The capture of Goma, the capital of North Kivu in eastern DR Congo, by M23 rebels — and their continued push northwards — has put President Kabila in a precarious situation and deepened the discontent that has dogged his presidency, especially since last November’s deeply flawed elections.
Whether he eventually caves in to direct talks that the rebels have repeatedly demanded or sticks with Kinshasa’s political class, which is totally opposed to the idea, Kabila is trapped in a no-win situation.
Political leaders too — especially in the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), the East Africa Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) — face a seeming crisis of indecision as the situation in DRC deteriorates.
Presidents from the Great Lakes Region were expected to meet in Kampala on Saturday November 24 for a crisis summit to discuss the situation in eastern DRC, where the rebels have captured Goma and the nearby towns and vowed to press on with their offensive to take the South Kivu provincial capital of Bukavu, which lies 300 kilometres to the south of Goma.
On Thursday, Tanzania’s Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Minister Bernard Membe said the country was ready to send troops into the DRC to fight M23 rebels who are making advances on the capital Kinshasa. But such an intervention would have to wait for the United Nations-mandated SADC, of which Tanzania is a member, to deploy troops.
After the August ICGLR summit in Kampala, Tanzania pledged to send one battalion under the SADC umbrella to fight the rebels.
A battalion comprises between 700 and 800 soldiers. Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete is said to have talked to his counterparts Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Kabila over the past two weeks on the current crisis.
Meanwhile, Kabila, to survive politically, will have to break ranks with the so-called Mobutuists around him who hold him hostage, and agree to M23’s demands — which essentially are semi-autonomous control of the Kivus, at least for now, which they had been granted under the March 29, 2009 agreement.
But that can only come after calm returns; the current storm directly threatens President Kabila’s hold on power.
Kabila needs to rebuild confidence among M23 and resume the military reforms he had started at the beginning of the year that were intended to bring all rank and file within the Congolese army, regardless of their background, under his absolute command as the Commander-in-Chief.
The M23 rebels formerly belonged to the National Congress for the Defence of the People, which integrated into the government in 2009 following the March 23 agreement, out of which they crafted their name after accusing Kinshasa of dishonouring it.
Although President Kabila seemed to indicate willingness to talk to his former soldiers and allies when he dashed to Kampala on November 21 to solicit help from President Museveni and President Kagame, he ducked the question when it was directly put to him.
He insisted there was a regional plan that the ICGLR, which has been mediating the conflict since April, had mooted on how to engage the rebels.
But this plan – a neutral international force that heads of state from the Great Lakes Region first proposed in July “to eradicate M23, FDLR [which Rwanda accuses of the 1994 genocide] and all other negative forces in eastern DRC and patrol and secure the border zones” has been more or less torpedoed by the fall of Goma.
Some senior military officials who are privy to high-level meetings that have been discussing the composition of the force have told The EastAfrican the language of eradication is no longer tenable in M23’s case.
“How can you say you will eradicate a group that commands significant and strategic territory like that?” one of the officials attending a meeting on November 19 in Kampala asked rhetorically.
The meeting involved regional ministers of defence and ministers of foreign affairs as part of the continuing work to resolve the security situation in eastern DR Congo.
“Monusco [the UN force] has all the military equipment you can think of in the world and although they say they were fighting alongside the Congolese army, they in actual sense had replaced it. Yet M23 still took Goma. What sort of forces then are you going to come up with that will eradicate them?” the military man added.
Indeed, the regional chiefs of defence forces have for the first time advised that the mission of the neutral force be reviewed from eradication to peace facilitator, at least in the case of M23.
“A quick advance party of the Neutral International Force should be deployed in eastern DR Congo, armed and be positioned to stand between the warring parties to restore peace and stability in the region in order to ensure continuity of dialogue,” read the minutes of their meeting on November 19.
The UN accused Rwanda and Uganda of backing M23 rebels. Both countries, however, have repeatedly denied any involvement with the rebels, who have insisted they are their own men.
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In a recent interview with The EastAfrican, Col. Sultani Makenga, M23’s head of military high command, said they had deserted with weapons; captured others from fleeing Congolese soldiers; and bought others from Congolese generals.
This last claim in particular is borne out by the final report of the UN Group of Experts, the same that originated the accusations against Rwanda, which notes that General Gabriel Amisi, the Commander of DRC’s Land Forces, has been selling arms and ammunition to the rebels.
According to Asuman Kiyingi, Uganda’s Junior Minister in charge of Regional Co-operation, “After the UN experts’ report, President Kabila called President Museveni to say the inclusion of Uganda must have been a mistake and asked him to continue the mediation effort because he did not believe the UN experts report.”
This and the fact that Museveni commands respect among senior M23 ranks on account of his military prowess in the region, explains why in his time of need, Kabila turned to Kampala rather than New York, the main seat of the UN.
Some senior officials in Uganda’s army whom The EastAfrican spoke to say M23 know very well that Museveni has the capacity to follow through his order for them to stop advancing and to begin to retreat from Goma.
“The intention of issuing the threats jointly with Rwanda was intended to communicate to M23 directly; that we have the power to take you on should you be tempted to act as if you’re untouchables,” a high-ranking UDPF colonel told The EastAfrican.
“However, this power has been chipped away because now M23 has stronger grounds to bargain than when they were just controlling Rutshuru. To get them to stop and even retreat from Goma will take diplomatic skill on Museveni’s part and stronger assurances from Kabila that, this time, he will deliver on what he promises. There’s a precedent where Kabila has reneged on his promises, the real reason why this conflict has re-emerged,” the officer said.
A number of people who have been involved in ICGLR mediations seemed to agree that by coming to Kampala, Kabila acknowledges he stands more chances of surviving M23 if he aligns himself with President Museveni and President Kagame than with the “international community”.