Can defeat of M23 rebels foster sustained peace in Congo?

As many as 40 militias are operating in eastern Congo, where mineral resources drive conflict. But some see hope in a more robust UN force and Congolese Army.

Kenny Katombe/Reuters
Residents participate in a parade to celebrate the victory by the government military forces over the M23 rebel fighters in the Congolese eastern town of Goma, November 7, 2013.

The defeat of one of the most notorious rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo by a beefed-up United Nations force and a rejuvenated national Army has raised hopes that other militias ravaging the country’s east could also be brought to heel. 

After close to two decades of civil war, however, analysts urge caution, and warn that the capitulation of the M23 guerrillas this week does not immediately signal the first step to sustained calm in the region. 

A peace deal between Congo’s government and rebel leaders could be signed as soon as Monday, sources said Friday, after key commanders all fled into neighboring Uganda and surrendered. 

The M23 said this week that its 18-month armed insurrection was over and that it would instead pursue its grievances through political negotiations. 
But it is only one of as many as 40 different armed groups operating in Congo’s east, where earth rich in minerals complicates rebellions that appear to be about control of territory but are, at base, ways to loot resources. 

Caught in the middle are millions of civilians who have borne the brunt of some of the worst and most sustained violence seen in any modern conflict. 
Until Congo’s Army was overhauled this year, it was one itself of the “worst perpetrators of human rights abuses,” according to Timo Mueller, senior Congo researcher for The Enough Project, an advocacy organization. 

The United Nations peacekeeping force deployed to protect civilians in eastern Congo, known as Monusco, had also faced years of accusations of failing to protect people in the line of fire. 

However, the UN has a new, more robust “intervention brigade” of 3,000 soldiers, and the Congolese Army has a new commander, is being paid on time, and appears to have found a new lease of pride. 

“There is a very rare thing happening, which is that the Army is bathing in popular approval,” says Mr. Mueller. “At the same time, the UN’s intervention brigade’s motivation was to re-establish a deterrent effect, and to show the international community and the armed groups that it has teeth, that it is the new sheriff in town.” 

Both were factors in the M23’s defeat, and could provide the momentum to go after other rebel groups, including the notorious Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the FDLR. 

It was formed by people allegedly responsible for the genocide in Rwanda, and is now the highest-profile of the remaining armed groups in eastern Congo. 

“The UN has said they plan to move on to address the threat posed by the FDLR and numerous other groups who have also committed horrific attacks on civilians in eastern Congo,” says Ida Sawyer, an expert on Congo at Human Rights Watch. 

“Hopefully the UN’s strong action against the M23 will serve as a warning to other armed groups, and encourage combatants to disarm,” she adds. 

The worry is, however, that gung-ho offensives against remaining rebels could once again leave civilians fleeing their homes amid retributive attacks from retreating militia. 

“Any military operations need to be accompanied with greater efforts by the Congolese government to restore state authority, address community grievances … and ensure that rebel leaders are arrested and brought to justice,” Ms. Sawyer says. 

Among the celebrations of the defeat of the M23, “we must not lose sight of the fact that there are many other armed groups still operating in this region,” said Tariq Riebl, humanitarian coordinator for Congo for Oxfam.  

Time is of the essence, he warned, and there must be a focus on the threats those other rebel armies pose “if lasting peace is to be achieved." 

Failing to address the deeper causes of conflict and the proliferation of armed groups would be a missed opportunity for communities to put the crisis behind them and pick up their lives,” Mr. Riebl said in a statement.

“Now, more than ever, the Congolese government and international community must take steps to ensure that other groups don’t move in to fill the space left by the disbanding of M23.” 

A key factor will be the reaction of Rwanda, Congo’s neighbor, whose government and military have denied repeated reports that they were supporting the M23. M23 troops were drawn from the same Tutsi ethnic group that was the target of the 1994 genocide. 

Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, has always said that his country’s involvement in eastern Congo – he has officially invaded his neighbor twice – was to root out forces who carried out the genocide, including the FDLR. 

Rwanda, a temporary UN Security Council member, made it clear this week that it would not hesitate to send troops over the border if Congo’s Army failed to stamp out the FDLR.

"Rwanda remains fully prepared to use all necessary means to protect its people and territory," Eugene Richard Gasana, Rwanda’s ambassador to the UN, was quoted as saying during a closed door Security Council meeting in New York.

Such statements are unlikely to increase the confidence of ordinary people living in eastern Congo that anything has truly changed. 

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