Christoph Vogel, AllAfrica
Considered an overview, this piece combines a wide range of events,
observations, and consequent thoughts on the current situation in the
eastern DRC. Focusing on M23 rebels, DRC government, and the UN mission
it will also take into account main other dynamics and actors.
An accumulation of events
In the last few weeks, the often low-intensity conflict in eastern
Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) became not so low in intensity with
newsworthy events unfolding on an almost daily basis. North of Goma
fresh clashes broke out between the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and
the notorious M23 rebel movement.
During the ensuing bombing, various neighbourhoods in Goma were hit,
as well as Rwandan territory in Rubavu district, bordering the DRC. The
UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo, MONUSCO, for the first time
engaged in offensive operations through its newly created Force
Intervention Brigade (FIB) and faced fierce protests from residents of
Goma resulting in tumultuous scenes in the bustling border town. One
peacekeeper was killed andthe shelling of Rubavu provoked a military
build-up by the Rwandan army on the border. After several days of joint
FARDC-MONUSCO offensives (with losses suffered), M23 retreated from
Kibati and announced a unilateral ceasefire, asking for the Kampala
peace talks to resume.
Relations between the DRC government and its Rwandan counterparts
have hit rock bottom and both regional and international mediation
efforts have ground to a temporary halt. With opinions varying between
anticipation of a window of opportunity and imminent regional war it is
time to ask: Who pulls the strings, what is at stake, and why do things
Shelling and protests in Goma
Skirmishes between FARDC and M23 resumed on August 23rd between
Kibati and Kibumba at a spot locally known as 'three antennae'. The
following day, the city of Goma was hit by heavy shelling. Grenades
landed close to the Mugunga IDP camps and in the busy neighbourhoods of
Ndosho, Katindo, and Birere. Explosions were also reported from nearby
sites in Rwanda. A total of at least four people died in a sequence of
attacks which left dozens wounded, another two casualties resulted from a
rocket that targeted the village of Kanyarucinya. On the Rwandan side,
casualties have also been reported.
The renewed bombing of North Kivu's capital created a climate of
chaos and fear among residents. A few hours after the bombing, citizens
took to the streets and engaged in protests against MONUSCO withcars
burnt and civilians injured. The popular outburst focused on
peacekeepers, and their intervention brigade in particular, accused of
not protecting civilians despite the establishment of a security zone
around Goma and the smaller town of Sake one month earlier. In what
became a violent demonstration, the civilian population demanded that
the Blue Helmets enlarge the security zone northwards to more
aggressively engage M23. Stones were thrown at peacekeepers but the
anger also turned against M23 as well as political and public
Following a series of popular protests in Goma, the demonstrations
show how much the city's inhabitants betrayed by all parties in the
conflict. The demonstrations culminated in the deaths of 2 Congolese
civilians - - allegedly shot by Uruguyan peacekeepers and Congolese
policemen. MONUSCO refuted the allegations and an independent
investigation is to follow. An indicator of how serious popular tensions
in Goma have grown, Martin Kobler, the new head of MONUSCO, went on a
PR offensive asking the population for its support and apologising for
the general state of insecurity. Yet, Kobler stated that MONUSCO could
not be held accountable for everything that went wrong in DRC.
Later on, the UN denounced M23 as being responsible for the shelling.
The rebels in turn rejected this and claimed that FARDC elements had
shot mortars into Rwandan territory. The Rwandan army's spokesman,
Joseph Nzabamwita, commented that his country could not accept the
constant reoccurrence of such incidents and pointed the finger of blame
at the DRC government. The blame game continued with DRC authorities
accusing M23 of firing into Rwandan territory to create a motive for
drawing in the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF). No independent assessment
has provided any clarity thus far on this although the Expanded Joint
Verification Mechanism (EJVM) is tasked with such a role.
After a troubled week, an uneasy calm reigns again around Goma, but
the next attack on the city might well be the straw that breaks the
camel's back. An economy of rumours and concomitant 'radio trottoir'
being a well-known attribute of the agglomeration's daily life, recent
attacks also additionally created further mistrust among people and
indiscriminate inculpation of rwandophone individuals.
What role for M23?
In various press communiqués, the political leadership of M23,
centred on Bertrand Bisimwa, Rene Abandi, and Amani Kabasha, denounced
war-mongering attitudes among the FARDC command and positioned itself as
defensively reacting to renewed DRC offensives. A series of skirmishes
in June had already pushed the insurgent army of 'Brigadier-General'
Sultani Makenga back to a number of strategic hills between Kibati and
Kibumba, around 15 kilometres from Goma (taking the airport as a
reference point). It is unclear how much more the rebel forces will move
behind that frontline, but the FARDC have already retaken Kibati.
Throughout its most recent press releases, the movement that is
composed of ex-CNDP cadres and officers has repeatedly underlined how
its forces have inflicted serious losses on the FARDC. Indeed, a recent
Al Jazeera report indicates the military hospital in Goma is full and
points to a restriction in access to the hospital zone to get further
information on the numbers (not names, which would be a breach of
However, the ceasefire proposed by Bisimwa triggers the
impression that M23 might have suffered even more casualties. This
would tally with reports indicating that South African snipers in the
intervention brigade killed scores of Makenga's men.
Rumours of Rwandan support have, as usual, also flared up - although
on this occasion no proof has been delivered. On a different note: many
M23 combatants do wear Rwandan uniforms (without the flag tag) but at
least as many wear Congolese uniforms and others have Ugandan, US, UK,
or Belgian fatigues. While nothing should be ruled out, the most
plausible analysis is that M23 is consolidating its forces between
Rutshuru, Bunagana, and Cyanzu and possibly regaining strength through
taxation of incomes and is reorganisating its battalions.
M23's propaganda channels have been surprisingly active in announcing
how many hostile combatants had been captured and held in good
conditions. Whilst they are generally cordial and open in their dealings
with foreign visitors, almost no outsiders have so far managed to look
behind the scenes of the rebel movement.
The state of the Congolese army
The ramshackle Congolese army appears to have been resurrected (in
operational terms) after a its clear defeat last November when M23 took
Goma and FARDC soldiers added another infamous chapter to their history
by committing mass rapes while retreating to Minova and Bweremana. But
the tide now seems to have turned. Propped up by various commando units
(and perhaps also Republican Guards) the government troops have launched
relatively impressive attacks against M23 positions close to Kibati
since August 22, intensifying on August 23 and 24 and finally August 28
Without public or official word from President Kabila, the
commander-in-chief, this more aggressive and effective stance by the
FARDC is difficult to explain. Headed by the Chief of Land Forces,
General Olenga, and the Army Chief of Staff, General Etumba, the FARDC
is led by a former bartender in Germany and a well-established career
general whose shady networks have given rise to all sorts of
speculation. Colonel Mamadou Ndala, the officer in charge of anti-M23
operations, employs an attitude reminiscent of Olenga's statements and
has, so far, transformed them into concrete military action. This was
widely supported and backed up by MONUSCO. Etumba has, however, been
criticised by civil society activists and local journalists for
sabotaging FARDC supply lines.
A further reason for the FARDC's improved battlefield performance may
lie in a recent massive reshuffling of senior positions. Numerous
generals have been retired while others were newly appointed. Despite
including a range of fresh brigadiers with doubtful track records in
terms of conduct and unit oversight, these measures have coincided with
the turning point in M23-FARDC combat. On the battlefield, the recent
desecration of enemy corpses added another chapter in a long list of
MONUSCO's intervention brigade stepping up
In a first step, the intervention brigade rendered all prophecies of
doom ridiculous: even before fully assembling its forces (the Malawian
contingent still has not completely arrived and South African attack
helicopters are scheduled to reach the frontlines soon) it has engaged
in offensive operations alongside the FARDC. Ukrainian helicopters
(which were a part of MONUSCO before the FIB) shot up M23 positions
around the 'three antennae' while South African snipers and artillery
bombarded the rebels from the UN's Munigi base between Goma and Kibati
as early as August 24. With M23 retaliating, one Tanzanian FIB soldier
has been killed in action by mortar shells, while a handful of others
suffered injuries. Despite the fact that FARDC infantry did the main job
of engaging M23's fighters, it can easily be argued that MONUSCO was
instrumental in what turned out to be a preliminary military win by the
Congolese forces with M23 retreating around five kilometres northwards.
Various statements made by new MONUSCO head Martin Kobler and the
military spokesman,Lt.-Col. Felix-Prosper Basse, have underpinned actual
behaviour. During the FIB's military activities, the tone employed was
clearly that of an alliance between DRC troops and the Blue Helmets.
While this certainly allowed for more consistent collaboration on the
ground too, it bears the danger of partiality and too much alignment
towards the FARDC, which is one of the major human rights abusers in
eastern Congo. However, it can also offer increased possibility of
vetting Congolese units. The relative swiftness of last weeks'
MONUSCO-FARDC cooperation could also be attributed to other causes:
troops currently engaged on the Congolese side are mostly commando
divisions disposing of much better military, operational, and probably
even IHL training. But this overtly intensive allegiance to FARDC not
only calls into question the notion of civilian protection which,besides
restoring state authority, is the key job of the Blue Helmets. It also
contributes to MONUSCO's continuing credibility problem.
In July, disorganisation in MONUSCO's hierarchy reduced the coherence
of its public statements and reaction capacity (the SRSG hiatus and the
numerous personnel changes in the higher military echelons were the
main causes of this) the mission's performance has largely improved in
that regard throughout August. Force Commander Dos Santos Cruz of Brazil
and FIB commander James Mwakibolwa of Tanzania do not contradict each
other and seem to pursue similarly tough agenda. Against this backdrop,
the allegation (especially in UN circles) of continued Rwandan support
to M23 is taken for granted - the positioning of Tanzania and South
Africa fits well into this general school of thought.
Tanzania has recently suffered tensions in its relations with Rwanda
when Jakaya Kikwete asked for negotiations with FDLR rebels (bearing in
mind that parts of their senior command are old genocidaires). Paul
Kagame bluntly rejected this suggestion. South Africa is also angry, as
Rwandan secret services repeatedly launched operations to kill exiled
Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former close aide to Kagame (turned
oppositionist) on their soil. That does not mean these two main FIB
protagonists are interested in waging war against Rwanda, but the
intervention brigade's presence and activities is following up on the
political interest to signal to Kigali strong discontent over some of
its recent foreign policy.
Kinshasa's bargaining and Kigali's lurking
Caught in the middle of two wary and differently thinking capitals,
the Kivus in many regards depend on the decisions taken by the Congolese
and Rwandan political establishment. Very quickly, it was obvious that
Kinshasa, and Joseph Kabila in particular, have accommodated an
offensive UN brigade deploying against rebel groups in the unstable
Kabila recently received Kobler in Kinshasa - this initial encounter
was reportedly very cordial and framed by mutual respect. At the same
time, a ministerial delegation was sent to Goma, where they went on a PR
trip to officially deliver assets and items in support of the FARDC's
frontline troops and show solidarity with the people of Goma, as well as
demonstrating unity with MONUSCO. Lambert Mende, the DRC's government
spokesman, admired by many nationalist Congolese while decried by
Rwandans as 'vuvuzela', attempted to back up both the 'hearts and minds'
campaign of the DRC government and MONUSCO as well as to interpret and
multiply any international statement critical of M23 and/or Rwanda.
From Kinshasa's perspective, the military developments made for a
situation in which the Kampala talks are no longer part of perceived
political reality. This viewpoint is, to an extent, justified: Although
rhetorical commitment has been made to the Kampala talks by Kobler, Mary
Robinson, and most of the UN Security Council as well as other key
brokers, few of these actors have placed the diplomatic path over the
military one in the last two weeks. In a joint press conference in Goma
on September 2nd, Robinson is quoted stating that recent military action
was conducive to future peace negotiations. The widespread relevance of
article quinze and système D in DRC politics should serve as a reminder
not to forget pressure on Kinshasa too. Otherwise, the upcoming
concertations nationales (set to start on September 4) between
government, opposition (not UDPS, MLC and UNC though), and civil society
could easily become a farce.
On the Kigali side there is, however, a different picture: The
Rwandan government was silent until shells landed on the soil of Rubavu
disctrict and in Gisenyi's urban areas. First, Brigadier General
Nzabamwita, the RDF's spokesperson, warned against the continuation of
shelling. He firmly declared that subsequent violations of Rwandan
territory could not remain unanswered and pointed the finger at the
FARDC. Chief diplomat Louise Mushikiwabo followed with a similar
statement, while President Kagame did not give any public statement on
the recent events. It can be supposed that Kigali knows very well about
its diplomatic and political leeway in the current situation.
Reports indicate that RDF units have consolidated along the DRC
border while incursions into the latter seem to be happening in
Congolese fantasy for the time being. While Rwanda's announcement to not
stand still in case of further bombs onto their territory is credible
and justified, it is also clear that any action that may result in RDF
opposing (directly or indirectly) UN troops (including Tanzania and
South Africa) would come at a high cost for the Rwandan government too.
The wider conflict topography in eastern Congo
A narrow focus on the M23-FARDC showdown north of Goma has limited
our observations on what else is happening in North and South Kivu.
Certainly, in terms of regional and national stability and security,
these may be second-range events. Being overlooked, they still bear
medium-term risks of impacting on the overall situation as well.
A few frontlines and tension areas to keep in mind are summarised below:
A segment of Raia Mutomboki recently clashed with Mayi Mayi Kifuafua
(a former segment of Raia Mutomboki) in Wanyanga, Walikale territory.
After a series of confrontations throughout the last weeks, these
opponents are reported to have agreed upon a ceasefire brokered by an
alliance of government and customary authorities. An accord was signed
in late August.
Other Raia Mutomboki in Shabunda and Kalehe remain active as well.
Among the South Kivu groups, only the founding chapter referring to Jean
Musumbu (the least active) has approached the government with an offer
of integration. In northern Shabunda, a new coalition of various
chapters and subchapters of the franchise-style militia phenomenon
signed a partnership accord in June. They include a variety of
commanders such as Sisawa Kindo, Donat Kengwa, Daniel Meshe, Albert
Kahasha and others. Since the accord was signed, parts of the
conglomerate not only caused trouble at the margins of Shabunda and
Mwenga but also neutralised each other in internal disagreement during
July and August.
On the Ruzizi Plain (Uvira territory) the fault lines between Barundi
and Bafuliro communities created new troubles. However, as notorious
Major Bede's MCC is reported to be behind many of the security
incidents, this ethnic framing could well be a smoke-screen for
opportunistic politico-military elites such as the
Mufuliro-but-M23-stooge Bede himself. It is unclear to what extent there
might be a link to the remaining splinter groups among the high
plateau's Banyamulenge communities.
A new chapter of failed army integration features the Mayi Mayi
Yakutumba/Aoci saga further south in Fizi. The men of William Amuri
'Yakutumba' have left transit centres in the area (i.e. Sebele) in
absence of proper supplies and to follow up on their previous
businesses. In the course of action, confrontations and skirmishes with
government troops wreaked havoc in the area including urban fighting in
the town of Baraka. One of Yakutumba's main allies, the leader of Mayi
Mayi Aoci, has reportedly been captured by the FARDC.
APCLS, MAC, Sheka - continued troubles in Pinga (Masisi): In
Kashebere, the APCLS of 'General' Janvier Buingo Karairi (the
Hunde-based part of former PARECO) have clashed with Mayi Mayi MAC.
Time and again, the M23 and local resources report incursion by the
FDLR and some parts of a Congolese Hutu militia called Nyatura in the
area of Kiwanja and Rutshuru. Without doubt recent weakening of M23 have
- as the group's infighting in February 2013 did - left security voids
now used by these opponents of M23. Among others, the UN Group of
Experts' current midterm report suggests that these groups also act in
alliance with the FARDC.
Around Ituri, FRPI forces of renegade commander Cobra Matata
reignited their combat against FARDC troops (fighting centred around the
town of Gety) and triggered the forced displacement of thousands.
Meanwhile, the ADF-Nalu situation at the shores of Lake Edward remains
highly volatile. Local communities and humanitarian actors face
insecurity since recent ADF activities and the exodus of over 50,000
Regional and international actors
Leaving Congolese ground, a short scan of regional actors beyond
Rwanda may be surprising. Both the AU and the ICGLR have been unusually
quiet. Is the AU overstretched with Egypt, Mali, Somalia, and the
Central African Republic? Has SADC's military approach in the guise of
the MONUSCO intervention brigade prevailed over the diplomatic ICGLR
version fostering Kampala talks? Yoweri Museveni has now called another
ICGLR summit - possibly to deflect tensions exacerbated by the Gisenyi
shelling and the subsequent military build-up of RDF along Rubavu.
Late July this year, a high-profile meeting on the ongoing turmoil in
eastern DRC took place. Scheduled as a 'ministerial meeting', the world
body's 7011th session was chaired by US Secretary of State John Kerry
(presiding as US representative), UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon,
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Ban's Special Envoy to the Great
Lakes Mary Robinson, AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra,
the Foreign Ministers of DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda (Raymond Tshibanda,
Louise Mushikiwabo, and Sam Kutesa), and other high-level diplomats.
Attendees also included the US's new Special Envoy to the Great Lakes,
Russ Feingold, and MONUSCO's new head, SRSG Martin Kobler.
Main concerns at the New York level remain centred on the
intervention brigade's ability to operationally take up the challenge of
dealing with several armed groups at the same and live up to purely
military expectations. Their ability to limit civilian distress while
chasing militias will also be a major factor as increased humanitarian
disaster is the last thing eastern Congo needs. With MONUSCO's
strengthened alignment to the DRC government and FARDC during Martin
Kobler's first weeks in office, the general UN stance appears to have
become even more critical toward M23. France, as a permanent member of
the Security Council and with former top-diplomat Ladsous at the helm of
DPKO, plays a key role in this positioning resulting in a
Rwanda-critical attitude as well.
After the skirmishes that marked the first offensive MONUSCO
engagement and brigade casualty, the French pushed for a strong
condemnation of M23 that was ultimately blocked by Rwanda. It has also
called for the Security Council's most recent briefing on the situation,
after which M23 was condemned. As with the crisis in Syria, on eastern
Congo France and the US appear to be more or less close allies, with the
UK slightly adrift. In early September, Mary Robinson, Russ Feingold,
and others are starting a visit to the region to upscale international
diplomatic efforts in the aftermath of this most recent Goma crisis.
GWOT - the Goma War On Twitter
On Twitter, Facebook and other social networking websites to a lesser
degree, the conflict is neatly represented by the accompanying battles
over supremacy of commentary. M23 has, almost since its creation, been
present through a number of 'corporate accounts' (@m23congodrc and
@m23marscongo) and individual representatives (@kazaramavianney,
@bbisimwa, @renabandi, and @benjioldman). The FARDC just recently joined
the online fight (@FARDC13, it is doubtful that it is an official FARDC
account, but it is at least a very well-connected individual close to
the FARDC). There are a vast number of individuals either pushing for
the FARDC's or M23's cause across Twitter. On the DRC government side,
government spokesperson Lambert Mende (@lambert_mende) is the only
salient voice. While none of the accounts have received any verification
sign by Twitter, there is reason to believe they are to large extent
authentic. Rwanda, in turn, has a verified account at government level
with President Paul Kagame (@paulkagame). Much more vocal than the Head
of State, however, is Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo
(@lmushikiwabo), while Rwandan Defence Minister James Kabarebe
(@kabarebejames) is also present.
Both on pro- and anti-M23 sides, among advocates for DRC and for
Rwanda, there are plenty of private individuals, journalists, officials
acting in private capacity and others (such as expatriates based in the
region and international observers) engaging in the GWOT. Many moderate
and impartial observers here merge with some of the most radical
lunatics bordering on the sphere of hate speech.
The shelling of Goma was 'an event' on Twitter as well, connected to
reporting from the ground and speculation that largely did not come from
individuals based in the region. While up to now it is unclear how the
shelling actually happened, the twitter event 'shelling of Goma and
Rubavu' has developed a virtual existence independent from the actual
incidents. This is similar to earlier events such as the alleged
presence of RDF soldiers on Congolese soil (which turned out to be wrong
in almost all cases) and the ethnically motivated persecution of
Rwandans in Goma (which turned out to be wrong in many cases, while true
in many others). After all, the whole twitter conundrum makes a case
for specific research concentrating on the conflicts seen from and
carried out on Twitter (as well as other social networking sites).
Concluding Remarks and Outlook
Congo's east is not at rest, as so often has been the case throughout
the past two decades. These days, many aspects of the crisis appear
especially massive, both on the side of threats (regional involvements,
multitude of armed actors, etc.) and opportunities (Addis Ababa Peace,
Security, and Cooperation Framework of ICGLR, political commitment of UN
and others, etc.). One big thing, however, is still missing. Without
prejudice to the Kampala talks, concertations nationales, intervention
brigade involvement, (all of those in theory have a chance to change
things for the better for the concerned populations) there is still no
complete approach. Such a thing would include different, well-matched
layers of diplomatic efforts and negotiation:
1. On the regional level, serious dialogue between Kinshasa and Kigali.
2. On the national level, Kampala talks with the commitment of both
parties and credible concertations nationales with the participation of
all stakeholders (both subsequently merged into one national dialogue
3. On the local level(s), tailored peace talks and integration
efforts for all non-state armed groups (while not lumping all together
but still streamlined, coordinated by an impartial oversight committee),
relined by a new, creative, and sustainable effort in DDR and SSR
combining donor commitment and government willingness.
This may well sound ambitious, but complexity certainly demands for holistic but sophisticated approaches.
Christoph Vogel is a Mercator Fellow on International Affairs. He tweets in personal capacity @ethuin and blogs at www.christophvogel.net.