Note: Some readers may find the images in this article distressing.
Ordinarily, the streets of Goma are bustling with activity; the capital of the North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the largest city in the country’s east is filled with trucks, cars and the region’s distinctive tsukudu (wooden bicycles), which jostle for space on the dusty main avenues. But in the last couple of weeks, the relative stability of Goma has been shattered by the arrival of the M23 rebels.
"The city and neighbourhoods are quiet, everyone is staying at home," local journalist David Kalinga told New Matilda last week. "There are record numbers of crimes, kidnappings, and bouts of score-settling during the night. Fear hangs over the city."
The M23’s presence in Goma was unquestionably disruptive. During a press briefing in Kinshasa last week, government spokesperson Lambert Mende described a "systematic raid" which focused on the looting of private residences, warehouses and vehicles, both official and private. Critical utilities, including banks and government offices, remain closed, hampering the efforts of residents to conduct business, or even ensure they have enough money to purchase basic goods and services.
Although not the only rebel group operating in the region, the M23 has been the clear focus of Western media and diplomatic attention due to their sophisticated training and equipment, facilitated in large part by what is believed to be high-level backing from Rwanda — a charge the country has consistently denied.
However, Rwanda’s repeated denials of involvement with the M23 have steadily lost credibility over the past few months within the international diplomatic community. Last Friday the UK Government announced it would be withholding aid to Rwanda on the basis of "credible and compelling" evidence of involvement.
The final UN Group of Experts report on Congo released a couple of weeks ago deemed the M23 an extension of the Rwandan military apparatus, noting in particular backing from Rwanda’s defence minister.
As Great Lakes expert Jason Stearns explains in a recent report,
"The main force driving the rebellion is the belief, held in Kigali as well as among Tutsi businessmen and military commanders in North Kivu, that the dysfunctional Congolese government will not be able to protect their varied interests — their security, investments, and political power. In order to safeguard these assets, they have backed armed groups: the CNDP between 2004 and 2009 and, since April 2012, the M23."
For a number of historical reasons, many Congolese Tutsi living in the Kivus have little faith in the ability or willingness of the central DRC government to protect their interests or safety. But this attitude is far from prevalent among all Congolese Tutsi.
As Stearns points out, it isn’t as simple as a basic for-or-against equation. "Deep tensions have emerged between Congolese Tutsi and the RPF (Rwandan army)," he noted. "These tensions have grown, and the M23 seems to be a turning point in relations. A majority of Congolese Tutsi officers have refused to join the mutiny, and have been used by Kinshasa in the front line against the M23."
The precise motivations behind the creation of the M23 remain unclear, but the basic story is generally agreed to run something like this — a group of soldiers under the control of alleged war criminal, General Bosco Ntaganda, defected away from the FARDC (the official Congolese army) in April 2012. The group’s reasons for the mutiny range from poor pay to inadequate logistical support, but a closer analysis of the M23’s effective predecessor, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), offers some alternative clues.
In 2009, a similar scenario played out when the CNDP marched on Goma. On that occasion, they stopped at the city gates, happy to have exposed the inability of President Kabila to control that part of the country. Talks yielded a deal which resulted in the CNDP dissolving and its fighters integrating into the FARDC.
But within the region, soldiers often go unpaid for six months or more, with minimal equipment, training, and loyalty. It was thus always a delicate scenario, and wasn’t helped when Kabila, freshly re-elected and under pressure from the international community, decided to have another go at cracking down on alleged war criminal Ntaganda.
If a lack of clarity revolves around the M23’s ultimate motives, so too is it impossible to fully discern Rwanda’s thinking (not least because of their official denials of involvement). Congo’s neighbours continue to benefit from an illegal trade in the minerals which, on paper, make the DRC among the richest countries on earth.
It is in Rwanda’s interests for the eastern Congo to remain somewhat unstable, so that it may exert influence within the Kivus. Although tiny in size compared to the DRC, Rwanda punches above its weight within the region in economic and diplomatic terms, in part due to the weakness of Kinshasa to impose any sense of authority on eastern DRC. In this context, minerals smuggled across the Congo-Rwanda border remain a concern, even if Rwanda operates less brazenly now than it did a decade ago, when trucks filled with riches from Congolese mines drove openly through the streets of Kigali. But if the Kivus erupt with violence, that instability has unpredictable and potentially negative consequences for Rwanda’s own security and economic prospects. Rwanda treads a fine line.
It may be that with increasing international pressure, Rwanda decides that it has gotten what it wants out of the M23. But of this or any other scenario, there are no guarantees. This is why continued international focus on the "Congo problem" remains vital — not to mention a serious reconsideration of the role of the MONUSCO peacekeeping mission, a demonstrably failed initiative towards which Australia alone has contributed $150 million since 2007.
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