People living in Goma, the provincial capital of troubled North Kivu, and those in neighbouring communities in Rwanda and Uganda, will begin the New Year unsure of whether the temporary calm in the city will evolve into a more stable peace or whether the conflict that started in April will resume.
Talks in Kampala between Kinshasa and M23 rebels to resolve the crisis peacefully were adjourned and will resume on January 4.
The talks will go on for longer because they broke off on an unpromising note after the government delegation declined to assent to the rebels’ demand for a permanent ceasefire.
Instead, the matter was offloaded to the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism, which was set up by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region to address cross-border issues between Rwanda and the DRC.
The Congo government has not made any ceasefire deals with the rebels who have entered into informal agreements with regional leaders to stop fighting on two previous occasions.
The rebels now claim that the government is delaying the talks while reinforcing its positions in and around Goma to attack them. The rebels are located just three kilometres outside the main town centre.
“People are still moving away from their homes on reports of troop movement, but we don’t know whether they are from the government or the rebels,” said Bernadette Muongo, who co-ordinates the Support Programme for Women Victims of Conflict in eastern DR Congo.
“The population is suffering at the moment and we would like to appeal to both sides to cease fire permanently,” she added.
Ms Muongo is part of a coalition of women peace activists from North Kivu. Isis-Wicce, an international women’s organisation, put the group together to demand direct participation in the talks, which have excluded women.
The coalition includes civil society groups that are left picking up the pieces after communities have been broken up by conflict.
“In Congo, war has been largely fought on women’s bodies and the impact of this cannot be underestimated,” the coalition said in a joint statement.
“No due consideration has been given to women to participate and be active and decisive players in determining the future and destiny of their country. Therefore, there is no meaningful peace negotiation without the perspective and voice of women to reflect their needs and concerns,” the group added.
The talks suffered an earlier setback when the Congo opposition, which is widely believed to have won the 2011 polls, declined to participate, claiming that the talks are personal deals between President Kabila and the rebels that have nothing to do with the DRC as a country.
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Col Paddy Ankunda, the media adviser of Dr Crispus Kiyonga, Uganda’s Minister of Defence and the talks’ chief facilitator, says having a permanent ceasefire will be on top of the agenda when the talks resume. He said the talks are not discriminating against any group of people.
“There’s space for an all-inclusive process. We are not leaving out anybody. There is a procedure for participation and the mediator will approve any genuine group that seeks to be part of the talks,” Col Ankunda told The EastAfrican.
“We need a bit of patience. We just started a month ago. It is normal that these accusations and disagreements occur, but the most important thing is the spirit. We are seeing renewed commitment on both sides to resolve this matter peacefully,” he added.
The Kampala talks have attracted less interest than the UN accusations against Rwanda, and later Uganda, for supporting the M23 rebels.
The lack of faith in the process is largely due to previous, higher level talks in South Africa, Kenya, and in Goma over the same issues, all of which failed to restore peace to eastern Congo.
“They failed to prioritise implementation as much as they did dialogue,” noted an analyst.
“Certain structures should be created in Kinshasa and given a mandate to ensure that whatever is agreed to this time round doesn’t gather dust like the previous agreements,” he added.
But Paul Omach, a senior lecturer in political science at Makerere University, believes talks are needed not just between Kinshasa and rebels, but also between Congo and its neighbours.
“You have to address structural issues around interstate relationships between Congo and its neighbours, and then guarantee that any agreement arrived at between the states will be implemented,” he said.
Rwanda and Uganda have repeatedly accused DR Congo of harbouring rebel groups fighting them. They have, on occasion, even invaded their western neighbour to eliminate these rebel groups.
“However long the talks take, they should emphasise a clear mechanism where what is decided is implemented so that people can get on with their lives,” Ms Muongo said.
“We also need to emphasise good relationships with our direct neighbours while considering interests from both sides,” she added.