Last-minute shift could jeopardize Congo peace talks

Gen. Laurent Nkunda's rebel group says Congo's move to invite 20 other rebel groups could scupper bilateral talks that began Monday.

Rich Clabaugh/STAFF
Antony Njuguna/Reuters
Talks begin: Delegates of Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda listened Monday during the official opening of peace talks between Mr. Nkunda's rebels and Congo's government in Nairobi, Kenya.

Talks to end three months of fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo started in Nairobi on Monday, raising hopes that nearly 260,000 internal refugees may finally be able to go home.

The bilateral talks, brokered by United Nations envoy and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, are the first positive sign since fighting broke out between Gen. Laurent Nkunda's rebels and government forces, a conflict that has exposed the ineffectiveness of the Congolese Army and stretched the UN peacekeeping force to the breaking point.

A last-minute glitch in the talks between General Nkunda's representatives and the Congolese government still could bring the talks to a precipitous halt. Congo's government announced this weekend that it had invited more than 20 other rebel groups to the talks, a move that Nkunda's spokesman called "impossible" and likely to scupper the talks altogether.

"It could be over, if the government actually gets all these 22 groups on the plane for Nairobi," says Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Brussels.

Of the 22 recognized armed groups in eastern Congo, Nkunda's militia is "the most important, the most significant," adds Ms. Van Woudenberg, a fact demonstrated by their ability to push the Congolese Army around at will and unleash fighting that displaced some 260,000 people in a matter of weeks.

Bringing other smaller rebel groups to the table may prompt Nkunda's people to walk out. "This is one of the reasons why [Nkunda's group] stopped talking with the government," says Van Woudenberg. "They felt that the government is padding its support...."

Monday's talks in Nairobi came as the European Union wrangled in Brussels over whether to support the UN's call for an EU force to boost the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Congo.

The temporary "bridging force" would help provide security, and if the two sides can agree to a cease-fire, there is a chance for longer-term peace talks to start once more and for hundreds of thousands of internal refugees to return home.

"If they manage to get a cease-fire, that will be quite important," says Van Woudenberg. "But these things are unpredictable, and if they can't get a cease-fire, that would be a real blow to finding a solution to the conflict."

The talks are an attempt to resurrect a peace agreement signed by Nkunda's militia, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) and 21 other rebel groups on Jan. 23 of this year. Under the peace deal, the CNDP and other groups agreed to disarm and reintegrate into the Congolese Army under the condition that the Congolese government address the various rebel grievances.

For the CNDP, the main grievance is the continued presence of a Hutu-led rebel group comprised mostly of fighters who carried out the genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda in 1994. The CNDP, manned primarily by ethnic Tutsis of Congolese origin, sees this rebel group as an existential threat, and says the Congolese Army has done too little to push them out of Congo.

The Congolese government of President Joseph Kabila, argues that it can only deal with external threats after it has disarmed, integrated, or neutralized internal armed groups, and UN peacekeepers have found themselves in the position of helping the weak and corrupt Congolese government bring peace to the region.

On arrival in Nairobi, Congolese foreign minister Alex Thambwe Mwamba raised hopes for a peaceful settlement. "We are convinced that since we started this process of direct bilateral contact [with Nkunda's militia], things have started to move forward," he told Kenyan television. "They are moving slowly, that's for sure, but they are advancing toward the end of the war...."

But CNDP foreign affairs spokesman Rene Abandi warned that the talks could be canceled if the government brings along other rebel groups. "We cannot allow discussions with 20 other militias," Mr. Abandi told the Reuters news agency. "Otherwise we would stay at home. We have not made this journey for nothing."

Analyst David Monyae calls the Nairobi talks a "golden opportunity" to bring peace to Congo's mineral-rich east region, but also an important moment for the international community to reverse a trend of awarding aggression.

"The question is how to rehabilitate [Nkunda] in a way that doesn't cause more trouble," says Mr. Monyae, a professor of international relations at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa. "On the continent in general, and in Congo in particular, there is a problem of impunity. The more people you kill, the more you are taken seriously. The more you abide by agreements, the more you are seen as insignificant."

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