The Southern African Development Community’s stance on the fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo — basically accusing Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels — and the rebel group’s decision to declare a pseudo-government over the territory they now control, have sparked fears of a flare-up in the Great Lakes region.
Those involved in talks to resolve the crisis say SADC’s stance has compromised the diplomatic efforts that the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region countries have put in to seek an end to the violence, which has displaced an estimated 400,000 people and claimed many lives over the past three months.
Similarly, the M23’s installation of a “government” is intended to bring the Congolese government to the negotiating table, to make the rebel group a “legitimate” political movement.
But Congolese senior officials, including President Joseph Kabila, have repeatedly said they will not talk to the rebels.
The extraordinary meeting of regional heads of state in Uganda’s capital Kampala two weeks ago had appeared to head off a confrontation when delegates unanimously agreed to give dialogue a chance to resolve the crisis in eastern DRC.
Should diplomacy and dialogue fail, sources told The EastAfrican, a military confrontation pitting SADC states against East African Community states, notably Rwanda and Uganda, is almost inevitable.
The DRC is likely to bring in its allies, particularly Angola, owing to the weakness and indiscipline of its own military, ultimately dragging all its neighbours into the conflict, as happened in the five-year Congo war between 1997 and 2003.
SADC stated in the August 18 communiqué issued at the conclusion of its 32nd summit in Maputo, Mozambique, that the precarious security situation in eastern DRC “is being perpetrated by rebel groups with the assistance of Rwanda, and urged the latter to cease immediately its interference that constitutes a threat to peace and stability, not only of the DRC, but also of the SADC region.”
The communiqué came a day after M23 had declared a pseudo-government.
Rwanda has repeatedly denied accusations of being behind the M23 rebels since the UN Group of Experts first made the allegations in its report in May.
Although Kigali is yet to formally respond to SADC, possibly waiting for the forthcoming visit of its chairperson President Armando Emilio Guebuza of Mozambique, The EastAfrican has learnt the communiqué caught the country off guard.
Rwanda has been working to mobilise support of the African Union against the UN allegations; the SADC statement now opens another window for Western countries to pressurise Kigali over its alleged support for M23.
“It is unfair to condemn Rwanda, because we have tried to avoid pointing fingers at anyone and concentrate instead on resolving the crisis, because finger-pointing only escalates the situation,” a source at the ICGLR Secretariat told The EastAfrican.
“They should have taken into consideration the progress we have made so far. We have got all the main principals engaged, and they have demonstrated political will to resolve the matter peacefully. Such announcements are divisive and do not give peace a chance,” our sources added.
Direct condemnation of Rwanda and the classification of M23 as a “negative force” that needs to be eliminated were two key objectives that the DRC delegation pursued in vain at the Kampala meeting.
The other was that the neutral force that regional leaders first agreed to in July, on the sidelines of the AU Summit in Addis Ababa, be immediately constituted and deployed to pacify eastern DRC.
Although the DRC signed onto the final Kampala declaration, The EastAfrican has been told the Congolese left unhappy that none of the issues they considered important had been reflected in it, and decided to press their case at SADC where they have closer alliances.
“How else do you explain the fact that we have gone to Addis Ababa, Khartoum, Kampala and Goma, and in all those places we have made progress, with M23 having suspended hostilities, and still SADC is acting like none of this has happened?” noted a source who has been involved in all these meetings.
As Kinshasa sees it, if Rwanda can be directly condemned at the regional level, as SADC has done, it becomes isolated as an aggressor, triggering intervention under SADC’s defence pact.
The bloc’s Mutual Defence Pact says, “An armed attack against a state party shall be considered a threat to regional security. Such an attack shall be met with immediate collective action by all state parties.”
Great Lakes analysts say such actions are short term and ill-advised, since perpetuate the status of the country as a theatre of war.
“It would be in Kinshasa’s best interests to collaborate closely with its western neighbours Rwanda and Uganda to stabilise eastern Congo,” a source said.