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, 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.