According to the latest reports, M23 leader Sultani Makenga is in Kampala, Uganda, for peace talks at the invitation of the Ugandan military. This comes days after a meeting in Kampala by more than ten presidents from the Great Lakes region in an attempt to find a way out of the latest chapter in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) turbulent story.
Of those present at the conference on Saturday, President Joseph Kabila of the DRC has the most to lose from an escalation in violence. A resurgent opposition in eastern DRC could threaten the already fragile political system in what is arguably Africa's most ungovernable country.
The Fifth Extraordinary Summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region produced a bland statement calling on the M23 to “stop all war activities and withdraw” to their previous positions 12 miles north of North Kivu’s capital of Goma. But M23 has no reason to listen. It controls a major economic centre and reported bilateral talks between Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, M23's political leader, and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni show just how far the group has come. Now that it is in the town square and at the high table, M23's leadership has little incentive to go home.
For Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who was absent from the summit, the stakes are arguably even higher. The erstwhile darling of the international aid community built his domestic support and international tolerance for his authoritarian regime bent on economic growth, and on delivering improved standards of living for the Rwandan people.
But links to M23 have already lost Rwanda direct budgetary support previously and high profile military victories by the rebels are causing Kigali a diplomatic headache. The physical closeness of events just serves to cement Kigali's guilt in the eyes of international observers. Goma's urban sprawl runs right up to the Rwandan border, and M23 soldiers reportedly swung by to gain some applause following their taking of the city.
Of course, Kagame also has the most to gain from M23 successes. An autonomous Tutsi-controlled North Kivu will act as an effective buffer from instability in eastern and central DRC. But Kigali cannot be seen to be too closely involved. Its ascent to a near middle-income country has only happened thanks to its status as a darling of the Western aid community, and nowhere has it been so embraced as in the UK.
But in reality, Kagame does not have much choice but to continue his protestations of innocence to the international community. A swell in support for M23 within eastern DRC and less reliance on Rwanda may make this easier for Kagame to achieve.
Among many commentators' rhetoric, certain headlines have been prominent in coverage of the conflict. Firstly, the media has covered the apparent absurdity of the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO standing by, apparently complacent, as M23 swept into Goma. In a week which saw diplomatic wrangling over potential intervention in Mali and Syria, it seemed peculiar to many that peacekeepers deployed in the eastern DRC were present on the ground and within touching distance, yet allowed M23 to advance so effortlessly.
In reality, it matters little to soldier and civilian alike who controls Goma. The Guardian quoted a South African peacekeeper who claimed, wonderfully candidly, that “we, MONUSCO, have not had any trouble with M23, to be honest”. While FARDC (the Congolese government forces) nominally held Goma prior to this month’s seizure, in fact eastern DRC is controlled by a plethora of armed factions who often run complex systems of taxation, infrastructure construction and mineral extraction described by Vlassenroot and Raeymaekers, two excellent commentators on the region, as “centres of profit, power and protection”.
M23 has made headlines in every major international newspaper not because it is unique, but due to its links to Rwanda and because the scenes of troops capturing a city made dramatic images.
A further standout headline has been the rebels' claim that they would march on Kinshasa. In the short term, this is very unlikely. The capital is over 1,000 miles from Goma, and the core M23 force is thought to number somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 men (at least before defections from the FARDC). M23 has taken the fishing village of Sake, but this cannot be interpreted as the first step in an inevitable march on the capital. Sake is just 15 miles from Goma and of limited strategic importance.
M23 could take Bukavu, in South Kivu, and so strengthen its hold on eastern DRC's mineral reserves. But going any further is a real jump, and one that is not possible without a groundswell in anti-Kabila sentiment. Since 2001, Kabila's hold on the DRC has been shaky, but for most of his time in power he has lived without exerting effective control over North or South Kivu. The loss of Goma was symbolic and made Kabila unpopular among nationalists in Kinshasa, but its strategic importance is limited in the national sense.
The big remaining question is how Kabila will react. Sources in Kinshasa report that opposition sentiment is high. After all, one of former Congolese leader Mobutu Sese Seko's real successes was to foster a sense of nationhood in a country that, by many measures, is just too big, diverse and arguably ungovernable to exist as a single state.
However, the latest chapter in the DRC-Rwanda saga may actually provide an opportunity for the vast country to gain the upper hand over its tiny central African neighbour. For the last decade, while the DRC has struggled to approach anything like stability or homogeneity following the devastating conflict from 1997-2003, Rwanda's economic indicators have soared to the extent that it is approaching middle-income status. Kigali has acted as an alternative centre of gravity to Kinshasa. But despite Kabila's inability to provide any sort of substantial military resistance to M23, an international backlash against Kagame's regime may serve to swing the balance of power back in Kinshasa's favour.
One big unknown remains: the ability and will of M23 to turn preliminary military successes into a more broad-based movement. Early defections from the FARDC have shown that they can capitalise on the disaffection of a local populace. But the motivation for M23's leadership to hold its position and grow rich on mineral extraction should not be discounted. If the will is there, then the last week has shown that the FARDC has limited power to resist.
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