Last week’s surprise decision by General Sultani Makenga — hitherto the military head of the vanquished March 23 (M23) rebellion — to surrender may have closed one episode in the unending conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
But for Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni it opens new fault lines that potentially pit him against the runaway rebels, Kinshasa and the UN.
A recent regional resolution from a joint summit he co-chaired compels him to hand Gen Makenga over to the President Joseph Kabila-led Congolese government.
At the same time, his failure to deliver a deal from the talks Kampala has hosted since last December when he persuaded the rebels to withdraw from Goma, the strategic capital of North Kivu region, will erode his credibility with the M23.
As a large column of M23 fighters, including their leader, surrendered to Ugandan forces, President Museveni was making frantic efforts to salvage the Kampala talks — for which a triumphant President Kabila was showing little appetite.
The decision by the rebels to surrender to Kampala effectively makes it President Museveni’s responsibility to either deliver a deal that saves their neck or stand between them and the UN.
On November 4, in Pretoria, heads of state from eight countries and representatives of 12 others from the Great Lakes Region and the South African Development Community agreed “to hand over negative forces to their countries of origin within the spirit of the UN Peace, Security and Co-operation Framework (PSCF) for DRC and the Region.”
The PSCF was signed by 11 heads of state in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on February 24. It is touted as the blueprint for restoring peace and stability in the DRC, particularly the restive east.
Should he not hand over Gen Makenga, said Paul Omach, a senior lecturer in international relations at Makerere University, President Museveni is likely to reinforce allegations that the UN’s Group of Experts on DRC made last year — that Kampala and Kigali had backed the rebellion, charges both countries have denied.
Yet, should the President, indeed, comply and turn the former rebel chief in, it will leave the Ugandan leader exposed to M23 and its sympathisers, who will feel betrayed that he sowed the seeds that led to the group’s eventual demise when he asked them to leave Goma, which they had captured on November 20 last year.
“The question for Uganda to decide now is: Do you want to have an image in the international community, where you are abiding by international instruments and resolutions, or do you want to be seen as a rogue state?” Mr Omach told The EastAfrican in a phone interview.
“The decent thing for Uganda to do is hand him over to the UN and let them do with him whatever they want. If they charge him, let him prove his innocence.
“Of course there will be some people who will feel betrayed, but what is better; to lose your standing internationally or please some people?”
At present, though, Uganda appears reluctant to hand over Gen Makenga.
Ofwono Opondo, the government spokesperson, said any decision about Gen Makenga or any other M23 combatant who has surrendered to it will be determined by an accord between the rebels and Kinshasa out of the Kampala Dialogue, which he said was expected early next week.
When he surrendered, Gen Makenga, on whom the UN and the US slapped travel bans last year, crossed the border into Uganda with several hundred troops, bringing the total number of M23 combatants in Uganda to more than 1,600, according to Mr Ofwono.
Gen Makenga, the official added, is being kept at a secret location while the other rank and file will be transferred to a camp that he did not disclose.
“The terms of the accord will detail how each case will be handled,” Mr Ofwono told The EastAfrican. “We have no obligation at the moment to hand over anybody, including those who have sanctions against them.
“We need to wait and see what the accord says on each individual case. Any statement being made outside that arrangement could be construed as undermining the ongoing process, and so we urge those making handover demands to restrain themselves from making such comments.”
In the wake of M23’s defeat, senior officials in President Kabila’s government have been quoted as saying that neighbouring countries should hand in any of the rebel remnants who fled to their territory.
According to the Pretoria summit, all the 11 issues that have been under discussion in the Kampala talks were agreed upon. Signing of the agreement hinged on M23’s public declaration renouncing rebellion, which they did on November 5. Thereafter, Kinshasa would publicly declare acceptance, which it has not yet done.
Instead, government spokesperson Lambert Mende reportedly said there was no agreement to sign with a group that had dissolved itself. All they could sign was what he termed “a statement of principle.”
This turnaround appears to be born out of deep mistrust by Kinshasa and the UN that has beleaguered the Kampala talks because of the perception that President Museveni, the mediator, was on the rebels’ side. It explains why, two months into the talks, the UN initiated its framework and forced it upon heads of state from the region.
“The peace negotiations were largely seen as a hoax,” Mr Omach observed. “Even the UN did not take them seriously.”
At the moment, Gen Makenga is not eligible for amnesty, the stickiest of all the 11 issues and one that had on several occasions derailed the stuttering Kampala talks in recent weeks.
He is second on the list that Kinshasa published in September of the 100 top-ranking rebel officials ineligible for remission because of war crime charges against them — a position the UN has fully backed, further demonstrating its opposition to the Kampala process.
On the night of Wednesday, November 6, Gen Makenga handed himself over to Ugandan authorities in the southern district of Kisoro following his group’s formal announcement a day earlier renouncing its rebellion.
His surrender after the surprise crumbling of his group, which took just 12 days, can be immediately explained by gross strategic and tactical errors such as underestimating the effects of sweeping changes within the Congolese army and the resolve of the UN’s special fighting force, the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), to attack M23 as per its mandate.
But then, the seeds of its eventual collapse were sown much earlier, in November last year. When President Museveni decided to deal with Gen Makenga instead of Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga, M23’s initial political head, he would not have imagined that this choice would trigger off a chain of events that would eventually drive it into oblivion.
When the rebels overran Goma, international pressure was brought to bear upon President Museveni, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region chair, to ensure they vacated this major commercial centre of eastern Congo.
In one of the extraordinary summits he convened with regional heads of state, President Museveni managed to secure a commitment that the Congolese government would listen to, evaluate and resolve M23’s legitimate grievances if they stopped expanding the war, withdrew immediately and stopped talk of overthrowing the elected government of President Kabila.
“Makenga was told he had got a great opportunity to achieve recognition in the region and to have their grievances listened to and was advised to use it well,” a senior official in Uganda’s army, who was privy to the meeting Gen Makenga had with, among others, the Chiefs of Defence Forces from Uganda and Rwanda in Kampala, told The EastAfrican in an interview last year.
These grievances arose from allegations that Kinshasa had reneged on its promises in the 2009 agreement under which gen Makenga and others had been integrated into the government — the reason they mutinied in April.
All Gen Makenga wanted was total implementation of that agreement, which, essentially, would keep de facto control of the east in his hands.
However, Bishop Runiga, who had been courted to bolster the group’s appeal and legitimacy because of his religious networks, had grander ambitions and so insisted on broad issues of governance.
This was a divergence in worldview that Kinshasa exploited to slow down the talks, which it was not interested in in the first place, when they eventually opened in December.
Although at one point there was a suggestion to retake Goma in order to force Kinshasa to engage faster, Gen Makenga kept faith with the process President Museveni had initiated, a former aide to Bishop Runiga told The EastAfrican.
Moreover, the discord between the bishop and the general was boiling over. It would soon split the rebellion in February this year.
And so, beginning on October 25, the rebellion’s disharmony was put to its ultimate test when a Congolese army that was much improved from the outfit the rebels had easily overrun a year ago, working in close concert with the UN’s intervention force, chased them out of the large swathes of territory they had controlled for 20 months in a fraction of the time it took the rebels to capture it.