On November 23, a number of regional leaders meeting in Luanda, Angola, issued the M23 rebel movement a one-day ultimatum to cease military action or face the prospect of forceful ejection. The specific order is for the group to halt its advance, and pull back from the large swathes of territory its forces have occupied in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in recent months.
The second such order to the rebels in three weeks, the ultimatum had both a sense of desperation and hollowness to it.
It sounded desperate because the situation in the said contested areas has taken a very dangerous bend in recent days; and hollow because the meeting was not fully representative of the protagonists.
While Rwanda was represented by its minister for Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta, Uganda was not. Presidents Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni, seen as key cogs in any resolution of the DR Congo expanding tragedy, were absent.
Situation deteriorating rapidly
Regardless of who attended the mini-Summit in Luanda and who did not, the situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly and gaining dangerous undertones.
Pressed against the wall, embattled DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, has responded with a rapid mobilisation of recruits into the national army. Some of the volunteers are associated with the militia groups that have fought M23 before and have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities in the past two decades of chaos.
The most sinister part is that besides possible diluting of professionalism, signing up the M23’s rivals brings the prospect of an ethnic bloodbath ever closer.
That is all the more likely because President Tshisekedi has framed the rebels as alien invaders. Such an emotionally charged conflict is likely to result in massive bloodletting. It also motivates the M23 to dig in deeper.
Although, since Kinshasa suspects that Uganda and Rwanda have some role in the M23’s recent battlefield and should therefore have some leverage over them, the vacuum that for decades has obtained in the mineral rich east of the country, also means that almost anyone who chooses, can rig up a gang of goons and wreak untold mayhem on civilians.
With a liquid and committed Rwandan diaspora across the globe and the rich mineral resources in the areas it has captured, M23 can sustain a prolonged offensive, in pretty much the same way other non-state actors are doing.
But neighbouring states and the international community can hobble its capacity to wage war, by clamping down on illicit financial flows and trade in blood minerals.
Pacify the east
President Tshisekedi will therefore achieve more, if he moves to unite his neighbours around the broader goal of pacifying the east of his country through a critical examination of the forces at play and the various means of responding to them.
If accommodation and recognition are its core objectives, it is in the interest of the M23 to heed calls for cessation of hostilities, set conditions for dialogue land lay down arms. That way, it will avoid getting misunderstood and lumped together with other militia as a mercenary force.
Its recent actions that saw critical trade routes cut off, are an attack on regional integration and commerce. They are more likely to unite the region than divide it.