Tricky limbo in eastern Congo

Tough times for the MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade. Put up by the UN Security council’s latest mandate almost half a year ago, this offensive arm of the largest peacekeeping mission worldwide is tasked to “neutralise” armed groups in eastern Congo. A daunting job, not least because the latter are at an estimated number of 50 in the region, ranging from small rag-tag militia of 20 to larger, organised rebel armies of a few thousand such as M23 and FDLR.

During the Congolese army’s most recent offensive against M23’s positions north of Goma (combats still in the vicinity of Kibati and Kibumba, the intervention brigade for a first time showed muscles. With FARDC, the M23 was jointly attacked through artillery and aircraft, while DRC soldiers also engaged in infantry confrontation. Casualties are reported tom be relatively high on both sides, with specific numbers hardly available. For the MONUSCO brigade, this is different: As we hear, a Tanzanian soldiers has been killed and a few others injured by M23 fire.

In the meantime, heavy shelling has shattered the city of Goma, causing civilian deaths, injuries, and angry protests. Those target MONUSCO, considered to be failing in protecting the populations, but also the Congolese government and M23 (conspiracy theories put them together). Last weekend’s demonstrations caused two Congolese victims – allegedly shot by MONUSCO troops or Congolese policemen. Existing tension have been augmented through that incident. On the other side of the border, the town of Gisenyi (also known as Rubavu, such as the surrounding district) has been hit by shelling too. While Rwanda accuses Congolese government forces, the latter join MONUSCO in stating M23 was firing into Rwanda to draw in their army. Rwanda has declared it will not longer tolerate violations of their territory and allegedly also blocked a Security Council declaration condemning M23 for these events.

On the MONUSCO side, the mission’s new head, Martin Kobler takes up a pronounced stand. He defends MONUSCO’s attacks on M23 as necessary and legitimate, condemned the killing of a blue helmet, and paid tribute to fallen FARDC soldiers. However, he does not get tired saying that the invervention brigade is no magic solution and Congolese were responsible first. Against this backdrop, the longtime idle Kampala talks have completely disappeared from surface, while major protagonists (even those currently engaging in conflict) continue to keep them alive rhetorically.

The last couple of days have shown the full complexity of a situation already announced. A UN fighting force engages in the DRC. Logistically, it is by far too weak (and will probably remain even after South African attack helicopters arrive) to engage with all armed groups at the same time, while politically the mission still lacks the strength to emancipate its action from a reticent Congolese government. M23 and Rwanda (whatever their interrelation currently is) both attack the FARDC-MONUSCO coalition for alleged cooperation with FDLR. As with accusations of M23-Rwanda coalition, substantial evidence also lacks in this case.

As the UN Security Council, upon request by France, is currently debating the situation, many fear a further escalation. Fighting between FARDC, MONUSCO, and M23 has not yet brought any significant territorial wins for any side. The collateral damage though, is on the ride. Rwanda will, for understandable reasons, not eternally tolerate mortars on their soil and seems to be deploying troops towards the DRC border (without having crossed it so far). Once RDF troops would get involved into the skirmishes, it would mean Rwandan troops (at least indirectly) opposed to blue helmets. Bad memories arise and all sides are well-advised to avoid such a situation. It would also mean Rwandan troops against Tanzanian (with relations already strained) and South African troops. MONUSCO has a similar mass of reasons to avoid whichever possible confrontation at all cost – if it is only to maintain a glimpse of impartiality.

Probably phone lines between Goma, Kinshasa, Kigali, Bunagana, and New York are frequently used in these hours. If it had not already earlier been time for that, the moment for de-escalative diplomacy between DRC, the UN, and Rwanda, between FARDC and M23 (which is less likely as warmongering has been strongest among those counterparts) has come.

If a critical mass of the concerned actors opt for a military solution, it is going to be a difficult game for all parties, and a potential lose-lose situation. While FARDC, despite recent shows of force, might not have the same overall coherence than M23, the latter would sooner or later run out of troops and supplies (not, however, without before weakening their adversaries). MONUSCO runs high risk of encountering further casualties or even lack military punch to lead FARDC to a military victory over M23. The loss of reputation going along with partially concentrating on only one armed groups adds to that. Rwanda, despite the need to protect its territory would opt for a risk difficult to calculate, if ever joining in. Dull prospects for all sides, making again a point for careful crisis diplomacy in these days.

Postcriptum: The notion of careful crisis diplomacy could easily be transferred to careful crisis twiplomacy too. The economy of rumours, on both sides of the border, has been tremendous within the last 48 hours.

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  1. […] mediation efforts have ground to a temporary halt. With opinions varying between anticipation of a window of opportunity and imminent regional war it is time to ask: Who pulls the strings, what is at stake, and why do things […]

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