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

Friday, June 5, 2015

The attack on Goma airport: Big fish or small fry?

Goma airport (Courtesy: Tseum/Flickr)
On Tuesday this week the airport in Goma was attacked by a group of assailants, who killed at least four soldiers and apparently tried to make off with a stockpile of ammunition. By morning, rumors were making the rounds. Was this once again Rwanda, attempting to destabilize the East? Some pointed out that a large part of Congo’s small air force was based at Goma airport, making it a strategic target. Others suggested that this might have been an inside job, a group of army officers trying to steal ammunition to sell on the black market.

By the next day, the official version had come out: this was a group of former Mai-Mai, led by a certain Kambale Malonga. He had been arrested along with around twenty others, thanks to intelligence provided by the Rwandan government, which was able to trace his cell phone communication (apparently putting to rest the rumor that the Rwandan government was behind the coup).

But who is Malonga and why did he carry out the attack?

Malonga has strong rebel credentials: this is, after all, not the first time he attacked Goma. As he reminded Congolese security officials during an interrogation, he had attacked the city during the occupation of the Rwandan government in 1998, and had been supported by Laurent Kabila––the current president’s father. While he was a lesser figure among the many Mai-Mai leaders of the time, during the transition government (2003-2006) he became the leader of a political coalition of ex-fighters called Parti national Mai-Mai (PANAM). That transitional period was the time in which armed groups cashed in, trying to transform their military prowess into political positions and cash buyouts.

The problem was, there were only so many positions to go around, and the Mai-Mai, while frontline fighters for the Kabila governments, were poorly connected and often lacked formal education. Many fell by the wayside. It was less than surprising to see, in subsequent years, new rebellions staffed by the same leaders. Lacking any viable options, they had gone back to do what they did best.

Malonga was one such example. In a raft of documents (available here and here) from 2009 to 2014, Malonga complains that he was never given the positions he asked for, even though he joined the ruling coalition in 2011.

In 2012, after the M23 rebellion was launched with support from Rwanda, Malonga went back to the bush, founding the  Union des patriotes pour la paix (UPCP) along with Sikuli Lafontaine and Albert Kahasha. While these latter two commanders then joined the M23 in August 2012, Malonga sided with the Congolese army and received (probably modest) support to fight against the M23. Following the defeat of the M23 in November 2013, Malonga demobilized, but once again failed to obtain what he perceived as his just recompense.

So was the Goma airport attack just the latest installation of Malonga’s use of violence as a means to bargain for power and money? Perhaps––it would certainly not be surprising, and he readily confessed after his arrest. But questions still remain: It is unlikely that he would have acted alone––this kind of attack requires money and manpower. Furthermore, attacking Goma airport is a poor bargaining tactic. It is too sensitive a target, likely to embarrass and anger the government to such a degree that they would be unlikely to reward him with anything. As countless Mai-Mai groups know, the best way of bargaining is by holding territory, showing you have the capacity for broader destabilization, while not undermining relationships by attacking major population centers (poor peasants, however, are fair game). Of course, the fact that he was so easily arrested and appeared so nonchalantly later also raises questions.

There are other alternatives. Perhaps this was not a bargaining tactic, or even a desperate attempt to avenge himself for being snubbed by the government, but a message sent by others backing him. Much like is rumored for attacks on the Lubumbashi airport in 2011 and 2012, and feeble coup attempts in Kinshasa in 2004 and 2013, this attack may have been a way for politicians to send a warning to the government. Or it could have even been a cover for government officials trying to steal weapons, or trying to create hysteria on the eve of elections.

In the Congo, these kinds of dramatic attacks are rarely what they seem to be. We may know a lot about Malonga, but how much do we know about his motives?

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