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

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.