As the world focused its attention on bringing peace to the Gaza strip, a rebel group is threatening to overrun Congo in a conflict that has already displaced about 500,000 people since it began in April 2012.
On Tuesday (November 20) the rebel M23 fighters captured the strategic city of Goma in Congo’s mineral rich region. A day later they took the nearby town of Sake as they moved towards the provincial capital of Bukavu. After initial setbacks, forces loyal to the government are now fighting a pitched battle to push the rebels back even as they hold on to Goma.
The M23 – fighting government forces in Congo – sounds straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster. It is a rebel group – a break-away faction of the army -of around 1200 to 1600 fighters. More government soldiers are said to be deflecting in the regions under rebel occupation.
Earlier on these men were part of the National Congress for the Defence of People (CNDP) – a political armed militia established in 2006 by Laurent Nkunda in the Kivu region of Congo.
Following an agreement after years of conflict, the CNDP became a political party and its armed militia was integrated into the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC)].
M23 take their name from the abbreviation of ‘March 23, 2009’ the date when the CNDP signed a peace treaty with the Congolese government.
The history of conflict in the region is rather complex and cryptically intertwined with the tribal dynamics of the African continent further aggravated by the history of years of exploitative colonial rule.
The M23 is largely made up of ethnic Tutsis who want to extend their control over eastern Congo and its valuable deposits of gold, copper, coltan and timber. Their campaign, and alleged support from Rwanda, has its roots in the 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis were massacred by Hutus.
Neighbouring Rwanda has supplied soldiers and equipped the rebels with sophisticated arms, including night vision goggles and 120 mm mortars, according to a report by United Nations experts to be published Friday (November 16). Rwanda however denies the findings of the report. It along with Congo and Uganda has called upon the M23 to withdraw from the territories it has captured and find a negotiated settlement.
The latest round of fighting started on April 4, 2012 when nearly 300 soldiers (majority of them former members of the CNDP turned against the Congolese government and formed M23. They citied poor conditions in the army and the government’s unwillingness to implement the March 23, 2009 peace deal.
Citing unrest, the government had threatened to redeploy former CNDP soldiers away from North Kivu before the full implementation of the peace agreement, which prompted many of them to defect from the army and create the M23. The group is led by General Bosco Ntaganda, also known as “The Terminator”. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court for the war crimes of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of fifteen and using them to participate actively in hostilities.
Undeniably the international community led by the United Nations has been putting in a great effort in Congo. Peace has still not been secured.
With 18000 troops on the ground, the UN has its largest peacekeeping operation in Congo. However the 1500 MONUSCO (as UN forces are known) troops position in Goma retreated as the rebels took over as they did not have the mandate to engage against the M23. The UN clarified that the peacekeepers in Goma held their fire to avoid triggering a battle.
However, the M23 rebels have rejected a call by regional leaders and the international community to withdraw. Instead a group leader said their fighters would push ahead to seize more territory until Congolese President Joseph Kabila agreed to talks. It has been reported that President Kabila has agreed to directly talk with the rebels however much confusion prevails on that front.
Following the crisis, the UN is also in the process of reviewing the mandate of the UK peacekeeping operations in Congo. This could mean possible redeployment and additional force multipliers. The focus is also on imposing targeted sanctions, including travel ban and assets freeze of M23 leadership.
Despite best efforts by the UN and other countries, peace eludes Congo as the approach seems to be flawed.
Considering that tribal conflicts in Africa extend beyond national boundaries any effort to foster peace in the continent cannot be country specific. The argument is that international organisations cannot do with a piecemeal approach. A three-pronged strategy must include the full cooperation and collaboration of regional organisations in Africa. Such organisations like the African Union are better equipped to understand regional issues and thereby create a pan-continent perspective. The UN must seek to strengthen the capabilities of organisations like the African Union so as to find a long and stable solution to regional and inter-tribal conflicts in Africa. Understandably this is easier said than done. Mutual distrust among nations is rife; however, as a regional community of nations they have a larger stake in maintaining peace.
The second aspect of this strategy is for the UN and AU to impress upon the international community – particularly countries like China – who seek business linkages in Africa to ensure that they deal only with legitimate powers. Considering the confusion in these resource rich countries, it is important for international bodies to make clear who represents the democratic aspirations of the people best.
The third most important yet difficult task would be for the UN along with regional bodies to investigate both nations and individuals to check the spread of small arms in the continent.
For the guns in Africa to fall silent, such a multi-pronged strategy needs to be drawn up and committed to by the international community.