Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the eastern DRC?

The region and international community must act decisively to prevent Kabila and Museveni from undermining the rare good news from this part of the world.

There was always a danger that if the international community helped the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) defeat the M23 rebels on the battlefield, it would have to deal with a triumphalist DRC President Joseph Kabila reneging on his other commitments.

And that now seems to be happening. The DRC army FARDC, strongly supported by the powerful Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) comprising South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops, routed M23 and forced it to declare an end to its 18-month-long rebellion on 5 November.

On 11 November the M23 and the DRC government were supposed to meet in Kampala to sign a peace agreement which they had already initialed before the final defeat of the M23. But the DRC delegation failed to show up, infuriating Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the official facilitator of the negotiations, who stormed out of the planned ceremony. The DRC delegation did eventually show up. Apparently they didn’t like the high-profile ceremony Museveni had planned; the DRC’s view is that it has defeated the M23 so the rest is just a formality and so why the big fuss?

That is also the position it took when negotiations later resumed to conclude the agreement. The DRC did not want the document to be called an ‘agreement’ because that would suggest a compromise between two equal partners, rather than the comprehensive military defeat it had inflicted on the M23. It preferred a mere ‘declaration’ which would convey the fact of its victory and then deal with the practicalities of the deal, such as the re-integration into FARDC of those rank-and-file M23 members who don’t face prosecution for war crimes.

And so the disagreement between the DRC government and the M23 has been described as a mere semantic difference about the title only, rather than the substance of the agreement. In fact it goes deeper than that, reaching down to the fundamental and historical political mistrust and tension that have long bedeviled relations among the DRC and its neighbours and among the ethnic groups involved.

For one thing, the DRC government insists that the real problem with the agreement is that the M23 – with Museveni’s support – does not want to put its name to anything which declares that its rebellion is completely over. Kinshasa also has misgivings about what Museveni intends to do with the 1 500-odd M23 soldiers, including their military leader Sultani Makenga who has taken refuge in Uganda, which was accused by the United Nations (UN) of backing the M23.

Nevertheless it looks like Kinshasa is the side doing the reneging and this is raising doubts and concerns about whether it will meet its other commitments under the Framework for Peace, Security and Cooperation which the DRC, its neighbours and the international community signed in Addis Ababa in February. These include major reforms to its security sector and to general governance of the eastern DRC.

Military analyst Helmoed Römer Heitmandescribed Kabila’s stance as ‘incredibly stupid’ and triumphalist, because it is based on the dubious assumption that he has eliminated the threat of M23 forever when there is every danger that the armed group is merely biding its time for a return match.

Yet, despite such appearances, the members of the international community most involved in the process seem on the whole more sympathetic to Kabila than to Museveni over this latest contretemps. One such diplomat said he could understand Kabila’s view ‘that an agreement between two parties, one of which no longer exists, is a problem … There must be a way to express it differently and Museveni has not been very helpful on this,’ the diplomat continued, referring to the Ugandan president’s apparent insistence that the peace deal should not imply that the M23 was now history.

Like the international diplomats, Stephanie Wolters, DRC expert at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), believes that Kabila has so much popular support in the DRC for his refusal to sign a peace ‘agreement’ with the M23, that it is politically almost impossible for him to do otherwise. ‘He is getting tremendous support from right across the political spectrum for his view that the DRC does not need to sign a peace agreement with a discredited movement with no popular support that has been defeated. And that does make sense,’ she adds.

However Wolters also believes it is understandable that some members of the international community are accusing Kabila of gross ingratitude for accepting military support to defeat the M23 and then failing to follow through by signing the peace deal. She fears, as others do, that if the peace deal is not somehow signed and sealed, the M23 could come back to haunt the eastern DRC. And the failure to conclude a formal peace deal might also jeopardize the DRC and international community’s efforts to neutralize the other armed rebel groups in the region, such as the FDLR.

It does seem at least that the latest impasse will raise doubts about Kinshasa’s commitment to pursue the FDLR in particular and that could have knock-on effects with Rwanda for whom the FDLR has been the primary problem all along.

It could be argued that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) now bears a special responsibility to step into this dangerous impasse. It was SADC members that put up the troops for the Force Intervention Brigade which was crucial in defeating the M23. That provides the organisation with leverage over Kabila. But Wolters warns that it won’t help to chastise Kabila right now, given the huge – and one might add, rather rare – popular support for his stance.

But she does believe that SADC or someone else should take him aside and suggest to him that this is a great opportunity to capitalise on his military victory by playing the statesman and rising above some of the pettier disagreements over the peace deal. Ideally someone should be doing the same with Museveni although it’s unlikely anyone has such influence over him.

Whoever has influence over either side, though, should now use it to prevent last week’s rare good news from the eastern DRC going the way of most news from that part of the world, that is, very sour.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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