The UN Security Council travel ban and asset freeze against the M23 rebels, and the rebels’ insistence that Kinshasa signs onto a permanent ceasefire, could jeopardise ongoing peace talks which were due to resume on January 7, in Kampala.
The ban against M23 as a group and its chairperson Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, announced on New Year’s eve, essentially restricts the M23 team from travelling to the venue of the talks at the lakeside Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort in Uganda, unless the Ugandan government is willing to defy the sanctions.
Although senior Ugandan officials argued that the UN Security Council could grant special exceptions to allow the mediation effort to continue, they could not say if this had been done.
However, they confirmed that they were expecting the 24-person rebel delegation in Kampala on January 4.
The team is led by John Serge Kambasu Ngeve, who heads the Department of Reconciliation and National Unity in the rebels’ pseudo administration.
Bertrand Bisimwa, who heads the rebels’ communication and is part of the peace delegation, also confirmed to The EastAfrican on January 4 that the group was on its way to Kampala.
Col Paddy Ankunda, the media advisor to Uganda’s Foreign Minister Dr Crispus Kiyonga, the talks’ chief facilitator, says a series of meetings have been lined up to see how to engage all stakeholders, including the UN, over the sanctions.
“The UN is aware there is a peace process going on and so they cannot be the ones to impede it,” Col Ankunda told The EastAfrican.
“Everyone is interested in a peaceful resolution, especially the neighbours in the region who are directly affected by conflict in eastern Congo. Anybody who is opposed to this is on the wrong side of history because we will prevail and succeed,” he added.
According to Ambassador James Mugume, Uganda’s co-ordinator of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, which is overseeing the talks, “The Great Lakes Region will have to engage the [Security] Council to review the decision and let some people within M23 to continue with the negotiations.”
Mr Mugume added that the “[The sanctions] obviously have a negative impact here and there. We would have to wait and see what the [Security] Council decides when it is approached.”
Collapse of the peace talks would raise the spectre of renewed conflict in eastern Congo.
The first round of the preliminary peace talks broke off on an unpromising note after the government delegation declined to enter a permanent ceasefire agreement that the rebels had demanded, fuelling accusations by the rebels that Kinshasa was buying time to reinforce on all fronts in readiness to attack their positions, which extend to the outskirts of Goma – a mere three kilometres from the city centre.
“We withdrew from Goma in exchange for dialogue. President Joseph Kabila should honour his side of the bargain,” Amani Babu, one of the rebel spokespeople, told The EastAfrican.
At a press conference on January 3, from their stronghold in Bunagana, the rebels stated that they would only resume talks if the government signed onto the permanent ceasefire arrangement.
“If Kinshasa continues to refuse to sign a ceasefire, M23 will ask its delegation to return to DR Congo,” Bishop Runiga is quoted to have said.
“We will wait and when they say, ‘We’re ready to sign,’ then we’ll go back,” he added.
The sanctions against Bishop Ringa and M23 followed a series of foreign media news reports and the final report by the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Its truthfulness and the motivations of its authors have been severally contested by disparate groups of people, no least Rwanda, which the report accuses of backing the rebels.
The UN, in issuing the sanctions, bands M23 together with Forces Democratiques De Liberation Du Rwanda (FDLR), a group Rwanda accuses of orchestrating the 1994 Genocide and which the rebels have severally battled against and accuse President Kabila’s government of propping up.
The sanctions effectively take away the formal recognition M23 had risen to at the last extraordinary summit of regional heads of state in November 2012, which sanctioned the talks between Kinshasa and the rebels in the first place, leaving it to be dealt with militarily as any other “negative force.”
The UN decision also goes against Dr Kiyonga’s view that “the practice of indicting some actors in the crisis without co-ordinating with the overall effort to stabilise the DR Congo is a complicating factor that should be avoided.”
While Mr Mugume maintains that regional initiatives, particularly the talks, to resolve the crisis in eastern Congo have been backed by the Security Council, it is unclear how the same Council should proscribe one of the negotiating parties.
“At this time, this was uncalled for. We keep telling these people that the issue of peace is more important than pursuing impunity. If the UN continues behaving this way, then the rebels will have no reason to engage in any process that they perceive will not really help them achieve anything,” a senior official, who has been engaged with the peace process, told The EastAfrican.
Previous UN sanctions have worsened, rather than improved the security situation, as happened last November, when the Security Council sanctioned three M23 military leaders, including Sultani Makenga, the head of the military, and the rebels turned on Goma.