to change things for the better for the concerned populations) there is still no complete approach. Such a thing would include different, well-matched layers of diplomatic efforts and negotiation:
1. On the regional level, serious dialogue between Kinshasa and Kigali.
2. On the national level, Kampala talks with the commitment of both parties and credible concertations nationales with the participation of all stakeholders (both subsequently merged into one national dialogue framework).
3. On the local level(s), tailored peace talks and integration efforts for all non-state armed groups (while not lumping all together but still streamlined, coordinated by an impartial oversight committee), relined by a new, creative, and sustainable effort in DDR and SSR combining donor commitment and government willingness.
This may well sound ambitious, but complexity certainly demands for holistic but sophisticated approaches.
Christoph Vogel is a Mercator Fellow on International Affairs. He tweets in personal capacity @ethuin and blogs at www.christophvogel.net.