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

Saturday, November 16, 2013

How the Congolese army perceives itself

During the recent military escalation in the Kivus, the Congolese army fared far better than in the past, defeating a weakened M23. While the army leadership made an effort to streamline the chain of command and to ensure adequate supplies, army reform will have to be far more deep-rooted.

It is interesting to see how Congolese officers themselves see the challenge. In February of this year, the army high command invited around 120 senior officers to Kinshasa for a seminar on army reform––it was an excuse to remove them from the field, where they were clogging up the military hierarchy and, in the case of some, embezzling funds. But many of them are highly qualified officers, and when they were asked to produce an analysis of the army's defeat to the M23 in Goma in November 2012, they came up with a telling and damning document.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What's left to save in Kampala?

On Monday, the peace talks in Kampala seemed to (again) be on the verge of success. The M23 and the Congolese government delegations were on their way to State House, and international envoys said both sides had agreed on the eleven articles of the agreement. At the last minute, however, the deal fell apart––over the simple issue of a title.

The Congolese refuse to sign an "agreement" (accord) and merely want to issue a "declaration" to conclude the talks. The M23 and the Ugandan mediation, meanwhile, are pushing for a formal, binding agreement.

The Congolese––who have been blamed by the Ugandan mediation for the failure, and who in their turn blame Museveni––don't see why they should sign a binding agreement with an organization that no longer exists. "No country in history has signed an agreement with a movement that has declared its own dissolution," said the Congolese information minister. The Congolese delegation is under pressure from a Congolese public that never liked the Kampala talks and is all the more opposed now that the M23 has been militarily defeated. Meanwhile, the M23 leadership, who have little to gain personally by signing a deal, as they are unlikely to receive any high-ranking positions, don't want to hand the Congolese a diplomatic victory on top of the military one. 

They seemed to be backed in this position by the Ugandan facilitation, who, after all, has most of their military leaders in custody. The Ugandans immediately blamed the Congolese, saying they had been given a long time to study the agreement and refused even to enter the room with the M23. The Ugandans later made a semi-veiled threat, saying the M23 "can still regroup," something that would only be possible with Ugandan complicity, as the M23 rebels are now largely in the custody of their army. 

Why is a deal still important? For several reasons. First, there could be over 2,500 M23 soldiers still at large––390 have turned themselves over to the Congolese army, around 150 surrendered to the UN mission, over 600 are in Rwanda since Bosco Ntaganda's defection last April, and the Ugandans claim (although it begs credulity) that there are 1,700 on their soil. The peace deal would have given amnesty for crimes of insurrection and could have paved the way for the rank-and-file, at least, to come back home and enter demobilization or army integration. Now they are sitting around, an accident waiting to happen. This was the argument that Martin Kobler, the head of the UN mission, made yesterday.

Secondly, a peace deal would clearly state that there will be no amnesty for war crimes or crimes against humanity, at least theoretically preventing the Congolese from striking any deals with commanders with blood on their hands (although those deals are fairly unlikely now).

Finally, a peace deal would allow for the diplomatic process to continue. It would allow President Museveni's role––as controversial as it was––to be officially recognized, and bring the Kampala talks to a close. It would allow for Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda to put the M23 behind them and move forward on substantive issues of regional integration and dealing with other armed groups, such as the FDLR and ADF-Nalu. And it would marginalize the top M23 leadership, like Sultani Makenga and Innocent Kaina. 

For now, however, a peace deal seems a long way off. The international envoys have left Kampala, a war of blame has started between Kampala and Kinshasa, and only a small skeleton crew remains at the negotiation table. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Kabila's choice: reforms or survival?

Following the national concertations in Kinshasa in early October, President Kabila gave a speech in which he announced, in the interest of national unity, the formation of a "government of national cohesion." Now, a month later, there are signs that Kabila will move soon to set up this government. When he does so, he will have a difficult choice: keep the current prime minister and maintain course on state reforms; or bring in someone who can help him rally the political elite around him.

Prime Minister Matata Ponyo, who has been in office since April 2012, has been able to make modest progress on improving governance, especially with regards to the economy and state finances. He is particularly popular with the donor community, who think that he has been able to name some competent technocrats to various ministries and has inspired a new élan in government. Many soldiers and state officials are now paid directly through bank accounts and through mobile cash transfers; ministers are more transparent in their interactions with journalists; and inflation has remained negligible. (Although the cours des comptes recently released a damning audit of state finances.) If Kabila wants someone who can keep up this progress, then Matata and his team might be the best bet.

But is this Kabila's priority? The president is about the plunge into a difficult period in the run-up to the end of his term in 2016. Due to constitutional term limits, he will then have to hand over the reins to someone else or change the constitutional term limits––which is explicitly forbidden by Article 220 of the 2006 constitution. A third option is also increasingly being floated: just deferring elections, much like Gbagbo did in the Ivory Coast, for several years, using the national census and funding problems as a pretext.

As the president enters into this turbulence, it may be more important to have a prime minister who can rally the fractious political elite around him, so they can back whatever delays or legal changes he wants to push through. The current prime minister is a competent technocrat, but (in part, precisely because he comes from a technical background) he does not have much of a political base or the ability to mobilize key power-brokers. What's more, he has angered many bigwigs by clamping down on some of the corruption rackets they were running, and by insisting that heads of political parties are now allowed to participate in the government themselves. In other words, he has made a lot of enemies who are now clamoring for his departure, and the president may be looking for a different skill set in his next PM.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

As the M23 nears defeat, more questions than answers

The new round of fighting between Congolese government forces and the M23 rebels is reaching a dramatic climax. With the Congolese army having swept through all of the major towns that the M23 held––Kibumba, Rumangabo, Rutshuru, Kiwanja, and since this afternoon Bunagana––the  M23 may be nearing its end. This would be historic––it would be the first time the Congolese government had defeated a major rebellion, and it would be the first time since 1996 that an armed group allied to Rwanda is not present in the eastern Congo. It is, however, too soon, to declare an end to the M23, as the rebels reportedly still occupy the hills along the Rwandan border between Runyoni and Tshanzu.

How did we get here? 

The fighting began last Friday morning on the southern frontline, in the area of Kibumba. The resumption of hostilities was not surprising, given that the peace talks in Kampala had fallen apart several days prior. The following day, the Congolese army began a simultaneous offensive on the M23's northern flank, as well, where the army had been massing troops and weapons for several months. Progress was quick––by Saturday, the army had taken control of Kibumba and on Sunday Kiwanja was under their control. By Sunday, the army advanced to Rumangabo, the M23's military base, and Rutshuru, the territorial capital. Today, they took back Bunagana on the Ugandan border, where the M23's political leaders had been staying. After heavy bombardment, Congolese troops were already reported to have scaled the Mbuzi hill and were trying to close in on Runyoni and Tshanzu. 

Africa Defence Review has a summary of the fighting, with a helpful map:

The fighting was heaviest around Kibumba, where the M23 put up a fight and both sides lost troops. Elsewhere, there seems to have been little resistance by the thinly-stretched M23––reports put their total fighting force between 800-1,500 troops. By Tuesday, there were rumors that their military commanders had fled to neighboring Uganda or Rwanda, although none of these could be verified.

But why did this round of fighting turn out so differently than previous ones? How could the Congolese army, usually better known for its indiscipline and racketeering than its military prowess, knock the M23 out so quickly?

Three factors were key, but which was paramount is different to discern for now. There is no doubt that the FARDC is performing much better now than in 2012. Its command structure has been changed and streamlined, beginning with the appointment of General Lucien Bahuma as regional commander in June 2012, and of General François Olenga as land forces commander in December 2012. These commanders have paid more attention to making sure logistics were in place and salaries paid on time, boosting soldiers' morale and enabling the newly-trained commando battalions to do their job. Then, in January 2013, over a hundred officers––many of them from the Kivus––were invited to Kinshasa under the pretext of a seminar on army reform (they are mostly still in Kinshasa today). This simplified the military hierarchy in North Kivu, which had become clogged up with competing chains of command, a coterie of high-ranking officers embezzling funds and issuing contradictory orders. 

The second factor was the United Nations. Observers on the front lines reported that the Congolese soldiers were being issued military rations by the UN, and that UN officers were jointly planning operations with the Congolese army. UN attack helicopters have been providing support, although the bulk of the fighting has been carried out by the FARDC. 

But it may be the third factor that was the determining one––the absence of support from Rwanda. According to several reports from the frontlines, despite indications of some cross-border support in the Kibumba area, the M23 was largely left to its own devices. "The Rwandans just wouldn't pick up their phone calls," one source close to the M23 leadership told me. This is a drastic change from August, when many sources––the UN, Human Rights Watch, and foreign diplomats––all reported hefty support coming across the border. The fact that the M23 did not put up much of a fight in Kiwanja and Rumangabo was another indication that they knew they stood no chance against the superior firepower of the UN and the FARDC. According to several diplomats, the US Secretary of State John Kerry as well as a senior British diplomat called President Paul Kagame last Friday to impress how important it was for Rwanda to sit this out. While similar pressure has been applied before––President Obama called his Rwandan counterpart with a similar message last December––this time it may have just been the final straw for the Rwandan leaders. 

The coming days will be interesting. If the M23 is defeated, the Rwandan, and possibly the Ugandan governments will have to decide whether they will arrest the fleeing leaders or give them amnesty. The Congolese army will be under scrutiny to see how they manage their victory––any revenge attacks or targeting of suspected M23 collaborators could spoil the mood, and many will wait to see if they proceed to target the FDLR as promised. Finally, the impact of a victory on the larger peace process in the region would be powerful. President Kabila, who signed the Framework Agreement last February largely due to pressure from the M23, could shake off some of the pressure on him to carry out national reforms and would be buoyed by the popularity such a victory would certainly bring. 

For the moment, however, we should wait to see what the coming days bring.

There was a typo in the original post. It is the FARDC that is doing the bulk of the fighting.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Kampala imbroglio

President Joseph Kabila expressed the view of many Congolese when he said, during his speech to the country today, that the Kampala talks have dragged on for too long. This despite the optimism that was on display last week as international envoys––Martin Kobler, Modibo Toure, Ibrahim Diarra, and Russ Feingold––converged on Kampala in hope of a deal. And in all-night sessions substantial progress was made, as the Congolese government and M23 agreed on a majority of the issues on the table. This included the release of prisoners; the end of M23 as a rebel movement and the possibility to establish itself as a political party; the return and resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs); and the return of extorted and looted properties during the M23’s brief occupation of Goma in November 2012. The parties even made some progress on transitional security arrangements, although the M23 was still reluctant to talk about redeploying its troops across the country.

At the end, however, everything hinged, unsurprisingly, on the fate of the top M23 leadership. Since the beginning, this had been the main stumbling block. It is practically unconceivable for commanders such as Sultani Makenga and Innocent Kaina––both listed on the UN and US sanctions lists and candidates for war crimes charges––to be reintegrated into the Congolese army. Still, the Congolese delegation seemed to exaggerate––some reports suggested that the list of officers who couldn’t integrate still stands at 133, far higher than the list of 27 that had been spoken about several weeks ago in Kinshasa. But even if Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda––the head of the Congolese delegation––lowers those numbers considerably, it is difficult to imagine the M23 accepting the exclusion of even its top 20 officers. There were also reports that Kabila is now willing to accept a general amnesty for crimes of insurrection (not war crimes or crimes against humanity, obviously) for all M23 officers if they can agree on that list. 

(There was also some talk that the reason for the collapse in talks was that one of the M23 delegates, Roger Lumbala, had insulted Joseph Kabila. It is true that the Congolese are still outraged that Lumbala had said, when he was arrested in Burundi last September, that he would kill Joseph Kabila is he saw him in the street. And the Congolese delegation did demand that Lumbala be excluded from talks. But Lumbala left, and the final plenary took place, so this was not the main problem). 

There is still hope for a deal, although the Congolese main negotiators will be in Kinshasa for some time now, with only a skeleton crew left in Kampala. The next step will probably be for regional powers to discuss the M23 at a joint ICGLR/SADC summit, to take place in South Africa in early November. The danger, as always, is that a unraveling of the talks could lead to another escalation on the ground. This time, if reports from within the UN peacekeeping mission are accurate, the Intervention Brigade may be willing to push further north against the M23, using military pressure to push the M23 and its allies toward a peace deal. Of course, that’s a risky gamble, as a failed offensive could humiliate the UN and embolden the M23 at the negotiation table. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Kabila announces national reforms, a new government

Today President Joseph Kabila finally addressed the nation and a joint session of parliament in Kinshasa. It was his response to the conclusions of the concertations nationales, which had brought together the government, opposition, and civil society to debate the challenges facing the country. The concertations were a strange forum. Proposed by the opposition to deal with the legitimacy crisis following the flawed 2011 elections, then transformed to debate a wide array of challenges facing the country––except the 2011 elections––that would usually be addressed through traditional, constitutional means: parliament, or the court system.

Nonetheless, the concertations produced a substantial list of recommendations, and Kabila seized on several. Most importantly, he said that in the interest of national cohesion he would create a “government of national cohesion.” This probably differs from a government of national union in that the opposition and civil society members will be drafted in as unequal partners. But that is not surprising, as since the beginning it has appeared that the presidency wants to us the concertations as a means to further fragment (an already fragmented) opposition. We can therefore imagine that some MLC (close to Thomas Luhaka) and UFC (close to Kengo wa Dondo) members may join government. This is not a good thing, as it will undermine the opposition and also make the government––which had just begun to become a bit more structured under Prime Minister Matata Ponyo––less manageable.

Matata’s own fate was still in the balance as of this evening. Kabila had not made clear––nor did he mention in his speech––who would lead this new government, and a battle seems to be underway between the technocratic government of Matata and members of Kabila’s inner circle who have felt marginalized since Matata took over 18 months ago. Kabila’s choice seems to be between backing Matata, who is liked by some donors and is key for obtaining grants and credits in the international scene; and people like Aubin Minaku (president of the national assembly) and Evariste Boshab (head of Kabila’s largest political party) who have much more political clout in Kabila’s inner circle, and can help Kabila going into the delicate next 3 years, when he will have to figure out how to deal with his constitutional term limit. 

But there were other important decisions (maybe we should call them exhortations) in Kabila’s speech. He asked for his prosecutors to clamp down on corruption and abuse of power, especially within the army, and to prosecute those supporting armed groups, “regardless of their social status,” and he said he would name a personal representative in charge of sexual violence and child recruitment. He said he would repatriate the bodies of Mobutu Sese Seko and Moise Tshombe, two controversial leaders of the country, in the name of national unity, and that his government would now follow-up (and provide assistance?) to Congolese citizens detained by the International Criminal Court. Importantly, he said he would also create specialized chambers within the Congolese court system to try war crimes and crimes against humanity, for which human rights activists have been clamoring for years.

That was all on a positive note. But there was another decision that could undermine the current constitutional framework. Backing up suggestions by the president of the election commission, Kabila said that he wants a general census to be carried out before the next elections, and that he wants provincial parliamentarians to be elected indirectly. A general census will require means and time, which could delay the electoral calendar. And having provincial MPs elected indirectly by local councilors will mean that senators and governors will be elected through two layers of indirect elections, each of which are susceptible to corruption. Finally, he said he would like to reconsider the proportional system of legislative elections, whereby several candidates are elected in most voting districts. If the Congo adopts a first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system (as in the US) it will privilege the larger, more affluent parties, but will also reduce the current cacophony in the national assembly, where dozens of small parties turns legislating into cat-herding. 

No word, however, in all of this, on how Kabila will deal with the debate––hotter by the month––over his own term, which ends in 2016 and cannot, at least on paper, be renewed.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Controversy erupts over returnees

Controversy has broken out over the alleged presence of up to several thousand Kinyarwanda-speaking returnees in M23 territory.

For several weeks, there has been a steady movement of Congolese refugees into the Kibumba area north of Goma, the southern edge of M23 territory. According to several UN sources, there may be up to 3,000 such returnees in this area, mostly Congolese Tutsi who fled the country, some as long ago as 1994, and were living in refugee camps in Rwanda.

Another group of around 100-200 families then arrived on 30 September further north, in Jomba. According to some sources, these families may be Rwandans who were expelled from Tanzania weeks ago.

Very few of these families are probably from this area––a UN official told me that some of them had tried unsuccessfully to cross toward Masisi, which is probably where many of them are from. Their presence has raised questions. Some think that the M23 could use them as human shields in case of another round of fighting. A UN official told me that, given how close they are to M23 positions, it would make it difficult to employ UN attack helicopters in those areas to the same extent as they did during the August fighting against M23. If their arrival is confirmed, at the very least this is a lack of foresight and regulation by the various authorities, including UNHCR and the Rwandan National Council for Refugees.

The US blocks military aid to Rwanda

Few international news outlets picked this up, but it was an important decision. Yesterday, the US government decided not to grant a waiver to Rwanda for the use of child soldiers. Every year, the White House has to provide waivers to countries that the State Department reports as using child soldiers. This year, that report listed Rwanda as complicit in the recruitment of child soldiers for the M23. Still, the government could have provided a waiver––as it did in the case of four countries––but it chose not to.

This decision is symbolic, as it will probably only affect around $500,000 in training programs for the Rwandan army, but is nonetheless important. It can probably be interpreted as the first official indication in months––the UN Group of Experts report in July suggested that Rwandan support had declined––that members of the international community feel that Rwandan support to the M23 continues. The UN suggested as much in a closed door briefing to the Security Council in late August, but there has been little public pressure on Rwanda. (President Paul Kagame even shared a stage with Elie Wiesel in New York during the General Assembly and discussed health care with Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative).

How many M23 can reintegrate?

The peace talks in Kampala have stalled since President Kabila went to the UN General Assembly. The two week extension announced by the facilitation has expired, and while the parties are set to convene again this week in Kampala––and despite occasions outbursts of optimism from diplomats––there is little sign that much has fundamentally changed.

The main issue is still the fate of the top leadership of the M23. While the M23 has officially claimed that they do not want to integrate into the Congolese army, in practice the talks have revolved around the issue of amnesty and integration for M23 officers. At a meeting in Mbarara around two weeks ago, the Ugandan facilitation pushed the Congolese government––represented by the head of the intelligence service, Kalev Mutond––to be more flexible regarding the issue of amnesty. The initial position of the Congolese was that there should be no "recidivism," as they put it. In other words, those who had already benefited from amnesty in the 2009 deal could not receive a second amnesty for the crime of insurrection. That meant that the entire officer corps of the M23 couldn't integrate. The Congolese, fresh from their victory against the M23 in late August, seemed eager to return to the battlefield.

Since then, the Congolese have relaxed their position a little, without really changing the impasse. On 19 September 2013, Communications Minister Lambert Mende said that they have a list of around 100 people who couldn't integrate. While the M23 might number between 800-1,500 troops, the list of hundred included every single important commander (see here for the list). In recent talks at the UN General Assembly and in Kampala, there are suggestions that the Congolese could go down to 30 or 40 officers.

But is the problem here really the Congolese? It is true that excluding 30+ of the top commanders is tantamount to rejecting any peaceful compromise. But even if the Congolese would be willing to go down to fewer than ten––which some close to Kabila suggest they are––it will still be next to impossible to get the M23 to agree to the arrest or send its own leadership into exile. And it's not just the Congolese drawing red lines––the US has sanctions against Kaina and Makenga (and Ngaruye and Zimurinda, who are in Rwanda), and the UN has denounced the same five for atrocities.

The closer one looks at the problem, the more one wonders why so much emphasis is being put on negotiations with the M23, who are unlikely to hand over their top commanders. More and more, it appears that the solution for the problems of the M23 has to be sought between Kigali and Kinshasa, not between Kinshasa and the M23.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Political Solution––Yes, But...

The phrase "political process" has attained holy status in UN parlance––it is sometimes bandied about as a catch-all solution for everything. (An organization I used to work for even had an acronym they often used: SFURPP––Shut the **** Up and Respect the Political Process). But what does it actually mean?

In recent days, the UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson has repeatedly called for the efforts to shift from the military to the political, apparently confirming the fear in the minds of some Congolese that she is legitimizing the M23 rebellion right at the moment when the Congolese army is finally appearing to redeem itself. The UN Special Envoy Martin Kobler, while congratulating the Congolese army, has made similar statements in the press.

The problem is that the only political process are the Kampala talks, which––despite today's statement by the ICGLR––are still deadlocked. The M23 said on 8 September that they would only put down their weapons if the FDLR are neutralized and Congolese refugees are allowed to return to the Congo, two goals that will take years to fully achieve. On the other side of the table, the Congolese government has issued arrest warrants for Colonel Makenga, Kayna, and Kazarama––the number one and two of the M23, as well as their spokesperson, respectively. It is difficult to see the Kinshasa delegation, or international observers for that matter, accepting an amnesty for these top officials, which would mean that the M23 would have to accept excluding its top leadership.

So what do we mean by a political solution? There is no doubt that the problems of state weakness, exclusion, and meddling by the region are political in nature. But by emphasizing that we need to respect the political process when the only such venue in town appears dead-ended is vexing. That the FDLR needs to be dealt with, that Congolese refugees need to return––absolutely. That some of the top M23 leadership will not be able to be integrated in the Congolese army––most likely. But these are compromises that have to be hammered out between the Congolese government and its Rwandan counterpart, not the M23 leaders.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The National Consultations: Selling Out?

On Saturday, Joseph Kabila opened the Concertations nationales in Kinshasa with this speech, and the first plenary is supposed to take place today. But the political elite in Kinshasa is deeply divided, with some opposition members boycotting the proceedings. While the concertations were initially intended to foster national unity following the debacle of the 2011 elections, it now appears that they are more about positioning ahead of the upcoming 2016 elections.

How so? 

While everyone in Kinshasa––indeed, in the country––has been enthusiastic about the talks, people have radically different understandings of what should be accomplished. There are broadly speaking three different groups:
  1. Some, especially those behind Etienne Tshisekedi's wing of the UDPS, wanted to contest the very legitimacy of the elections and President Kabila. While Tshisekedi is probably inspired by the Conférence national souveraine of 1992, which elected him as prime minister, these are very different times and very few believe that an assembly organized by Kabila could bring about his ouster;  
  2. Others wanted to use the forum as a means to push through national reforms––decentralization, security sector reform, elections. While the usual place for these debates is in parliament, some members of the opposition feel that they need to be included in the structures that oversee these reforms;
  3. A final group sees the concertations as an opportunity to enter into a government of national unity, which would see the opposition enter into government.
The proceedings, which are scheduled to last for 15 days, are beginning to confirm the third option. The president of the senate and a facilitator of the forum, Léon Kengo wa Dondo, has officially stated that the goal is a government of national unity. In private, his co-facilitator Aubin Minaku, the president of the national assembly, has confirmed this. 

The goal of co-opting the opposition would not be to bring about national reconciliation or state reform. Persistent rumors have suggested that Kabila is considering setting up a commission to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in 2016. While this constitutional change itself would be unconstitutional (Article 220 forbids any messing with term limits), and the jury is still out on whether Kabila will go ahead with this plan, he could probably pull it off if the opposition is sufficiently divided and/or co-opted. 

Initial indications would suggest that the talks are having that effect, as critics of the government are attracted by lavish per diems (one participant said they could be getting $200/day) and a possible place in the government. The MLC, the second largest opposition party, is attending, led by Thomas Luhaka, although the wing of Jean-Lucien Busa is baulking. And while Jean-Pierre Bemba has reportedly issued clear instructions to his parliamentarians not to enter into an alliance with Kabila, this could be a golden opportunity for some to line their pockets (there are good precedents: Kamitatu, Mwamba, Senga, etc. have jumped ship in the past). 

A similar, smaller dynamic is underway within the UDPS. A group of somewhere between five and twenty UDPS MPs, led by Serge Mayamba, is taking part in the concertations, defying Tshisekedi's orders. The civil society, meanwhile, is also divided, with some members participating and many others abstaining. And Léon Kengo, the leader of the UFC opposition party, is not only attending but is presiding over the assembly. It is only the UNC led by Vital Kamerhe that appears to be more or less united its opposition to the talks. 

All this makes sense. For Kamerhe, who seeks to emerge as the main opposition candidate for the 2016 elections, this is a good opportunity to prove that he is a real opponent to Kabila (as a former Kabila loyalist, his credentials have often been questioned). For Kengo and Luhaka, this good be as good an opportunity as any to obtain a ministerial position. For Tshisekedi, the concertations will again prove that this government is made up of opportunists. 

But, while the talks have only just begun, it would seem that the real winner may be Kabila, who could once again succeed in fragmenting the opposition by appealing to their self-interest. He may prove those Congolese pundits right who, with typical sarcasm, call the concertations "le monologue national," or "extraordinary congress of the PPRD [Kabila's main party]".

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Fact-checking the recent M23 escalation

After a month of relative calm, fighting resumed between the M23 and the Congolese army on August 21. The fighting took place around 15km north of Goma, around the town of Kibati. The M23 held the high ground on either side of the road going north from Goma toward Rutshuru. Yesterday, August 30, the M23 announced that they were withdrawing their troops from the frontline toward Kibumba to the north.

Who started the fighting and why?

According to United Nations and diplomatic sources, the M23 launched the attack against the Congolese army. This is based on reports provided by United Nations troops, who are on the frontline. But fighting has been ongoing north of Goma since at least July, when the M23 attacked the outskirts of this town of half a million, and throughout the past eight months of peace talks in Kampala the Congolese army has continued to nettle the M23.

The reason behind the escalation is more difficult to parse. Most likely, the M23 is worried about the lack of progress in peace talks in Kampala, which have been stalled for many months now. There is a certain urgency about the fighting, as well: the UN Intervention Brigade is almost fully operational, and the UN drones will soon be patrolling the skies, as well. So the best guess is that the M23 is trying to force a compromise in Kampala. If that is true, then their withdrawal to Kibumba is a blow to them––as long as they threatened Goma directly, the M23 had real leverage.

Who has been shelling Rwanda and Goma?

Since August 22, a series of artillery shells have fallen in Goma and Rwanda, killing civilians on either side of the border. (The Rwandan government chronology of events is here.) The UN has now told the press that at least some of the mortars that fell in Rwanda came from M23 positions. According to one UN official in Goma I spoke to, their troops could observe the trajectory of the mortars.

Given that some of the fighting at Kibati took place within one kilometer of the Rwandan border, it is possible that other mortars were Congolese army mistakes. For the mortars that fell in Rubavu town in Rwanda, however, that would be unlikely, as these landed behind FARDC positions. Here, it was either a case of FARDC firing into Rwanda on purpose or they came from M23 positions.

In the case of Goma, where the majority of the fatalities have occurred (seven compared with one in Rwanda), most accounts from the UN suggest that these were M23 mortars––some UN troops have seen or heard the mortars flying overhead. In some of the cases, it is difficult to imagine that the M23 mistakenly hit populated areas, as there were no military installations in the line of fire.

What has the UN been doing?

In the past week, there have been many mentions in the press of "the UN's most robust peacekeeping mandate." While this is to a certain extent hyperbole––the UN blue helmets in the Congo have always had part of a Chapter VII mandate, and have always been able to use deadly force to protect civilians in imminent danger (and in the case of Ituri in 2005 the UN has gone on the offensive in the past); the current mandate just makes it explicit that that means taking offensive action.

But the UN force certainly has a lot of expectations weighing on it, in particular on the 3,000-strong Intervention Brigade. After fighting began and mortars hit Goma, the population took their anger out on the UN, trashing vehicles and claiming the UN was idling standing by while civilians were being killed. One demonstration on August 24 turned violent, and two protestors were killed––some claim the UN is responsible for this.

This is certainly a low point of UN popularity in the Congo, but the recent fighting may change this. Over the past ten days, the UN has engaged its air force, artillery, and infantry in the fighting against the M23. The Intervention Brigade did much of the fighting, but other contingents (Egyptian, Jordanian, Indian, Nepalese) were also involved. There is a good UN summary posted here (h/t Timo Mueller). To give an idea how heavily the UN stepped in, on August 24 UN attack helicopters fired 216 rockets and 42 flares on M23 positions in Kibati. Meanwhile, South African snipers have killed at least six M23 rebels, according to the South African government. The UN also suffered their first casualty at the hands of the M23, a Tanzanian peacekeeper killed by a mortar shell.

The UN's robust response is in part due to the new mandate and the Intervention Brigade. In part, it may also be due to the new leaders of the UN mission. The new Special Representative of the Secretary-General (i.e. the head of the mission) Martin Kobler (Germany) arrived in the country in August and has distinguished himself already by visiting an FARDC field hospital close to Goma. A new Force Commander, General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz (Brazil) also recently arrived.

Has Rwanda supported the M23 in the fighting?

Rwanda's support to the M23 had decreased early this year, leading the UN Group of Experts to issue much milder criticism of Rwanda in its interim report in July, and foreign donors had unfroze most of the aid suspended last year. However, recruitment by the M23 in Rwanda has continued throughout, as evidenced by Human Rights Watch and UN reporting.

The most recent fighting appears to have triggered renewed Rwandan support to the rebels, according to UN and diplomatic sources. According to one such source, the M23 launched an attack on FARDC positions in the night of August 22/23, leading UN military observers to believe that the M23 had night-vision equipment. The UN mission has also reported to the Security Council that Rwanda has provided such support. A diplomat told me that his country, a Security Council member, had also confirmed Rwandan support to the M23 in the recent fighting and had spoken with authorities in Kigali about this. According to the same source, most important donors in Kigali were on the same page in this regard.

This means that Rwanda's recent threats to invade the Congo (tanks and troops were deployed on Friday to the border) due to the cross-border shelling is not likely to receive much sympathy from their donor allies. Whether these donors, however, will act on their beliefs, however, is another matter. Given that the M23 has now withdrawn to the north and fighting has at least temporarily ceased, that escalation is unlikely to take place.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Did MONUSCO prevent Congolese army from attacking?

A slight correction––I mentioned in the previous blog post that the UN mission had never prevented the Congolese army from attacking the M23, contrary to popular perception in Goma. I was wrong. While for several days this perception stemmed solely from (distortions of) statements made by diplomats such as Mary Robinson––the reason the FARDC had not advanced during the 14 July firefight was because they had not received orders from Kinshasa, not because of UN intransigence––there was at least one incident of UN interposition. According to diplomats, during the morning of 16 July, UN tanks did block the advance of Congolese T-55 tanks to the frontline for an hour. Also, in May, the UN dissuaded the army from using its attack helicopters during a visit by Ban Ki Moon to Goma.

It is unclear whether this was UN policy, and if so what the reasoning behind it was. As previously mentioned, the UN is stuck between its aggressive mandate and peace talks, leading to a somewhat schizophrenic policy. Tensions have also arisen within the UN mission, with at least one of its contingents internally disagreeing with the new force commander that all UN troops––not just the Intervention Brigade––are supposed to participate in robust, offensive operations against armed groups.

It is, however, also clear that there has been a lot of distortion of what UN policy really is by local media and civil society.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The UN conundrum in the Congo: Is it a carrot or a stick?

For the first time in years, there is a credible peace process in the offing for the Congo, one that addresses issues that the transition (2003-2006) never did. As discussed on this blog before, the Framework Agreement signed on 24 February 2013 promises a means to address two key divers of conflict: the weakness of the Congolese state, and cross-border meddling between the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda.

However, there are several problems with the Framework Agreement, evident since its inception. These have enhanced cynicism among Congolese toward the United Nations and the international community, prompting protesters in Goma attacked peacekeepers earlier this month, and discontent with the UN is proliferating among civil society.

Since February, when the Framework Agreement was signed, Congolese have had to deal with a confusion of different processes, some in contradiction with each other––the Framework Agreement does not even address the armed groups in the eastern Congo, the UN-endorsed Kampala peace talks push for a negotiated solution, while the UN Intervention Brigade has a mandate to take attack armed groups in the East.

But none of these processes seem to be working. Negotiations between the M23 and the Congolese government have been left for the Kampala talks, led by the regional ICGLR grouping. These talks, which began in December last year, have gotten nowhere, as the Congolese government––bolstered by the arrival of the UN's Intervention Brigade––continues to believe in a military solution, while there is renewed evidence from Human Rights Watch and diplomats that Rwanda continues to back the M23.

Meanwhile, many Congolese allege that the UN Intervention Brigade is either not doing enough or actively preventing a solution. They point to declarations by UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson has on several occasions said that she believes in a political solution to the crisis, and protest that the security perimeter set up by the UN around Goma does not go far enough to dismantle the M23. To be clear: It is not true true that the UN peacekeeping mission has interposed itself or prevented the Congolese army from attacking the rebels, and the Intervention Brigade is still not fully functional. But one cannot blame Congolese from despairing at the confused peace process.

So what should the UN do? Push for better peace talks or for a military solution?

Both, and with better synergy. On the diplomatic front, negotiators––from the AU, UN, or ICGLR––need to wrest the initiative away from the Congolese and the M23, neither of whom are apparently willing to make the necessary compromises. We know what the outlines of a deal must be––they include removing the worst human rights offenders among the M23, integrating most of the officers and troops into the Congolese army and redeploying them across the country, allowing the M23 political leadership participate in the upcoming national dialogue, and addressing issues such as refugee return and the dismantling of the FDLR. Critically, this is not a deal that can be struck with the M23, as it will have to submit to its own dissolution––instead, diplomats must engage with Rwanda, which still exercises crucial influence over the M23, but which steadfastly denies any involvement. All of this will require diplomats such as Robinson and the newly appointed US envoy Russ Feingold, but also African heads of state who have been largely bystanders, to propose solutions and muster leverage, not just sit back and allow the Kampala process and Framework Agreement to tread water.

On the military front, the UN has a difficult needle to thread. If it does not go on the offensive, it will disappoint after months of hype building up around the Intervention Brigade. The Congolese government is purposely ratcheting up the pressure on the UN to make it use military force and to position the blue helmets as scapegoats if anything goes wrong. But a military offensive contains plenty of dangers: the M23 could embarrass the UN troops, or UN troops could be complicit in abuses carried out by the Congolese army. Any military action could also upset whatever diplomatic approaches are being made with Rwanda and the M23. Nonetheless, it is important that the UN be seen to be doing more than it currently is, by extending the security perimeter into M23 territory from the south or the north. In addition, the UN troops could offer their services in concrete and aggressive action against the FDLR within the context of a new approach to the Rwanda rebels that would grant exile to those leaders not guilty of egregious crimes and clamp down on the remaining hardcore.

So is it sticks or carrots? It's not so much about incentives and pressure, but about the process in which these are deployed. At the moment, the process is too confused, disjointed and lacks a clear direction. The UN should step up its own engagement from a mere facilitator to a leader of the peace process, with strong backing from donors. With a strong, new team––that includes US envoy Russ Feingold, UN envoy Mary Robinson, and a new head of the UN mission in Martin Kobler––this is possible but an uphill battle.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Guest post: Mining transparency in the Congo––Cautious optimism despite strong headwinds

This is a guest blog by Elisabeth Caesens, DRC Mining Governance Project Coordinator for the Carter Center. The views expressed here are her own and do not represent those of the Carter Center. 

A few months ago, the DRC got suspended from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Congo is commonly perceived as a basket case for natural resource governance; any outsider might have nodded and thought, “Surprise, surprise.” What the Government failed to convey was that suspension actually represented a positive decision. The DRC’s failure to comply with some of the EITI rules could have lead to its exclusion from the process altogether, a development that would have benefited no one but secrecy adepts. Instead, the DRC now gets a second chance to address some of the flaws of its previous reporting efforts by March 2014 - in particular to ensure data certification is rigorous and the report is comprehensive.

Congo has been given a second chance for a reason. Since early 2012, a few key political players have given the EITI process significant political backing. For the upcoming reporting cycle, some have been working day and night to ensure that all criteria are complied with. In a country with more than 500 mining title holders and a wide variety of legal and contractual revenue flows, this is more daunting than one might imagine. The international consultancy firm appointed to determine the next report’s scope is behind schedule, struggling to gather all data needed to come up with a solid draft report.

The EITI wave in DRC has started generated ripple effects that some countries might only dream of. The mere fact that the government is to collect revenue data has initiated institutional change. In the last report, the Finance Inspection had, for instance, refused to certify $88 million in payments to one of the three central tax-collecting agencies. The agency, called DGRAD, is now finally making progress on digitizing its tax management system, something it impeded for over a decade. In the copper-rich province of Katanga, the omission of about $75 million in provincial taxes in the last report alerted the local tax authorities of the need to participate in the process. The process brought to light a common practice whereby mining companies pay construction companies directly for road works in exchange for provincial road tax credits, hindering tax traceability and parliamentary oversight.

This year, mining companies requested EITI reporting forms before the reporting cycle even started. They have been demanding more rigorous paperwork from their transport sub-contractors, who pay some of the provincial taxes in their stead and sometimes shove diverse payments into one single undecipherable bill that disrupts the administrative paper trail. The industry has also become slightly better (although not yet perfect) at obtaining confirmation that their payments made it to the Central Bank, rather than accepting receipts from the tax agencies as sufficient proof of payment.

While local corporate operators and committed political actors have been instrumental throughout the process, one group has become particularly proactive: the Katanga civil society network. Albeit not officially members of the DRC EITI Executive Committee, this local civil society network chose not to wait for the next report to be sloppy before voicing their criticisms. This time they wanted flawless coverage from the start and have worked tirelessly to ensure all significant revenue flows and all major contributors are included in the next report. Two weeks ago, at 8.30 pm on a Saturday night, one of the activists suddenly realized he was running late for his friend’s wedding, too busy sifting through the tax contributions of over 150 companies active in the province. Last Saturday, as cheering resounded from the neighborhood bar upon another goal scored by the local soccer team, another activist looked up from his Excel sheet and commented, “Why am I missing the TP Mazembe game again? Ah oui, l’ITIE…” This civil society group’s determination to constructively contribute to the country’s EITI validation, by catching any gaps in reporting ahead of time, far surpasses previous efforts.

Not everyone is surfing the EITI wave yet. Among the potential stumbling blocks ahead are the controversial sales of state company assets that occurred in 2011. At the latest EITI meeting, the Ministry of Mines gave state-owned company Gécamines an ultimatum to provide all requested data needed to define the next report’s scope. It eventually met the deadline, but now the Ministry of Portfolio, Gécamines’ single shareholder, is hesitant to endorse the data. Meanwhile, the EITI Secretariat is trying to reach the entities that bought the assets. Registered in the British Virgin Islands, their official representative in the DRC is a law firm that claims it doesn’t keep its clients’ books. As long as these actors do not add their voice to the new transparency chorus, validation is still at risk. While they are catching up, those missing weddings and soccer games for the sake of EITI should tell other countries to catch the wave and ride it into March 2014 and beyond.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Is the Congolese army getting better?

Fighting has cooled between the M23 and the Congolese army––after almost a week of fighting, the front line has been calmer now for the past three days. The Congolese army has been able to advance and retake some ground, and UN observers and journalists on the ground suggest that their performance has been better this time than during the November fighting, when Goma fell. (However, the reports that the UN is holding the army back appear to be bogus; Congolese officers told me the reason they hadn't gone on the offensive was Kinshasa hadn't given them the order.)

If the Congolese army is really performing better, then why?

"This time, the logistics are much better," a UN official who works closely with the army told me. "The salaries are being paid, the supplies are getting to the front line. They still overreact and waste too much ammo, but there are a much better fighting force." When I asked a senior Congolese intelligence officer, he confirmed this, saying that General Francois Olenga had been making an effort to make sure supply chains actually function.

Both sources agreed that the departure of dozens of senior officers to Kinshasa––where around 120 officers have been sitting around in hotels in January, ostensibly for training seminars, but in reality awaiting redeployment––helped, as well. "These officers had been embezzling funds and running parallel chains of command. Their departure has simplified the military hierarchy." The Congolese intelligence officer argued: "Some of these people had been in collaboration with our enemies. Getting them out of here helped."

In addition, the army is now giving more prominence to the commando battalions, the 321 and 322 trained by the Belgians (a third is currently being trained in Kindu), the 391 trained by the Americans, and one by the Chinese (on the northern front line in Tongo). During the operations last year, these battalions had been mismanaged by the military hierarchy, which dismantled them, sent them to areas where there was little to do, and "sabotaged them by sending them into battle without supplies or knowledge of the terrain," according to one Belgian trainer.

The retirement of 322 colonels and generals in a July 7 decree also simplified things, although none if any of these commanders were on the front lines.

Of course, the problems of the Congolese army are far from over. As argued here before, the real challenge of army reform lies in tackling the culture of patronage, racketeering and impunity that undermines military discipline and any sense of hierarchy in the armed forces.

Monday, July 15, 2013

From Mutaho to Kampala––What's next?

For weary observers of the M23-FARDC standoff, the cycle of events is becoming all too predictable. Every week, dozens of rumors are spread via SMS, the web, and word-of-mouth about cross-border infiltrations from Uganda and Rwanda––most of them false, but persistent enough for it appear to be an orchestrated campaign of misinformation. Some MONUSCO officers spend many of their waking hours just hunting down the latest canard, usually to come up with nothing.

Then the fighting: in past weeks, a variety of militia loosely allied to the Congolese government have launched attacks against the M23. Last week, a small bunch of APCLS Mai-Mai somehow made their way to the north of Goma to harass the M23; before that, it was the MPA and FDLR-Soki to the northeast of Rutshuru. And now it is the M23's turn again to strike against the FARDC, attacking Mutaho, a village overlooking Goma from the north.

The backdrop of this fighting is provided by the Kampala talks. Here, too, there are patterns: both parties deploy large delegations to the Ugandan capital, where they spend weeks at a time without meeting each other. The Congolese prevaricate between a refusal to negotiate, an ultimatum for the M23 to sign a proposed deal (several of these have come and gone), and more a more flexible stance.

What is the current status? On Monday, July 8 the Ugandan facilitator put a new deal on the table, following a revised proposal by the Kinshasa delegation. The facilitator's deal would provide for an amnesty for everything but violations of international law, the integration of M23 officers and political cadres, a concrete plan for refugee return, the creation of a National Reconciliation Mechanism, and the declaration of a state of disaster for the East. The follow-up would be largely provided by the ICGLR, but would be integrated into the Framework Agreement, thus allowing UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson and the various oversight mechanisms to weigh in.

This is more than the Congolese wanted––most notably, they didn't want to integrate M23 politicians, and suggested that national reconciliation be spearheaded by the National Oversight Committee for the Framework Agreement (comité de suivi). Moreover, they will probably shirk at declaring the East a disaster area, which would commit them to legal and financial obligations toward provinces in the East (although the government had done this in 2009).

But the deal is a much bitterer pill for the M23 to swallow. It would basically require them to disband their movement, accept the deployment of their officers anywhere in the country, and receive little in return. For some of their leaders, in particular Makenga and Kaina (as well as some of those in Bosco's wing, currently in Rwanda), the sentence "promulgate legislation granting amnesty...taking into account international law," will leave their personal future in suspense.

So will fighting continue? Will the M23 or the FARDC escalate? Anything is possible, but I would imagine the Congolese army would wait for the Intervention Brigade (FIB) to fully deploy, and for the army to carry out its ongoing restructuring before making a move––and that could take at least another month. The M23 would have a greater interest in escalation, perhaps in order to preempt the FIB from deploying or improving the deal on the table. But their problem continues to be a lack of troops. With only 1,500-2,500 troops, they have to protect an area 100km long and some 20-50km wide.

So taking Goma would leave a considerable vacuum along the Rwandan border, and would probably only be possible with backing from the Rwandan army––would this once again be forthcoming?