Last week, news came over the wire that all the countries of the Great Lakes region had agreed to send a neutral force to attack the M23 and FDLR rebels. Can it be? Are we entering into a new phase of the Congolese crisis?
Maybe, but we should reserve some healthy skepticism.
First, a few words about the deal itself (it can be read here), which was the result of consultations among members of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). The most important points are:
- The ICGLR will work with the AU and the UN to create a neutral force "to eradicate M23, FDLR and all other Negative Forces in the Eastern DRC;
- The Congolese and Rwandan governments should operationalize the Joint Verification Mechanism and open it to other ICGLR member states;
- The UN should help create a new (old) team of Special Envoys led (again) by Benjamin Mkapa and Olusegun Obasanjo;
- The ICLGR will set up its own Group of Experts to compile a report (on what?) for the Conference.
I will skip over some of these points, although some of them, like sending Obasanjo back to the region, have raised many eyebrows. One might also wonder why we need another Group of Experts - is it to fact-check the UN Group of Experts? (Hint: yes).
Of course, the most important decision was the creation of a new military mission. The details are supposed to be hammered out in a bilateral meeting in Uganda on August 7.
The geo-politics is intriguing: It apparently took a lot of convincing to make the Rwandan government accept to give M23 the same "negative forces" status as the FDLR, and some say the Ugandan foreign minister helped pressure Rwanda into accepting this deal. The South Africans, who are now at the helm of the African Union and have their own axe to grind with Rwanda over the Kayumba Nyamwasa assassination attempt in their country, were also reportedly outspoken.
In any case, it would indeed be a sight to behold if AU troops were deployed to hunt down M23 officers in the hills of Runyoni. But will this ever happen?
Deploying such a mission will require political will and deep pockets, two factors that have been in relatively short supply with regards to these questions in the past. As a reminder, the region wanted MONUC to have the role of hunting down the FDLR in its initial mandate, but the UN Security Council demurred. As recent as 2005, an African Union force of 10,000 was tabled to pursue FDLR and other "negative forces" in the region, but it never materialized.
Given this past, did the ICLGR bite off more than it can chew? Some Congolese diplomats I have spoken with worry that by asking too much, the ICGLR is setting itself up for failure. Why not pursue the more achievable goal of creating mixed patrols out of Congolese, Rwanda and UN troops along the Rwandan border, across which the alleged supply lines for the M23 pass? This could have been set up relatively quickly, whereas a neutral force could take months of not years to deploy, during which time the situation on the ground could change. Was this not a way, these diplomats asked, to win some time for the M23 to advance?
In the meantime, the diplomatic dance has continued. US Special Advisor Barry Walkley visited Kigali two weeks ago and met with foreign minister Louise Mushikwabo; the message was reportedly stern, and the answer unsurprising. There have also been calls between Washington and Kigali, and the US has cut a symbolic amount of $200,000 in military support to Rwanda, and has canceled a couple high-levels trips to Kigali. However it is less clear whether the visit by British Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell to Kigali was similarly critical.
In the meantime, the situation is changing on the ground. According to several reports, a coalition of Mai-Mai and Raia Mutomboki took control of Walikale this morning. They suggest that Tsheka Ntaberi, a notorious Mai-Mai commander, figured in this coalition. This raises the possibility that the offensive is linked to the M23, as Tsheka has had tight links with Bosco Ntaganda and other ex-CNDP commanders in the past. Also, there are reports from both South Kivu and Ituri that M23 has been intensifying its outreach efforts to armed groups there, as already was documented in the UN Group of Experts report; it is not yet clear how successful these efforts have been.
So back to the initial question: Can a neutral force save the Kivus? Perhaps, although it would be a further militarization of an already militarized approach to the conflict in the region. But more to the point, it is far from sure than such a force will ever materialize.