Concerned by the serious peace and security threats the protracted conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) poses to stability in the Great Lakes and Southern African regions, regional leaders have stepped up their efforts to find a long-term solution to the Congolese crisis. Sustained attention of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) since the formation of the M23 rebel group in April 2012, and the involvement of the South African Development Community (SADC) have led to the proposal of a 4,000-strong International Neutral Force (INF), mandated to neutralize the destructive armed groups operating in eastern DRC. In addition, the ICGLR is facilitating a negotiation process between the Congolese government and the M23 following the twelve-day capture of Goma, the capital of the mineral-rich North Kivu province, in November.
At a time when the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) is being criticized for its limited effectiveness during Goma’s occupation, can the ongoing regional efforts provide a viable complement to the United Nations stabilization efforts? What more can be done to facilitate the emergence of an effective and sustainable solution to the crisis in eastern DRC?
- MONUSCO’s limited assistance to Goma’s populations during the M23’s occupation has raised concerns about the expensive mission’s capacity to effectively implement its protection of civilians’ mandate in the DRC.
- In that context, the decision by regional leaders in the Great Lakes and Southern African regions to step up their efforts to achieve lasting peace in eastern DRC could prove a useful complement to the international community’s initiatives.
- However, regional competitions and suspicions, and the challenges linked to the operationalization of the planned INF, call for the harmonization, with existing UN initiatives, of both the security and political strategies proposed by ICGLR and SADC leaders, and their coordination under the larger AU framework.
Following an eight-month uprising against the Congolese government punctuated by clashes with the national army, the M23 rebel group seized Goma on November 20, 2012. After unanimous international and regional condemnation, the estimated 1,500 rebels withdrew on December 1 in exchange for negotiations with the Congolese government.
Goma’s temporary capture led to a renewed wave of insecurity in the region, with reports of civilians being killed and wounded, children being recruited and used by the rebels, as well as cases of summary executions, rape and sexual violence, and an estimated 130,000 people newly displaced, adding to the 841,000 others who had already fled the recurring violence.
Out of its 19,000 troops, 1,500 MONUSCO peacekeepers are stationed in Goma. The fall of the town, as well as the massive human rights abuses that followed, raised questions about MONUSCO’s mandate, including the protection of civilians, and suggestions have been made to strengthen the UN force.
A plan to complement MONUSCO’s efforts and reaffirm regional leadership in finding a solution to the peace and security challenges in the region was put forth by the ICGLR during an extraordinary summit on the security situation in eastern DRC in July in Addis Ababa. The eleven ICGLR countries proposed to work with the African Union (AU) and the UN to establish a neutral international force to eradicate the rebel groups in eastern DRC, including the M23 rebel group and the Hutu extremists FDLR (Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda) who fled to eastern Congo after their participation in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. A special committee comprised of the defense ministers from Angola, Burundi, Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, in addition to the DRC, was later mandated to provide details on the operationalization of the proposed force. The Addis Ababa summit also called on Rwanda and the DRC to fully operationalize and expand their joint verification mechanism, which monitors the border between the two countries.
Following initial disagreement over the composition of the force and the origin of its troops, Goma’s occupation by M23 rebels pushed the ICGLR to solidify their regional plans for the proposed INF. ICGLR’s efforts are complemented by SADC’s, which agreed in early December in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to deploy a regional standby force under the auspices of the planned INF. Of SADC’s thirteen members, five of them—Angola, DRC, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia—are also members of ICGLR. Tanzania pledged 800 troops and the provision of a force commander; Zimbabwe recently pledged to deploy troops as well. South Africa, which opposed the recent election of Rwanda for a two-year non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council in October, offered logistical support. Additional efforts are undertaken to secure resources from countries including Nigeria, Algeria, and Angola, as well as the AU (which also pledged troops), the UN, and other partners.
In addition to the security approach, Great Lakes leaders have encouraged talks between the Congolese government and the M23. The talks are facilitated by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the current ICGLR chairman. Having withdrawn from Goma following an agreement reached in Kampala in late November, the rebels need to negotiate their reintegration into the Congolese armed forces. M23 rebels first lamented the poor conditions in the army and the Congolese government’s reluctance to implement the March 23, 2009 Goma peace agreement signed with the Tutsi rebels of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP); they have since extended their grievances to issues of governance, and have called for a national political dialogue in the country. Persuaded by its neighbors, the DRC has committed to looking into the legitimate concerns expressed by the M23 and addressing them to the best extent possible.
However, a history of aggression by Rwanda and Uganda in 1998, combined with persistent suspicion of both neighbors’ backing of local militias, and new evidence presented in a 2012 report of the UN Group of Experts on the DRC of Rwanda’s provision and training of troops and of Uganda’s logistical support to the M23 have resulted in profound distrust between the DRC and its two neighbors. Both countries have strongly and unsurprisingly denied the report’s findings. In fact, following its election at the UN Security Council, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, presented her country as “a neighbor that can contribute to peace in the DRC.” Indeed, M23’s withdrawal from Goma came a day after the British government announced it would freeze $34 million in aid to Rwanda, and both Rwanda and Uganda are actively involved in initiatives to restore stability in eastern DRC.
Thirteen years after the establishment of the UN operation in the DRC (whose annual budget now stands at $1,402,278,300) for a conflict that has caused the deaths of an estimated 5 million people, regional efforts to find a lasting solution to the Congolese crisis can only be encouraged. In particular, a political process that can help the government address the root causes of the prolonged instability is a necessary step towards lasting peace. In eastern DRC, these underlying factors of violence include the weak local institutions and national army; persistent economic marginalization linked to the illegal exploitation and inequitable sharing of the vast resources; as well as grassroots grievances related to land access, ethnic tensions, and the integration of returning refugees into communities already under stress. Congo’s neighbors, also affected by the crisis, certainly have an interest in addressing the conflict.
To mitigate regional rivalries, overcome suspicions, and start addressing the critical issues of funding, equipment and capability of the proposed INF in a region where the current outcomes have not matched the significant resources invested, the ICGLR’s and SADC’s efforts to restore sustainable peace in the DRC should be harmonized with the existing UN initiatives and coordinated under the AU continental framework, which brings together both subregional groupings. In that sense, to continue pursuing peace in the DRC and building on the facilitation of the 2009 Goma peace agreement by former Nigeria and Tanzania presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Benjamin Mkapa, recommendations are being made for the appointment of a joint UN/AU envoy that will contribute to advancing a new political process.
Mireille Affa’a-Mindzie is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute.