Will the UN’s brigade bring peace to Congo?

Saturday May 04 2013

Brigadier General Sultani Makenga (left) and newly elected M23 political wing President Bertrand Bisimwa toast to new beginnings in Bunagana in March. Picture: File

One year on, after the March 23 rebel movement (M23) launched its military offensive in the eastern fringes of the Democratic Republic of Congo in April 2012, Africa’s Great Lakes Region is faced with a tragic military and humanitarian crisis.

In that year, the looting, rape, killing and hunger that ensued has uprooted nearly three million people from their homes —about 2.5 million displaced within Congo and more than 460,000 crossed the border into neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda.

In its endeavour to pacify eastern Congo and halt the crisis, the UN Security Council has decided on a new form of “militarism,” now poised to define Africa’s politics for decades to come.

On March 28, the UNSC authorised its first-ever military ‘offensive’ to ‘neutralise’ and ‘disarm’ the M23 fighters and an estimated 40 other armed groups operating in Africa’s second largest, fabulously resource-rich country.

The beachhead of the UN’s new ‘militarism’ in Africa is a 3,069-strong ‘intervention brigade,’ itself part of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (Monusco) that has operated in the country since July 1999.

But the implementation of the new genre of UN militarism must be reconciled to the trajectory of the Africa-led peace diplomacy aimed at bringing peace to the entire region.


In a nutshell, what set off the latest Congo crisis was the collapse of the March 23, 2009 peace deal between President Kabila and the rebels in the east, which saw the integration of the rebels into the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC). The disarray triggered the mass defection of eastern rebels from the Congolese army and the creation of the M23 in April 2012.

In recent months, three developments have taken place, which, if well-calibrated, are likely to slowly tilt the balance from war to peace in the turbulent region.

The first development is the reconfiguration of the M23 movement following fierce supremacy battles at its top echelons. In February, the faction allied to military chief Brigadier General Sultani Makenga clashed with the one backing the warlord and alleged founder of M23, General Bosco Ntaganda, and the group’s political leader, Jean-Marie Runiga, in North Kivu.

Makenga fired Runiga as the group’s political leader and its representative at the peace talks with the government then taking place in Kampala, Uganda. Ntaganda fled to Rwanda, together with Runiga, several senior commanders and close to 700 fighters.

On March 18, Ntaganda surrendered to the US embassy in Kigali. He is now at the International Criminal Court where his first appearance on war-crimes charges has been lauded as a positive step in the fight against impunity in DRC.

A new leadership has increased the prospects of meaningful peace talks between Kinshasa and the rebels. Makenga has since been consolidating his estimated 1,500-strong force in the M23-held territory in North Kivu. He is now President Joseph Kabila’s natural negotiating partner.

The reintegration of Makenga’s troops into the Congolese army is one of the options widely held out by analysts to resolve the eastern Congo impasse. But Makenga is likely to reject the suggestion that he and the new M23 political leader, Bertrand Bisimwa, should stay independent of the army, his main powerbase.

The second development is the signing of the Peace, Security and Co-operation Framework for the DRC brokered by the African Union and endorsed by the UN on February 24.

The February agreement was signed by 11 African countries — Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, DRC, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia — in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The foremost goal of the new deal is the reformation of the army. However, the deal also seeks to curb regional interference in the country.
The Addis Ababa deal has been praised as a breakthrough in African peace diplomacy. But negotiators will be under intense pressure to include all the key players in the Congo conflict and in the region.

One of the key resolutions of the Addis Ababa agreement is the creation of a “neutral intervention” force to fight “negative forces” in eastern Congo, including the M23 and other armed groups.

UN Militarism

The Addis Ababa decision to establish a “neutral intervention” force provided the basis for the third development. On March 28, the UN Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 2098 that upgraded the hitherto stabilisation and peacekeeping force in Congo to an “intervention” one. The decision authorised a 3,069-strong brigade as part of Monusco.

But the UN’s new “intervention brigade” is hardly the silver bullet that will end the problems of eastern Congo. Even before it gets off the ground in May, the idea of the intervention brigade is increasingly turning into a new complication in the conflict between Kinshasa and the rebels.

President Kabila’s government has supported the intervention brigade, warning M23 rebels to disband. On his part, the M23’s new political leader, Mr Bisimwa, has rejected the UN’s decision to send the force. “If UN forces come and attack us, they will find us here and if they [are] against us, we will fight,” said Mr Bisimwa.

Lobbies have also expressed fear that the entry of the force will escalate the conflict and undermine the ongoing peace initiatives.

The 164-member International Federation of Human Rights (IFHR) lobby has warned of a potential “escalation in military confrontations and increased risk of retaliatory attacks by armed groups against civilians” as a result of the force’s entry into the fray. IFHR has called on Monusco to “mitigate against the increased risks that communities will face.”

Further, the entry of the UN intervention force is also likely to strain already fragile relations between Congo and its East African neighbours, particularly Rwanda and Uganda. The two have been at loggerheads with the UN over its claims that Kampala and Kigali have been supporting rebel groups and meddling in the DRC affairs.

Rwanda has denied any connection with the rebel group. But despite the denials, America has cut its military aid to Rwanda valued at $200,000 to pressurise Kigali to stop supporting M23. To many, Western pressure has paid off in the form of Ntaganda’s surrender and co-operation with the ICC.

Meanwhile, Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo has pointed out that the insecurity in DRC has an impact on Rwanda as a country. Both Rwanda and Uganda are hosting over half a million Congolese refugees.

Hutu rebel groups hostile to Rwanda as well Uganda’s Lords Resistance Army (LRA) launch their attacks on the two countries from Congolese soil.

The UN intervention force must be implemented in a way that does not escalate tensions between African states.

Notably, like the DRC, the three countries that will be contributing troops to the planned Intervention Brigade — South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania — are member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), although Tanzania is also a member of the East African Community.

They have received threats from M23, which insists its fighters will defend themselves against any attacks. In a letter to Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete dated April 11, M23 political leader Bisimwa warned that M23 fighters “have consistently prevailed over much larger and better equipped forces... The same will happen to the intervention brigade if your wisdom does not prevail to intervene and stop this dangerous adventure in its tracks.”

The letter also appealed to the parliament and the people of Tanzania to “carefully reconsider this situation and prevail upon the Tanzanian government... not to engage in an absurd war against their Congolese brothers.”

The South African army has said that it is “not scared” of confronting the DRC rebels, despite having recently lost 13 of its soldiers and a further 22 wounded to the Seleka rebel group that overran the Central African Republic, removing President Francois Bozize from power in Bangui.

But rhetoric has often run dangerously high. “If they [M23] declare war against the SA National Defence Force personnel, we are ready to tackle them,” said a South African military spokesman.

Experts posit that Pretoria may be looking to the eastern DRC conflict as a chance to redeem its tarnished image. Also at stake are its vast business interests in the DRC.

Ultimately, the stabilisation of eastern DRC must go beyond military solutions and lean more heavily on diplomacy and peace-building processes.

The prevailing architecture of peace-making in the Congo, however, is top-heavy, unco-ordinated and potentially fraught with tensions.

Peter Kagwanja is the CEO of the Africa Policy Group. This article is part of the Institute’s Africa Security Policy Briefs Series.