On Monday morning, the M23 rebel group and the Congolese army, or FARDC, clashed in the village of Mutaho, approximately six miles northwest of the provincial capital of Goma. The fighting comes after six months of relative calm between the warring parties following the 12-day occupation of Goma by M23 in November 2012.
The fighting lasted about two hours with small skirmishes continuing thereafter. The United Nations peacekeeping mission MONUSCO said “initial skirmishes escalated to the use of heavy caliber automatic weapons, mortars and rocket launchers. It is reported that FARDC used attack helicopters, in one of their operations,” MONUSCO said. FARDC Colonel Hamuli proclaimed that “[w]e're sending reinforcements. We must protect the town of Goma at all costs". FARDC commander Lt. Col. Mamadou Ndala later specified that 600 commandos were being deployed to protect Goma. The Enough Project can report the redeployment of three Congolese army tanks.
MONUSCO estimates that the fighting displaced close to 1,000 civilians. The Enough Project witnessed a large gathering of about 200 civilians camping outside a MONUSCO military base.
Naming and shaming
Fortunately, according to a MONUSCO source, no civilian casualties were accounted for on Monday. The government later said that M23 lost 15 men with another 21 men injured; FARDC lost four soldiers with another six injured. On Monday afternoon, Vice-Governor of North Kivu Feller Lutahichirwa assured the residents of Goma that the “situation is under control.”
Army spokesperson Colonel Olivier Hamuli claimed that the rebels attacked the army’s position in order to secure the strategic town of Mugunga, just west of Goma. He told The Enough Project that M23 has been threating to re-take Goma since last week to prevent the deployment of the UN Intervention Brigade. The Spokesperson of the Government, Lambert Mende, later echoed his remarks, adding that “foreign elements” support M23.
North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku believes that M23 initiated the offense in order to send a direct message to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, casting doubt over a new UN-initiated peace initiative known as the 11+4 framework. Ban Ki-moon is slated to visit Goma on Thursday together with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and U.N. envoy to the Great Lakes Region Mary Robinson. M23 President Bertrand Bisimwa tweeted on Tuesday that “Ban Ki-moon should advise the Congolese government to stop war for a peace process. Talks are still the only way for peace in our country.”
The rebel movement shrugged off these assertions and in turn blamed the army. In an official statement, the group said the army attacked M23 after the latter had repelled an attack by another rebel movement known as FDLR. On May 2nd, M23 President Bertrand Bisimwa claimed that the army is working in conjunction with FDLR, eager to advance on the rebel group. It comes to no surprise then that M23 proclaimed it acted yesterday in “self-defense.” Following the fighting, M23’s military spokesman Vianney Kazarama boasted that M23 had secured key positions around Goma but clarified that his group does not intend to take Goma.
Will M23 re-occupy Goma?
Today’s fighting mirrors the lead-up to the taking of Goma in November 2012 when M23 occupied the eastern Congo’s economic powerhouse – home to over 200 U.N. and international aid agencies – supposedly as an act of self-defense. But will Goma fall again? It’s hard to tell.
M23 is suffering from increased defections and efforts to compensate its loss through recruitment campaigns appear to be falling short. Despite rumors that M23 received new military hardware and even support from Rwanda, it is unlikely that the rebels could hold Goma for an extended period of time. While M23 says the group has as many as 4,500 men, independent reports put the numbers of M23 combatants between 1,200 – 1,500. M23 may want to continue various offensives in order to have a bargaining chip in the face of a new foe.
The fighting at the outskirts of Goma comes on the heels of the deployment of a 3,000-man force that the UN Security Council mandated to “neutralize” and “disarm” armed groups in eastern Congo. Over the last two months, M23 has lashed out against the brigade, publicly threating troop contributing countries and vowing to “fight back” if attacked by the brigade. M23 has also reportedly tried twice to convince people living in its controlled territory to demonstrate against the deployment of the FIB but the population refused. With the first contingent of the force arriving in Goma last week, the pressure on M23 is gradually increasing. Ban Ki-moon said today that "[c]onsidering what has happened I think we must expedite the deployment so they will be fully responsible as soon as possible."
However, re-occupying Goma would seriously derail M23’s current public relations strategy that rests on two pillars: Insisting on holding further peace talks, it decries the U.N. intervention brigade to be a declaration of war towards ordinary Congolese. Taking Goma would tarnish M23’s self-made image as a force for good.
Similarly, re-occupying Goma would kill the group’s slim chances of striking a peace deal with the government. While the dialogue in Kampala remains at an impasse, Mary Robinson and the African Union expressed their continued support for the talks. While taking Goma in November 2012 might have been effective in pressuring the government into consenting to a dialogue, a similar move this time around is likely to cause a serious diplomatic backlash in the international arena.
A grim outlook
The fighting continued today with both parties exchanging rounds of artillery fire that Enough Project’s field researchers could hear from Goma. Army spokesperson Hamuli said that "[t]he M23 tried to overrun our positions and we're in the process of pushing them back". M23 President Bertrand Bisimwa tweeted that “FARDC and FDLR resume[d] their attacks against our positions this morning. Tanks, MB [a tank type] are shelling our positions.” Later, he added that "the UN has declared war [on M23]." M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha retorted as well, averring that "[i]t seems the government wants to fight." "There is no political will for bringing peace through a negotiated settlement".
The destiny of Goma and the region at large is suspended in mid-air. M23 tweeted at 6pm local time that the “DRC government army is still shelling bombs on M23 positions.” An hour earlier, AP Journalist Melanie Gouby tweeted that she saw “[s]poradic fighting in Kibati,” 15 km north of Goma. And the latest statement by army spokesman Colonel Hamuli, is rather worrying: "We're keeping a fierce response in store for them [M23]."
Going forward, it is critical for the peace process led by the UN and AU to move ahead quickly to address the drivers of the fighting, so that concrete negotiations and reforms take the place of a military solution. UN Envoy Robinson should both begin regional negotiations between Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda on critical economic and security issues, and help facilitate a process of democratic reform within Congo. Last week, Enough released a report outlining steps that Ms. Robinson should take on the peace process and also urged the UN to come up with a more comprehensive strategy to increase defections among armed groups.
Photo: Displaced civilians in eastern Congo sit outside a MONUSCO military base. (Enough Project)