Rebel allies of Rwanda are making rapid inroads
Aug 4th 2012 | GOMA | from the print edition
REBELS in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have moved to within 25km (16 miles) of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, and are threatening to take it if the Congolese government refuses to negotiate. Most of the rebels once fought for the National Congress for the Defence of the People, a Congolese movement known by its French initials, CNDP, that was previously backed by Rwanda. Most of its members are Tutsis, as are the key people in Rwanda’s government.
Under the terms of a peace deal signed on March 23rd 2009, they were integrated into Congo’s army. But in April, complaining that the terms of the deal had been flouted, they mutinied, calling themselves the M23, a reference to the date of the deal. A UN “group of experts” on Congo subsequently published copious evidence that the M23, like the CNDP before it, enjoyed the support of Rwanda, whose president, Paul Kagame, strenuously denies any such thing.
The M23 is ostensibly led by Sultani Makenga, who is loyal to a former CNDP leader, Laurent Nkunda. The UN panel, however, says the rebel group’s actions are orchestrated by Bosco Ntaganda, who ousted Mr Nkunda as the CNDP’s leader before signing the peace deal in 2009. Mr Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes, so the M23 is at pains publicly to distance itself from him.
In any event, the M23 has made rapid advances against a demoralised, ill-disciplined and undersupplied Congolese army. In early July it seized Bunagana, a strategic town on the border with Uganda. It also took Rutshuru, Kiwanja and Rumangabo and is poised to grab the army post at Kibumba, half an hour’s drive from Goma, which is now plainly in its sights.
The M23 may also have infiltrated towns in Masisi district, the CNDP’s heartland during the previous rebellion. A Congolese army regiment in Kitchanga, a trading hub where M23 leaders own a lot of property, consists mainly of former CNDP men. It has not yet joined the M23 mutiny but nor have its commanders sought to arrest M23 people or to seize arms said to be hidden in the town. If Kitchanga and the neighbouring towns of Mweso and Kilolirwe fall to the M23, the rebels would easily be able to take Goma. The UN’s 17,000-strong stabilisation force in Congo has some troops at hand but seems loth to serve as a buffer between the rump of the Congolese army and the rebels.
Should the M23 take Goma or even threaten to do so, Congo’s government may feel obliged to negotiate. If the M23 then struck a deal involving special privileges, Rwanda would acquire, through its unofficial alliance with the M23, a wider sphere of influence in an area rich in minerals. That, say many people on the ground, is just what it wants.