A tenuous stalemate in eastern Congo remains in place between the Congolese army, or FARDC, and the growing insurgency of the Rwanda-backed M23. However, a series of recent events might signal escalation towards conflict in advance of regional talks or further international intervention.
This past weekend, the president of M23, Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga, announced that the group was changing the name of its military wing from M23 to the Congolese Revolutionary Army, or ARC. In light of the change, Sultani Mkenga, a top commander under the notorious Bosco Ntaganda and the head of M23 operations and outreach to allied groups was promoted by Runiga to the rank of general.
With these cosmetic changes in place, Bishop Runiga took the opportunity to state that M23 still sought negotiations with the government of Congo and that its top priorities were based on the protection and development of local communities. However, Runiga warned that should those negotiations fail to materialize, they would launch renewed attacks on government positions and seek to expand their territory. This salvo seems much more a statement of intent to attack than a plea for civility and community.
The government of Congo has repeatedly stated that it will not negotiate with M23, and given that Uganda, the current chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, or ICGLR—the body that until now had been tasked with mediating between Congo, Rwanda, and the rebels—was alleged to also be providing support to M23, the current framework for talks has been all but destroyed. That leaves Congo with no credible mechanism for discussions of any kind.
Meanwhile, international pressure has been mounting toward Rwanda, Uganda, and the leadership of M23. The U.N. Security Council also announced over the weekend that it intends to place sanctions on the leadership of M23 for violations of a U.N. arms embargo on Congo. Last week, a leaked U.N. Group of Experts report claimed that leadership of the M23 ran all the way up to the Rwandan minister of defense, James Kabarebe. While the U.N. has yet to name names of individuals that might be facing sanctions, it is not inconceivable that senior leaders from both the Rwandan and Ugandan military could be on that list for support to M23 and violations of the arms embargo on Congo.
Complicating the issue even further, Rwanda was recently voted on to the U.N. Security Council to represent the African block of nations, filling the current seat held by South Africa in January 2013. The Group of Experts reports directly to the Security Council, and the council determines the targets and scope of U.N. sanctions. Therefore, any gains made on pressuring Rwanda and Uganda to cease support to M23 that are not completed by the end of the year could be de-railed once Rwanda takes its seat on the council.
Finally, on Monday the governor of Congo’s North Kivu province announced that the government of Congo has decided to close its border between the provincial capital of Goma and the Rwandan town of Gisenyi between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily. Usually a bustling border post and the primary route to Kigali from North Kivu, the reasons for the border closure are unclear. But as tensions mount on both sides of the border, such moves will inevitably create additional stresses and suspicions on both sides.
In sum these developments represent a situation hewing towards conflict as opposed to a viable peace process. The M23 continues to grow in terms of both military and political power. By changing its name to the Congolese Revolutionary Army it is attempting to appear as an organically Congolese movement and slowly eliminate the now negative phrase “M23” from being used in conjunction with Rwandan and Ugandan leaders. Yet the group’s threat of expansion and control of Congolese territory looms large over the stability of the region. As Rwanda and Uganda continue to vehemently deny any involvement with the movement, the threat of increased sanctions will likely incur a negative response from both states and all but guarantee that the recent dialogues between regional states through the ICGLR will collapse.
The U.N. and African Union, along with international partners such as the U.S., must now work to use carrots and sticks to create a viable peace process for the region that focuses first on the short-term goal of cessation of hostilities between warring parties in eastern Congo and in the region, and second on the creation of a long-term process that addresses the systemic grievances, needs, and interests of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, particularly in the tripartite border region of eastern Congo.
Photo: A spokesman for the M23 rebellion gives a press conference (Enough)