Friday, 30 November 2012

Chaos in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

The U.N. Security Council on November 29 successfully approved a French-drafted resolution to consider sanctions against the Democratic Republic of Congo’s March 23 Movement (M23) militia leaders and countries that support the militia.

The resolution, along with a broadening call for calm in the volatile region, prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to request regional African leaders end any support for the M23 militia. However, given the inherent geographical complexities and national players involved, this may be difficult in the short term.

Negotiations between the militia group and Kinshasa have not succeeded in pushing M23 out of towns in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), despite their agreement to withdraw. 

Thousands of people fled Goma when word of approaching M23 fighters suddenly became more than a rumour. The group remains in control of Goma, the capital city of the North Kivu province in DRC, after seizing control on November 20 when the Congolese army withdrew.

M23 fighters have received an influx of few thousand Congolese defections this year, swelling its ranks considerably. The DRC army’s retreat was tactical in the face of an advancing militia army of close to 4000 fighters who have operated with relative impunity in eastern DRC since at least April. Holding the town with the existing government garrison, with reinforcements days away, would not have been a prudent use of Kinshasa’s troops. 

This would not be the first time the Congolese army has bowed to pressure from M23 or their predecessor group the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). But there are reasons for this. 

The North Kivu region is largely autonomous sitting as it does 1500 kilometres from the DRC capital in Kinshasa. And because of the distance, projecting force through dense rainforest is a huge challenge for Kinshasa leading to militia groups consistently defeating numerically stronger government troops a number of times since 2003.

A United Nations peacekeeping force of close to 1500 remains close to Goma currently confined to a base near the airport. It is unlikely the United Nations force is sufficient to repel M23, even if they wanted to and their presence did not dissuade the militant group from taking the city. Continued defections from the Congolese military will only exacerbate this trend.

The group’s name choice of March 23 Movement refers to the date Kinshasa and the CNDP sat down and agreed to peace accords in 2009. The largely Tutsi group integrated into the Congolese military, but a few hundred later said they were not treated fairly and broke away completely to form the March 23 Movement or M23 in April 2012.

It is these ex-government troops that set M23 apart from other groups in the region. M23 is involved politically in the region, maintaining websites and broadcasting from local radio stations. Other militant groups in eastern Congo have dissipated as members are recruited into the more successful M23. But given that a majority of the group is comprised of ethnic Tutsis, neighbouring states like Rwanda are encouraged to become involved with the fighting.

Mrs Clinton’s rhetoric about ending state support for the militia group reflects the widespread belief that Rwanda and Uganda both supply aid to M23. The region under contention in North and South Kivu contains rich deposits of minerals which Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC would each like to control. 

Rwanda is using the M23 group as a proxy to establish something of a buffer zone and protect its economic interests in the sparsely populated area. Both Rwanda and Uganda are geographically closer to the border region than the DRC capital in Kinshasa, resulting in significantly stronger leverage over the area.

Although the Great Lakes region of east Africa is no stranger to violence, the M23 group plays to the interests of both Rwanda and Uganda. Rwandan Tutsis under the Rwandan Patriotic Front came to power after the 1994 genocide violence and swiftly exiled the Hutu leadership. 

The Hutu exiles, in turn, quickly formed the group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), focused on re-entering Rwandan politics. The group now poses a serious threat to Tutsi rule in Kigali and rumour of Congolese support for the FDLR is leading Kigali to support the M23 as a counterweight to any DRC aid for the FDLR.

Along with the importance of securing access to minerals, Kigali has a strategic interest in creating buffer state by propping up any strong group that successfully counters the FDLR and ensures Kigali’s access to eastern DRC’s natural resources.

If M23 can hold onto Goma for an extended period of time, Kigali would be closer to establishing a robust area of influence. It is unclear whether the group has the ability to successfully control the city in the face of a potential counteroffensive orchestrated by the United Nations. The French-drafted resolution to upgrade international efforts could see UN troops attempt to force M23 from Goma.

Historically Kigali tends to withdraw support from militant groups in the region when they become too powerful and threaten Rwanda itself. The security void in eastern DRC is encouraging ebb and flow of support for regional groups benefiting Kigali’s current interests and it will likely continue until Kinshasa can extend control over the region once more.

As for Uganda the situation on its south-western border offers a different opportunity with similar security threats. The infamous Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army along with the Allied Democratic Front have migrated further into the DRC and beyond as a result of security efforts from Kampala and the international community. Because of this, 2012 has been a relatively peaceful period for Uganda and security concerns are not a priority as they once were.

It appears instability in the North Kivu region still interests Kampala, as a leaked report from the United Nations reportedly exposes. Kampala strongly rejects the findings in the report which supposedly outline Ugandan efforts to arm the M23 rebels operating in eastern DRC.

Uganda threatened to leave the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) if the UN did not withdraw their findings. The threat was serious enough because Kampala’s efforts in the war-torn nation are substantial. Along with Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti, Burundi, and Sierra Leone the AMISOM force supplies 17,000 troops to the stabilisation effort. 

Yet the departure of Uganda from the joint mission would undermine Uganda’s regional interests and standing, especially among their AMISOM partners. They were likely never going to follow through on their threat, but Uganda’s presence in the Horn of Africa is too important for the AMISOM mission to lose over a report.

Kampala’s interest in the region stems from a desire to stop the re-emergence of militant groups like the Allied Democratic Front and retain access to the significant natural resources of eastern DRC. An uncontrolled M23 group could endanger the infrastructure of Uganda’s oil reserves in and around Lake Albert, especially since Uganda is not the only country wishing to gain increased access to those resources.

Some reports indicate that Uganda’s assistance to the M23 militants and others is motivated by a need to control smuggling routes. Since large scale fighting has all but ceased in the region, Kampala became a critical component to move smuggled timber, charcoal, palm oil, and gold onto the international markets.

So in a very real way, the rebel groups of the region are a form of state-sponsored criminal activity or racketeering. Operating through these rebel groups is a lucrative venture for many of the countries in the Great Lakes region.

Finding some sort of peace or balance and putting a tourniquet on the violence will be impossible until the various states involved behind the scenes can reach a political compromise on mutually beneficial interests.

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