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M23 dilemma

By Haggai Matsiko

  • Museveni, Kagame regional clout dealt a blow.
  • Regional leaders left in the dark as Kinshasa, UN pound M23 out of DR Congo.

The Nov.11 meeting in Kampala where the delegation from the DR Congo refused to sign a peace deal with the M23 rebel group might have been the high watermark of what appears to be a big blow to President Yoweri Museveni’s clout in the regional.

The DR Congo delegation practically kept Museveni and later his VP Edward Ssekandi waiting for hours, and despite being at the venue, refused to show up in the room where the accord was supposed to be penned.

The DRC delegation aborted the signing of agreement with M23,” Ofwono Opondo, the Uganda Media Centre Executive Director said, adding that the DRC delegation did not even enter the conference room, where the signing ceremony was expected to take place.

The various stakeholders from the international community including the UN, AU, SADAC, ICGLR, US, UK, France, Norway, Belgium and Rwanda were all represented.

Opondo said the rebels and DRC delegates will contact with the peace talks facilitator Uganda’s Defence Minister Dr Crispus Kiyonga, and the observers, if and when they are ready to move forward.

But as things stand, DRC is not interested in signing a peace deal. It wants to sign a declaration.

At the heart of their refusal was the fact that the M23 had ceased to exist as a military threat following the incisive defeat that they had inflicted on it.

Apart from this, DR Congo’s Information Minister, Lambert Mende had no kind words.

“We want to sign a declaration, but the mediator, for a reason we do not understand, wants to impose an accord upon us,” Mende told international media. “If he changed his mind, even tonight, we could sign.”

Mende’s comment captures the whole story of how Museveni has been put in a tight corner.

Although the M23 were on the receiving end of the gun fire, President Museveni appears to be the one who must now turn away from the DR Congo imbroglio with egg on his face.

An ironic turn of events, the once all-too-powerful chairman of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), who had UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Kabila calling him to bring an end to the war, is the one on the pleading side.

From a man to whom Kabila came running to seek assistance against the M23, Museveni has now been reduced to a figure that is seen to be the one standing in the way of DR Congo’s sweet victory.

For Kabila and his allies, the stakes of losing the war against M23 were too high. Following the November 2012 humiliation, Kabila could not afford another defeat. He embarked on putting his house in order; an effort that included reshuffling the army.

Just like Kabila, the UN could also not afford to stand another humiliating defeat—the Goma take-over was embarrassing enough. When its mandate was increased to enable it fight, the stakes even got higher.

But the main game-changer for Kabila is that in DR Congo, the war ceased to be between the government and the rebels but went international. Apart from a quest to clear mineral-rich eastern Congo
of a threat against a lucrative business, the war was also about down-sizing President Museveni’s and Paul Kagame’s political and military influence in the region.

Analysts say that with the ever-increasing demand for natural resources, the world’s powers could not afford to see a rebel group of a minority ethnic group stand in the way of big business. Forthis, more than anything else, the UN decided to take a gamble and put its Blue Berets in the line of fire.

M23’s apparent grievances against Kinshasha got swallowed up by claims that they were being backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Rwanda’s foes were more than willing to come to Kabila’s rescue. But Kagame’s allies also felt a need to play a part albeit on the diplomatic front.

For example, US President Obama, desperate to be part of efforts to pacify the region, exerted positive pressure on Rwanda by freezing annual military assistance of $200,000 as well as announcing sanctions concerning the training of Rwandan army officers.

Indeed, after long keeping quiet, Washington embraced reports from the UN and claims from DR Congo accusing Rwanda and Uganda of providing military support to the rebel outfit in the North Kivu region. Both countries vehemently denied the reports and demanded an apology from the UN, which never came.

The US special envoy for the Great Lakes region, Russ Feingold, a former senator and expert in the region, said the sanctions were motivated by the need to curb the flow of material support to the

Feingold did not hide the fact that the withdrawal of Rwandan support for the M23 was due in part to behind the scenes work by American diplomats, in particular to phone calls from Secretary of State John Kerry to Kagame and other leaders in the region including Museveni.

Feingold said the level of US engagement in the region was “probably unprecedented,” adding that it is one of the first priorities of President Obama’s foreign policy. It reportedly included the deployment of surveillance from unmanned spy planes commonly known as drones.

Feingold also pointed to his own full time appointment to his post in July — which came at the request of UN counterpart Mary Robinson and EU counterpart Koen Vervaeke – and the strong involvement of the US in efforts to conclude regional peace talks underway in Kampala for the past 11 months.

After 20 years of war in the region that have left five to six million dead, according to US estimates, Downie agreed with Feingold that “the US is driven really by a humanitarian agenda in the Congo and the genuine desire to try to tackle this conflict. That certainly created an environment that would not be conducive for an out war.

And it wasn’t hard for the UN to find local partners against Rwanda. South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete did not need a second invitation to contribute forces to the international Brigade and more so given that they are President Kabila’s friends and potential business partners.

Zuma’s business interests are in DR Congo are a public secret. Apart from oil concessions that Kabila has awarded to Zuma’s cousin, Khulubuse Zuma, South Africa’s list of business interests is endless.

Kikwete, on the other hand, while with no clear business incentives, at least not publicly known, has had issues with President Kagame.

When Kagame and Museveni courted Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and seemed to forge an alliance isolating Tanzania, they also gave Kikwete more reason to consolidate his friendship with Kabila.

As all the dynamics took shape, morphing into a big disadvantage for M23, the rebel group continued to thin.

The M23 that was sent packing is not the same group that took Goma. A top rebel group’s negotiator said that although they had returned to the negotiating table, they had to skilfully negotiate since they knew that they had very little to lie back on.

Having captured towns in eastern Congo, M23 was also reluctant to cede these territories. Yet in these towns, they were easy to overrun by well-trained and well-armed forces led by Tanzania and South Africa. M23, could for instance, have decided to hide in DR Congo’s thick forests, where the international brigade could not easily access with their tanks and air gunships.

This explains how the M23 suffered a major blow in August, a source who is deeply knowledgable about the war told The Independent.

Meanwhile, DR Congo was busy amassing strength to revenge against the humiliation by a group of a Kinyarwanda-speaking rebel group.

In fact, in these latest negotiations, M23 was only negotiating for survival. The grand ambitions by some of its former leaders, was a thing of the past.

If DR Congo could agree to the old agreement and integrate them all, the rebel group would be home and dry. Talk of wanting to control Eastern DR Congo was no longer a sticking point.

It is therefore evident that while the M23 has been dealt a blow, it is President Museveni and his friend President Kagame who appear to have been brought to size.

For a long time now, the two have held keys to a semblance of peace in DR Congo and the Great Lakes Region in general. That is why when the going got tough, Kabila’s first stop was Kampala. Indeed, US President Barrack Obama and Ban Ki Moon’s first calls were to Kagame and Museveni.

It is indeed after President Museveni reached out to the M23 rebels that they agreed to pull out of Goma.

For a good spell Museveni’s star soared as the guarantor of peace in the region and the world called on to Kagame to freeze alleged support to M23 in order for peace to return to eastern DR Congo.

And as far as Congolese leaders are concerned, Kampala might be the only obstacle to full scale peace and justice. This seems the new reality with M23 rebels, who run away from DR Congo to hide behind the shield of Kampala.

President Museveni is now in a dilemma on how to deal with hundreds of M23 rebels and their leaders, some of whom like Makenga have international sanctions hanging around their necks for war crimes and massive abuse of human rights.

As Museveni grapples with that, Kabila and his international allies, have business to attend to.

It’s another ironic twist for Makenga, who earlier issued a stern warning to his break-away foes: You were mere soldiers when I was a commander, if you think you can fight me, I will show you how real soldiers fight.

Energised by Makenga’s resolve and his genius, rebels loyal to him, pounded and routed out of the group’s territory, those that threatened to overtake the General.

On losing, the remnants of a group loyal to Gen Bosco Ntaganda, led by Gen Baudouin Ngaruye, who had also co-opted M23’s first president Jean-Marie Runiga, crossed into Rwanda. Ntaganda, too crossed into Rwanda and handed himself over to the International Criminal Court.

Makenga replaced Runiga, with Betrand Bisimwa and even had reinstated others like Rene Abandi, the M23 foreign affairs minister, who had been forced to quit by Francois Rucogoza, an Ntaganda loyalist and former head of delegation for the Kampala talks.

However, while Makenga succeeded in weeding out the over-ambitious foes, the split became a cancer that started eating up a rebel group that in November 2012 marched with utmost ease capturing town after town including Goma, which is Eastern DR Congo’s trade hub and most strategic town.

As it reduced in number, the DR Congo government was busy re-organising and canvassing international support.

With all sorts of accusations, including recruitment of child soldiers and mass rape, among others, it was very easy to mobilise against the M23.

As the M23 thinned, Kinshasa amassed support and re-organised. Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi contributed soldiers to the 3,000-strong UN’s International Brigade Force. The new force planned and started digging in inch by inch, sometimes testing out the rebel group.

But the real fruits of hard work for Kabila and his allies came in when consequently, in a from-grace-to-grass kind of downfall, Makenga, touted by his soldiers as a genius fighter, came under the stultifying fire of the Congolese army, and abandoned his territory, crossing over to Uganda with his over 1,500  fighters.

Battle won, war continues

But analysts say that Kabila and his allies will have made a mistake if they believe that a one- off victory against one of the many rebel groups in eastern DR Congo will usher in peace.

According to the book, ‘Understanding Obstacles to Peace: Actors, Interests, and Strategies in Africa’s Great Lakes,’ failure to understand the interests of the different actors in eastern Congo explains the unending conflict in DR Congo.

“There is evidence to show that most agreements reached without taking into account actor interests; while clearly providing a temporary respite, have consistently proved difficult to implement and, in fact, have created conditions for the aggravation of the conflicts,” the book notes.

The book lists several actors in DR Congo including; imperialists, plunderers, drug barons, gun-runners, merceneries, private military companies, warlords, weak states, lords of poverty, blue berets, money launderers among others as some the entities that are fuelling conflict in the mineral-rich region. However, analysts say Kabila and his allies should not gloat as they have not seen the last of Museveni’s diplomatic prowess. He definitely has  a master stroke under his sleeve, which will be revealed in a matter of time.

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