Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Who is the M23?

I have been getting a lot of questions about the M23, its origins and goals. I suggest you read my recent report, written for the Rift Valley Institute's Usalama Project, on just that. For those interested in understanding the critical historical and social background to the conflict in North Kivu, you should also read our backgrounder. The French translations will be out soon.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Who is General Francois Olenga?

This post has been revised since it was first published. 

 Two days ago, President Kabila removed Major-General Gabriel Amisi as head of the Congolese land forces, one of the most powerful positions in the military. Amisi, aka Tango Four, was a well-known racketeer, who had made a fortune from kickbacks and embezzlement in the army, and who has also been cited for grave human rights abuses, including the May 2002 Kisangani massacre. Yesterday, Kabila named Lieutenant-General Francois Olenga as his replacement.

The rot in the Congolese army runs deep; naming a new commander will not change the way things are done. But we should still ask - who is Olenga?

Olenga, who is from the Kusu ethnic group of northern Maniema, emigrated to Europe when he was young, graduating from the University of Paris in 1972. He has been an important, if discrete player in Kinshasa since the days of Laurent Kabila. Leaving his home in Germany, where his family still lives (he speaks fluent German), he fought in the AFDL to topple Mobutu, taking advantage of his connections in eastern Europe to organize weapons shipments, which got him named as the head of logistics for the Congolese army in 1997. He kept up this role until recently, traveling often abroad to organize supplies for the Congolese army. In 2002, he was cited by a UN investigation for using money from the state MIBA diamond mining company to purchase weapons for the army. He has also been accused by local human rights groups of having killed a street child for stealing his phone.

This is not the first time Olenga has been head of the land forces. When Laurent Kabila was assassinated in January 2001, Olenga replaced Joseph Kabila as the commander in this position for two years, overseeing some of the most important operations against the Rwandan army. In this sense, Kabila is falling back on a trusted commander with experience in similar offensives. This morning, he was already inspecting troops on the front line in Minova.

In July 2005, Olenga was named as Inspector General of the army, a job he kept until last week. But this oversight body was never functional and Olenga kept a low profile.

Susan Rice and the M23 crisis

As the M23 crisis has unfolded in the eastern Congo, the US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has emerged as a holdout within American foreign policy, a sort of minority report to the prevailing criticism of Rwanda and the M23.

The first indication of this emerged in June, when Rice delayed the publication of UN Group of Experts' interim report, insisting that Rwanda be given a chance to see the report first and respond. While these UN investigations are supposed to give the accused the opportunity to respond and explain––the Group says it was refused meetings by the Rwandan government, which Kigali denies––they rarely allow them to see the entire report before publication. In any case, the Group finally did brief a Rwandan delegation in New York in June in New York (unsurprisingly, the Rwandan rejected the report as flawed) and the report was released.

Rice emerged as skeptic within a State Department that had largely accepted Rwanda's role in backing the M23. Both Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson and Special Envoy Barry Walkley have told Kigali explicitly to stop supporting M23. According to sources within the Obama administration, Rice has weighed in during these conversations, even when they do not directly relate to the United Nations.

According to an international NGO that follows Security Council politics closely, "Rice isn't convinced that support is ongoing––maybe [there was some] in the past, but not now." Others point to her skepticism at the UN Group of Experts reports and their methodology.

Her latest controversial step was to block the explicit naming of Rwanda and Uganda in this week's UN Security Council resolution, condemning the M23 occupation of Goma. As in previous statements, the body demanded that "any and all outside support to the M23 cease immediately." Other Council members had wanted to name Rwanda explicitly, but Rice demurred, arguing that this would not be constructive in a process in which Rwanda must be part of the solution. Rice's supporters say that this was simply the official US position, and she was following orders from Washington.

Rice's relationship with Rwanda goes back to the Clinton administration, when she began her diplomatic career. She worked on the National Security Council from 1993 to 1997, rising to become the Senior Director for African Affairs. Infamously, she is quoted as having asked in a cabinet meeting during the Rwandan genocide what its impact would be on the mid-term congressional elections.

Guilt over her inaction during the genocide––when she was still in a more junior position––and frustration with first Mobutu and then Laurent Kabila fueled her sympathy toward Rwanda. By 1997, Rice had been named Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. When the Second Congo War broke out in 1998, Rice was at the helm of a US policy that, according to colleagues of her at the time, did not denounce Rwandan abuses or involvement in the eastern Congo during this period. As Howard Wolpe, the US Special Envoy at the time, told me about Rwandan involvement in this war: "We just didn't know what was going on, most of the reports about abuses were coming from the Catholic Church and we didn't know what to make of them." For many, including Rice, the Congolese government was corrupt and inept, Rwanda's was efficient and had good security imperatives to justify their involvement in the Congo. (An excellent, if controversial, account of this era is a 2002 article by Peter Rosenblum in Current History.)

Now, however, the predominant mood in the State Department seems to have shifted to become more critical of Rwandan interference in the Congo. Past wars have brought suffering and few solutions, the FDLR threat, while still present, is much diminished. 

Rice is now favored by President Obama to become the next Secretary of State, a choice that, according to a Rwandan official, "would make many in Kigali happy. Rice understand us."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The politics of the fait accompli

As the M23 engages in urban warfare in Goma (the latest news is that they have taken the town) one wonders what their strategy could be. While unfolding of the M23 rebellion has involved a lot of shooting from the hip––from all sides, including Kigali, the M23, and Kinshasa––one would imagine that by now, a strategy would have coalesced. So what is it?

In the past, I have speculated that it will be difficult for the M23 to conquer and hold territory, mostly due to their lack of manpower, which started off at around 400-700 and is probably around 1,500-2,500 now. They have been able to rely on Rwandan (and, to a lesser degree, Ugandan) firepower for operations close to the border (in particular Bunagana and Rutshuru, allegedly also this recent offensive), the farther into the interior they get, they harder it will be to mask outside involvement.

Alliances with other groups­­––Sheka, Raia Mutomboki, FDC, etc.––have acted as force multipliers, but have been very fickle, as the surrender of Col Albert Kahasha last week proved. From this perspective, the M23 strategy could well be more to nettle the government, underscore its ineptitude, and hope that it will collapse from within.

However, the recent offensive on Goma has made me consider another, bolder alternative. If the rebels take Goma, thereby humiliating the UN and the Congolese army, they will present the international community with a fait accompli. Yes, it will shine a sharp light on Rwandan involvement, but Kigali has been undeterred by donor pressure thus far, and has been emboldened by its seat on the Security Council. Also, as the looting by the Congolese army and their distribution of weapons to youths in Goma has shown, the battle for Goma is as much of a PR disaster for Kinshasa as for Kigali.

In any case, at least in the short term, if Goma falls, donors––and probably the Congolese government––will have no choice but to deal with the rebels and call on Rwanda to help. Already, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called on President Kagame to “use his influence on the M23 to help calm the situation and restrain M23 from continuing their attack."

This is the magical and perverse logic of the fait accompli. Of course, this assumes that donors do not change tack and permanently cut aid to Rwanda. But this would not only go against entrenched aid bureaucracies, but also antagonize the only government that can quickly bring an end to the conflict.

This is just speculation for now. And it leaves many questions in suspense. Such as: take Goma as a stepping stone for what? Genuine talks or as an interlude to a further push (as the M23 have suggested) toward Bukavu? Although a Congolese delegation has reportedly flown to Kampala to negotiate discretely, I still have a hard time envisioning a compromise between the two sides. Just try to imagine Sultani Makenga and Bosco Ntaganda integrated back into the army as generals and you will know what I mean.

Thoughts are welcome.

What's going on in Goma - a timeline

This article has been updated.

 The escalation we've all been fearing has taken place. How did this unfold? Here is a rough timeline, including some possibly unrelated events:
  • Sunday, November 11:
    • Belgium halts its small military cooperation plan with Rwanda and says it wants to push for further sanctions against the country;
  • Monday, November 12:
    • The Ugandan government, under fire for supporting the M23, closes its Bunagana border post, where the rebels had been gathering tax revenue;
  • Tuesday, November 13:
    • One of the main allies of the M23, Colonel Albert "Fokka Mike" Kahasha surrenders in Bukavu with thirty-five other soldiers;
  • Wednesday, November 14: 
    • The US Treasury and the United Nations put Sultani Makenga on their sanctions lists;
  • Thursday, November 15: 
    • Fighting begins in Kibumba, 30km north of Goma, bringing an end to the three month-long ceasefire. Kibumba was the main defensive position for Goma, and the Congolese army, which had dug in here with several thousand troops, initially pushed back the M23. There were reports from the United Nations of heavy casualties on the rebel side;
  • Saturday, November 17: 
    • The M23 launches an early morning offensive and succeeds at pushing back the Congolese army, despite support from UN attack helicopters. According to the local civil society, foreign journalists on the ground and the Congolese army, the Rwandan army participated in this offensive, crossing the border around Kabuhanga or Kasizi. This attack also put the 16,000 households in the Kanyaruchina IDP camp on the run toward Goma;
    • At the same time, the M23 pushed back Congolese army positions in Kalengera and Mabenga, two different front lines 30km and 60km north of Kibumba, respectively. The Congolese army was reported to have used local militia here to tie down M23 positions;
    • The UN Security Council condemns the M23 offensive and warns them not to take Goma. Other diplomats follow suit, including the US, the UK and the EU;
  • Sunday, November 18: 
    • The fighting reaches Goma, with M23 infiltrating units behind the front lines, giving the impression that the Congolese army is being attacked from behind. "Tunavipata kwa kifua na matako," one officer told me. (We're getting it in the chest and the buttocks);
    • The Congolese opposition leader Vital Kamerhe calls for negotiations with the M23.
    • A high-level Congolese military delegation arrives in Goma, along with reinforcements from South Kivu;
    • After the Kibumba defeat, the morale of the Congolese army plummets and several units take to looting in Goma;
  •  Monday, November 19:
    • Fighting escalates in Goma, as Congolese army units withdraw from parts town, briefly giving M23 control;
    • In frustration, the Congolese army lobs mortars across the border, killing several Rwandan civilians. Unconfirmed reports suggests that Rwanda responded in kind, hitting several locations––including a gas station––in Goma;
    • Various reliable sources, including the UN, suggest that Rwandan army troops briefly cross the border, but withdraw by nightfall;
    • Several eyewitnesses see the Congolese army distributing weapons to youths or militiamen from Masisi as army units flee town;
    • The M23 call for Goma to be demilitarized and for negotiations with the government. The government refuses, but there are rumors that a high-level delegation left Kinshasa for Kampala;
    • The French government is due to propose a Security Council resolution that would probably include condemnation of Rwanda;
  • Tuesday, November 20:
    • The Congolese army redeploys in most of Goma, including at the airport and by the border, while fighting continues in town.
    • By 2pm, however, the M23 had advanced to control the airport and much of the town.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fighting north of Goma - the end of the ceasefire?

Fighting began early this morning north of Goma, around the Congolese army's defensive positions in Kibumba. According to various sources––including the Congolese army and the UN peacekeeping mission––the M23 launched the attack, pushing down toward Goma. While the M23 deny this, saying they had been provoked, there have been M23 troop movements observed in the past days that suggest that they had been preparing an attack.

We know that, at least for now, the offensive was pushed back by the Congolese army. But it's more difficult to figure out casualties. The North Kivu governor told the press that 44 M23 soldiers had died, and UN sources report having seen over a dozen bodies on the front lines.

Kibumba is the Congolese's army's main defensive position to the north of Goma, around 25 kilometers from the provincial capital. Under the command of Colonel Somo, one of the Belgian-trained officers, there are now reportedly over 3,000 army troops deployed in the surroundings, many of them dug into trenches. The Congolese army was quick to boast of its success, also claiming that they had been attacked from the Rwandan border at the town of Kasizi, just east of Kibumba.

It would appear that we are heading toward the end of ceasefire. While there have been skirmishes in Masisi and Rusthuru in recent weeks, these appear to have involved proxy groups on both sides––Mai-Mai working in collaboration with the Congolese army north and east of Rutshuru town, and M23 allies in central and northern Masisi. This appears to have been the first major fighting directly between M23 and the Congolese army in several months.

This does not mean that these other allies are quieting down––at the same time as the Kibumba fighting took place, there were reports that forces allied to the Congolese army pushed toward Rutshuru town from the north, coming into Mabenga village, with shooting heard as far south as Kiwanja. Also, fighting has been reported to the north of Bunagana on the Ugandan border since Saturday, some local sources suggest that this may be local Hutu militia, that are working in collaboration with the Congolese army.

The M23 has also been using its alliances––on Monday, a coalition of Sheka Mai-Mai and local militiamen allied to the M23 pushed the Congolese army out of Pinga, in northern Masisi territory, after killing several soldiers. And M23 allies, led by FDLR defector 'Colonel' Mandevu and ex-CNDP Colonel Eric Badege, have been nettling army positions in central Masisi, around Kilolirwe, in recent weeks.

This use of (often unreliable, ramshackle) allies on both sides is dangerous, as it brings the fighting to civilians and undermines any semblance of chain of command.

It is unclear whether the fighting today marks the end of the ceasefire that has held for several months as talks have been pursued in Kampala. But rumors were circulating today, especially within the Tutsi community in Goma, that M23 will be trying to take the town. Not the first time such rumors have been spread––and the M23 are known to use psychological warfare––but a warning that should be heeded, nonetheless.

Monday, November 12, 2012

From the CNDP to M23

Last week, we published a report on M23, tracing its roots back through the CNDP to deeper history. What is the take home message from the report?

The CNDP (2004-2009) and the M23 (2012-) emerged out of the failures of the Congolese peace process. The negotiations that began in Lusaka in 1999 and culminated in the Accord global et inclusif in 2002 succeeded in unifying the country, but also disadvantaged one of the strongest belligerents. The Rwandan-backed RCD went from controlling a third of the country to 2-4 per cent representation in national institutions. In response, elites in Goma and Kigali created the CNDP, led by Laurent Nkunda, to maintain leverage on Kinshasa and to protect their interests in the East. These interests are varied, and include economic investments, security fears, and the general perception that North Kivu lies within Rwanda's sphere of interest.

These movements draw on deep historical grievances, but are propelled mainly by military and political elites. The CNDP and M23 are led mostly by Congolese Tutsi and have deep roots in this community. Especially during CNDP times, there were mobilization cells across the region, and even in the US and Europe, that gathered funds and represented the movement. There is no doubt that many in this community saw the CNDP as a vital protection against an abusive and often xenophobic state. However, the main instigators were Congolese Tutsi officers––people like Nkunda, Bosco, and Makenga––and, in particular, the government in Kigali. Interviews with dozens of ex-CNDP officers show clearly that, while the CNDP maintained a large degree of autonomy from its Rwandan allies, Kigali was crucial in the creation of the group in 2004-2006 and then in leading it to the gates of Goma in October 2008. During the M23, this influence has become even more decisive, as Kigali stepped in to prop up a foundering mutiny in April 2012 and has been a key factor in all its military offensives.

The CNDP and M23 are Tutsi-led movements; this does not mean that community is united or a puppet of Rwanda. Many Congolese lump all Tutsi together, from both sides of the border. It is true that many Congolese Tutsi fought for the RPF's in Rwanda's civil war (1990-1994), and have featured prominently in all Rwandan-backed rebellions in the Congo. But deep tensions have emerged between Congolese Tutsi and the RPF. Many of the former have a deep sense of belonging in the Congo, and feel that the RPF has not looked after their interests. An example of this was the Murekezi mutiny of 11 November 1997 (exactly 15 years ago), which pitted Congolese Tutsi against the RPF, as well as similar mutinies in South Kivu. These tensions have grown, and the M23 seems to be a turning point in relations. A majority of Congolese Tutsi officers have refused to join the mutiny, and have been used by Kinshasa in the front line against the M23. Even those who have joined the M23, such as Sultani Makenga and even Bosco Ntaganda, often have difficult relations with Kigali––the arrest of Nkunda by the RDF in 2009 created mistrust among top CNDP officers, especially the Makenga wing.

The M23 has a much narrower social base than previous movements. The cornerstone of Rwanda's strategy between 1998-2003 was to create a communal alliance between Banyarwanda in the eastern Congo, if possible extending it to other groups, as well. Thus, Congolese Hutu and Banyamulenge (Tutsi from South Kivu) featured prominently in the RCD. When the CNDP was created in 2004-2006, Rwanda and Nkunda tried to revive this alliance. This strategy, however, failed, with Hutu strongman Eugène Serufuli leading the defection of several thousand Hutu soldiers from the CNDP in 2005-6. The M23 has an even narrower base––aside from a few officers, the military leadership is almost entirely Tutsi, with very few Hutu or Banyamulenge joining. (The group has a very multi-ethnic political wing, but few of these leaders have much legitimacy in their communities, with the somewhat bizarre exception of the Nande).

The group's strategy relies more on creating instability than on taking and controlling territory. Precisely because the group has a narrow social base, it has been hard pressed to take much territory. Besides the lack of cross-ethnic alliances, the group had a manpower problem––they started off with 300–700 men, and have since grown to 1,500-2,500. Despite military backing from Uganda and Rwanda (whose troops do not want to venture too far from their borders), this makes conquering and holding territory difficult. The group has therefore relied on a web of alliances with other Congolese groups. But, since their historical Hutu and Banyamulenge allies have refused to go along, the M23 have sought out more opportunistic alliances, often among communities that are historically deeply anti-Rwandan. These alliances––the Raia Mutomboki, Sheka's group, the FDC, Bede Rusagara, Mbusa Nyamwisi––are volatile, as many of the groups have no love lost for the M23 or Rwanda, but their interests (fighting against Kinshasa) happen to converge for now. The M23 will not be able to use these alliances to conquer territory, but rather to highlight the derelict nature of the Congolese state and the need for a change of leadership in Kinshasa.

Absent a credible political process, there is likely to be further escalation. The only political channel currently open is through the ICGLR, chaired by Uganda, and which is proposing the deployment of a neutral force to 'eradicate' the M23 and FDLR. Since the Ugandan government, however, has backed the M23, and few countries seem willing to staff or fund the neutral force, this initiative is unlikely to succeed. Kinshasa's strategy, on the other hand, relies on donors putting pressure on Rwanda and Uganda––but donors are reluctant to do so without channeling their pressure into a larger political process. Since the sticks available are limited––the Congolese army is weak and donors are unlikely to lead––the solution will have to pass, at least in part, through negotiations.

A long-term solution will have to grapple with systemic issues. In order for this kind of compromise to be successful, and not to return us to a volatile 2009-style agreement, systemic issues will have to be dealt with. Kigali will have to accept a much-diminished ex-CNDP force in the Kivus, while Kinshasa will have to strengthen its institutions and reassure the Tutsi community. Various policy options should be considered––none of them easy or straight-forward––including decentralization, cross-border economic projects, land reform, and the complete overhaul of the stabilization program for the Kivus. Donors, on their part, can no longer separate Rwanda's admirable development successes from its interference in the Congo. (I will be blogging more in detail on these policy options).  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What is the Usalama Project?

As you may have seen (see previous post), the Rift Valley Institute just launched the Usalama Project, which will publish a dozen reports on armed factions in the eastern Congo over the next year.

So what's this project about?

There are plenty of opinions about the conflict in the Congo, and some excellent policy research on human rights, security sector reform, and governance. However, despite the grinding violence, there is relatively little information out there on the main belligerents. Who are the M23, Raia Mutomboki and Mai-Mai Yakutumba? Why are they fighting and who supports them? Perhaps most importantly, why has conflict died down in some areas of the Congo, such as Ituri and northern Katanga, while it has escalated again in the Kivus?

There have been some answers to these questions, most notably in the reports by the United Nations Group of Experts. But their mandate is limited to reporting on material support networks - taxes, cash contributions, recruitment and military backing. They do not seek to understand the social or historical forces that drive these groups, or - more importantly - their interests and motivations. Other organizations - such as diplomatic missions or the UN peacekeeping mission - compile extensive profiles of armed groups, but do not publish any of their information.

The Usalama Project tries to step into this gap. We are a group of local and foreign researchers, compiling information largely via in-depth interviews with the actors involved in the conflict. For this report on the M23 and CNDP, for example, we interviewed over fifty military officers, politicians, businessmen and civil society leaders who had personal connections with these groups. Some of these interviews span days and take up to ten hours.

We understand these groups as arising out of particular social circumstances - some are driven by elite interest groups, others form as grassroots self-defense groups. All draw on, albeit in different ways, a long history of conflict in the region, in which state weakness, the manipulation of identity, and natural resources such as land and minerals have played key roles. Look out for our backgrounders on conflict - the first of which was released on Friday - that flesh out these histories.

In the coming weeks, we will have our own site within the RVI website, where we will post biographies of leaders, key documents on the conflict, and transcripts of some of the interviews. We also will be welcoming feedback on our reports, including constructive criticism. In line with the Rift Valley Institute's ethos, Usalama is not advocacy organization, but seeks rather to inform. In this line, we will put forward policy suggestions, but these are supposed to stimulate debate, not posture as end-all solutions.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Introducing: The Usalama Project



The Rift Valley Institute's Usalama Project is delighted to announce the launch of the first two reports in a series of publications on armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). You can download both reports from our website.

The first Usalama report is an account of the origins and trajectory of the new M23 rebellion and its alleged relationship with the Rwandan government. The second report traces the deeper history of conflict in the CNDP's and M23's stronghold, North Kivu province.
From CNDP to M23: The evolution of an armed movement in Eastern Congo
The first report explores the roots of the latest rebellion in the eastern DRC. It also discusses the implications of the rebellion for Rwanda and Uganda, who have been accused by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC and by Human Rights Watch of aiding and abetting the M23. 'Despite the Congolese army's sporadically strong resistance, well-armed M23 soldiers have dealt it several humiliating defeats and are trying to assemble a broad coalition with other armed groups in the region,' says the report author, Usalama Project director Jason Stearns. 'This crisis has the potential to destabilize the eastern DRC, as well as the government in Kinshasa, and has set in motion social and political dynamics that will be hard to reverse.'

North Kivu: The background to conflict in  North Kivu province of eastern Congo 
The second Usalama Project report describes the historical context of the current conflict in the eastern DRC. The province has been the epicentre of war in the DRC and has generated a multitude of armed groups, with more than two dozen emerging over the past two decades. It was here that the precursors to the Congo wars began with ethnic violence in 1993, and it is here that the most formidable challenges to stability in the country persist today. The report sketches the historical backdrop to these conflicts, describing their social, political, and economic dynamics.
We hope you enjoy these first two reports. The third, The PARECO coalition and Hutu resistance in North Kivu, is due for publication in early December. Further reports on the armed groups of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri will be published at regular intervals during 2013. Please feel free to circulate these reports among colleagues and friends. French versions will follow in late November.