In eastern Congo, a new peace deal brings halting optimism

Eleven countries signed a deal this week to bring troops and support to the conflict-ridden region, but stability is still a long way off, writes Tom Murphy. 

AP Photo/Melanie Gouby
People flee as fighting erupts between the M23 rebels and Congolese Army near the airport at Goma, Congo.

A version of this post first appeared on the author's blog, A View From the Cave.  The views expressed are the author's own.

There is a new peace deal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, the outlook is mixed.

11 countries (Congo, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia) signed onto the deal at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia.

The Central African coalition agreed to provide support, including 2,500 troops, to stabilize a country that has been beset by conflict for decades.

It’s not stable yet, and many are uncertain if this negotiated deal will accomplish much. 

The driving force behind the new deal was the advance of the M23 rebels. The rebels are remnants of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a group that formally integrated into the Congolese government in 2009 and whose military made the transition as well. A few hundred ethnic Tutsi, many former CNDP members, broke off in April 2012 to form the M23 rebellion under the leadership of General Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda.

M23 rebels launched attacks on Congolese forces and displaced people living in the eastern Congo. A large push by the rebels led to the capture of the main city of Goma this past November.  A standoff ensued between the rebels and the Congolese government. Fighting took place outside of Goma and it later emerged that both sides committed human rights violations and that Rwandan soldiers were supporting the M23 rebels. An ultimatum from the Congolese government with the backing of regional powers led M23 to vacate Goma at the end of November.

Skirmishes continued since and leading up to the peace deal this week. Its announcement was met by a variety of reactions from people with knowledge of the situation in the Congo.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon used his remarks at the signing to announce the imminent appointment of a special envoy and stressed the importance and his optimism for a solution. “The situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo must remain a top priority on the international agenda,” he said. “It is my earnest hope that the Framework will lead to an era of peace and stability for the peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Great Lakes region.”

A cautious sentiment was taken by the UN mission head in the eastern Congo's North Kivu province, Alex Queval, who told Al Jazeera, ”I think it would be wrong to have too great expectations because the situation here is very difficult. The conflict has been going on for at least 19 years, so it’s not going to be solved overnight, but I definitely think that this approach can be a new beginning.”

Academic and African Monitor blogger Laura Seay took a more pessimistic stance about the outlook of the peace deal. In a Twitter interview with Mark Goldberg of the UN Dispatch, she explained why – Goma still remains vulnerable to capture by M23 and the plan requires support from the regional players.

“There’s little reason to believe that Rwanda will actually stop funding M23 or stay out. History suggests otherwise,” she tweeted.

Rwanda saw its foreign aid suspended as the result of evidence showing its support for the M23 rebellion. Ms. Seay sees its participation as an effort to restore the money. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and philanthropist Howard Buffett came to the defense of Rwanda in a recent Foreign Policy article. They warn of the costs of making aid cuts to both Rwanda and the region more broadly.

Slashing international support to Rwanda ignores the complexity of the problem within Congo's own borders and the history and circumstances that have led to current regional dynamics. Cutting aid does nothing to address the underlying issues driving conflict in the region, it only ensures that the Rwandan people will suffer — and risks further destabilizing an already troubled region.

Seay disagreed with the two in a blog post. She argued that the aid money does not detract from programming, but rather allows Rwanda to divert money that would go into social programs into its military support of M23.

Blair and Buffett also ignore the fact that having so much aid support frees up other resources for the Rwandan government to use in its military adventures in the Congo. Were Rwanda not wasting money on supporting the M23, Kigali would be able to fund many of the excellent development initiatives that were previously funded with aid dollars.

Congolese activist Kambale Musavuli rejected the idea of a peace plan without a justice element. He wrote on Facebook, “The fact that Kabila signed the UN framework agreement shows clearly that he does not serve the interest of the Congolese people, just for those who still had doubt. This is the guy, Kabila, who took 9 months to talk to his people that Rwanda had in fact attacked the Congo.” It continues by posing a series of questions regarding lingering issues that are not addressed by the peace deal.

Meanwhile, M23 is beginning to show some internal cracks. Fighting between rival groups representing a power struggle between political leader Jean-Marie Runiga and military chief Sultani Makenga left 8 people dead, reported the BBC. What remains are questions about what may be lie ahead for the Congo. 

Kris Berwouts raised this point at the end of a piece for African Arguments on a Congo peace deal shortly before it was announced, writing, “So there is a lot of talk about dialogue these days here in Kinshasa. Will that bring back a bit of legitimacy or national cohesion after the failed elections and one year of M23? I doubt it. I don’t easily believe in miracles. But after all, this is Congo, where nothing ever seems to work but everything remains possible.”

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