By Independent Team
Kinshasa puts Blue-helmets in line of fire
On August 28, the red line in the escalating conflict between the DR Congo government troops and the mutinous M23 rebels was crossed; a soldier fighting in the conflict under the UN flag was killed.
When Maj. Hatim Shabaan Mushindo, a blue-helmet from Tanzania who was part of the 3000-strong UN Intervention Brigade arrived at the frontlines, it was the first time in the organisation’s history that it was sending a force into battle.
His death was the moment that had been dreaded since the UN on March 28 gave the specially created Intervention Brigade an ‘offensive’ rather than defensive one-year mandate.
It was the first time the UN was sending a force into battle and it could not have chosen a more complex battlefield into which to experiment. It is not clear how Maj. Mushindo was killed but the official UN position is that he was killed by a shell fired by the M23 rebels.
On the morning after his death, on Aug.29, a woman was killed and her child injured in a blast in Gisenyi, the Rwandan twin city of Goma in neighbouring war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo. A UN statement to the Security Council again blamed the M23 rebels.
A report by MISNA, a Catholic Church news agency in DR Congo, quoted locals there saying the blast was caused by a mortar fired “purposely” from nearby Congo.
Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said 10 “bombs and rockets” were fired into Rwanda from the DR Congo that day. The previous day, she said, 13 bombs and rockets had been fired.
She said this brought to 34 the number of attacks Congolese had by that time carried out on Rwanda in August and accused the DR Congo forces of targeting Rwandan civilians.
“We have remained restrained for as long as we can but this provocation can no longer be tolerated,” she said.
According to the BBC, their reporter on the conflict was saying at the time that this is the strongest protest Rwanda has made against the Congolese army.
As the tension escalated, Rwandan President Paul Kagame deployed troops heavily in the border area. On the same day, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon telephoned Kagame and urged ‘restraint’.
Kigali has often accused Kinshasa of purposely bombing Rwandan territory that borders with the unstable North Kivu province.
But Congolese army spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli told the BBC that his forces would never fire at civilian populations.
“That could only be rebels,” he said, adding that M23 rebel fighters, and not soldiers, were in the area from which the shells were fired.
Ban’s assistant, Edmond Mulet, backed the DR Congo version. According to diplomats, Mulet reportedly told the Security Council on Aug.29, that UN forces had seen M23 rebels firing artillery into Rwanda.
He again accused Rwandan troops of helping the M23 rebels. The UN has “consistent and credible reports” of Rwandan troops entering DR Congo in recent days, Mulet was quoted as telling the 15-nation council, which currently includes Rwanda.
As Mulet spoke, the head of the UN mission in DR Congo, Martin Kobler, was headed for talks with Kagame in Kigali and the UN special envoy for the Great Lakes region, Mary Robinson, was headed to Kinshasa for talks with Kabila and DR Congo ministers.
The diplomatic traffic expanded when President Yoweri Museveni called an urgent meeting of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region for Sept.5.
Observers said Mulet’s briefing to the UN had potential to ignite new controversy over external backing for the M23 rebels who, for the past 18 months, have been battling the DR Congo government around the key eastern city of Goma.
Rwanda’s deputy UN ambassador Oliver Nduhungirehe said he was “surprised” by the UN allegations and repeated accusations that DR Congo forces are firing onto Rwandan territory.
It is, however, uncertain how long Kigali can maintain restraint in the face of the UN-backed Kinshasa regime, President Joseph Kabila.
Kabila scored a major coup when he convinced the UN to boost its peacekeeping force with a 3000-strong special combat force aimed at disarming rebel groups, including the M23.
It is the first time that the UN has deployed the blue-helmets with a peace-enforcement instead of a peace-keeping mandate and the operations of the force are being keenly watched.
The UN Special intervention brigade, made up for now by troops from South Africa and Tanzania, is operative on the front in the ground offensive backing Kinshasa’s regular forces. At full force, the brigade is expected to comprise three infantry battalions, one artillery and one special force and Reconnaissance Company.
Part of its weaponry and the Malawian contingent has not arrived. It, therefore, remains unclear how the addition of 2000 troops is expected to achieve the Intervention Brigade’s mandate of preventing expansion of myriad armed groups, and neutralising and disarming them.
Under its mandate, it is expected to take on the anti-Rwanda group; the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the Alliance des Patriotes pour un Congo libre et souverain (APCLS) and the main anti-Uganda forces; the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in North Kivu, and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Orientale Province, and the Mayi-Mayi Gedeon and the Mayi-Mayi Kata-katanga in Katanga province.
The MONUSCO strategy appears to be to kill the creature piecemeal by, for now, targeting only the M23. The result is a different battlefield from November 12 when MONUSCO and its 17,000 troops looked on helplessly as M23 fighters overrun Goma.
Ban Ki-Moon on the spot
On Aug.23 the UN forces launched a ground and air offensive against M23 positions in the Kibati hills, 20km from Goma as part of a weeklong operation. By Aug. 28 several mortars were falling into Goma during the operation. The leader of the M23, Bertrand Bisimwa described the Intervention Brigade attacks as “a vast offensive”.
He is quoted to have told reporters: “Government troops backed by UN forces attacked our positions outside of Goma with artillery, tanks and air strikes”.
“The aim is to eliminate the dangers that come from the hills, however military action is not a magic solution”, said Martin Kobler, head of the UN mission in DR-Congo, in a news conference in Kinshasa.
Kobler said the M23 uses the Kibati hills to bomb heavily populated areas, including some neighborhoods of Goma.
It was the same day that Congolese army spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli released a statement saying that the situation was “evolving positively”. But then that is the day Maj. Mushindo died. At least nine other members of the UN Brigade were wounded in the attack. Four were from Tanzania and four from South Africa. The Malawian contingent is yet to arrive.
It is now feared that as more Tanzanian and South African troops fighting the M23 are either killed or wounded, tensions are likely to rise between those countries and Rwanda. The DR Congo and the UN accusations against Rwanda of allegedly backing the M23 are also likely to increase.
Rwanda denies militarily backing the M23 but observers say that will be further challenged if it takes aggressive action against those it accuses of bombing its territory from across the border.
Rwanda is currently a member of the UN Security Council and the conflict in Goma could be the first time a member of the UN Security Council deploys against a force deployed by the international policing body. If that happens, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will be on the spot.
Observers say DR Congo President, Joseph Kabila could be gunning for just that position. His objective appears to be aimed at discrediting Kigali.
The M23 is mainly comprised of Congolese Tutsis, very similar to Kagame’s Rwandans. They defected from the national army in April 2012 and accuse the government of reneging on a 2009 deal that would have seen them being integrated fully into the national army.
Although the DR Congo is geographically, a natural member of the East African regional block and Uganda and Rwanda played a pivotal role in liberation the vast country from Mobutu Sese Seko in the 1990s, President Kabila has tended to look to Angola and South Africa for allies.
Lately, the Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete who also favours membership to the South African Development Community (SADC) over the natural East African Community (EAC) has been grouped among the Kabila allies.
Significantly, President Kagame and Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete have had a frosty relationship since Kikwete proposed that Kagame talks peace to the Congo-based Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) militia that Kigali holds responsible for the 1994 genocide in which a million Tutsi died.
Kigali has also had a frosty relationship with South Africa for harbouring former top Rwanda army general, Kayumba Nyamwasa, since he fell-out with Kagame in 2010.
Observers say unless this tension eases, and the saber-rattling between Kigali, Pretoria, and Dar es Salaam intensifies, the Great Lakes Region could see an explosion of conflict with Goma as the epicenter.
For now, the Kinshasa, Angola, Tanzania, and South African quartet appear to have the diplomatic momentum. Kagame appears isolated with Museveni as the only regional ally he can count on although he has lately been schmoozing with Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Unlike his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George Bush, U.S. President Barack Obama appears not to have been charmed by the Kigali and Kampala administrations.
In a diplomatic war, Obama could easily throw his lot behind Kabila because of his closeness to Tanzania and South Africa. Obama, on his recent Africa trip, visited these countries and made a connection with the leaders, especially Kikwete.
But that could change, especially for Museveni. The Uganda leader tends to maintain a pragmatic on strategic objectives rather than tactical development is situations like this. Although very close to Kagame, he has for some time successfully navigated the tension as mediator between Kigali and the DR Congo.
When media reports recently emerged that the Kinshasa government had expelled Brig. Geoffrey Muheesi, the Uganda representative on the Joint Regional Intelligence Fusion Centre in Goma, it appeared to be a sign of a widening fissure between Kampala and Kinshasa.
But Museveni, who has been involved in the Congo conflict longer than all owing to his about 30 years at the helm of Ugandan politics, could opt to continue playing the role of elder statesman and arbiter.
It was significant that a few days after Rwanda threatened to escalate tensions with Kinshasa, Museveni convened the urgent ACGLR meeting. Nothing was certain about what he hoped to achieve.
“Let’s cross the bridge when we get there,” said Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary, James Mugume.
As the shells from DR Congo were falling on Rwanda territory, the head of M23 negotiating team in Kampala, Rene Abandi, was also telling a press conference that the rebels were ready for a bilateral ceasefire.
Abandi added that the M23 Secretary General Benjamin Mbonimpa would be joining its negotiating team in Kampala to “send a message to Kinshasa and the U.N. that the problems in Congo can only be resolved through talks”.
But in reply, Congo’s Information Minister Lambert Mende is reported to have said it would only talk to the rebels if they disarm.
“We are ready to negotiate, but they must first disarm, they have no rights to hold guns” he said.
Mende’s comments meant the DR Congo was prepared for an escalation of fighting since it was unlikely that the rebels would disarm.
Kinshasa appears determined to ignore the warning by Kobler, the UN mission chief, that “there cannot be a military solution to this conflict”.
“Alone even the intervention brigade cannot resolve the political and military problem,” Kobler said stressing the need for a “partnership between the government, Congolese people and international community”.
He also urged a resumption of talks in Kampala between the Congolese government and Rwanda-backed M23 rebels, stalled weeks ago.
At least 800,000 people have fled their homes in DR Congo since the M23 launched its rebellion in April 2012. Eastern DR Congo has been wracked by conflict since 1994, when Hutu militias fled across the border from Rwanda after carrying out a genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutus. How the situation evolves now will depend a lot on how Kagame decides to get involved.