Congo’s Eastern Rebels Seize Goma: Will Rwanda Then Take Over?

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PHIL MOORE / AFP / Getty Images

M23 rebels stand at a small base in the hills of Kanyarucinya on the outskirts of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Nov. 19, 2012

When I spent a few days with the M23 rebels of eastern Congo in August, they were clear that their April mutiny against the Congolese army and seizure of territory along the Rwandan and Ugandan borders was essentially a form of blackmail. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its President Joseph Kabila were weak and corrupt, they said, and constantly tried to cheat, steal from or even kill men from the east — who, like most of the M23, were former rebels integrated into the national army after a similar rebellion in the east in 2009. The mutineers were hardly angels themselves, with a string of human-rights violations to their names, including the recruitment of children, use of rape and sometimes execution of civilians. But they maintained they didn’t necessarily want to take the strategic eastern cities of Goma or Bukavu and certainly didn’t want to advance on the capital, Kinshasa; rather they wanted the government to honor the integration deal it agreed to on March 23, 2009, and since it hadn’t — withholding salaries, integrating soldiers at lower ranks, even continuing to kill a few easterners — the rebels were trying to force it to by taking territory.

(PHOTOS: M23 Rebels in Congo’s East Capture Key City)

I asked: What if Kinshasa still refused to come up with the goods? They’d take Goma, a base for one of the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping and aid operations, to up their bargaining position and press their point. “Taking Goma would not be a battle,” said Major Emille Shabani, who had defected from the Congolese army to the rebels a few days before. “The government soldiers are tired and they know no one will look after their families if they die.”

That’s the broad scenario that appeared to have played out Tuesday as M23 rebels rolled into Goma unopposed by government forces, who fled precisely as the rebels predicted, and peacekeepers from Monusco, the Congo U.N. force, who simply watched. Though there had been some sporadic fighting on the outskirts of Goma Monday, loss of life seemed mercifully low. A German newspaper correspondent reported seeing the bodies of a handful of dead government soldiers, but otherwise the streets of Goma were mostly deserted, save for a few M23 soldiers being greeted by small crowds of their supporters. Having raised their hand, the rebels appeared ready to sit back and wait for Kinshasa’s reaction. “We’ve taken the town, it’s under control,” M23 spokesman Colonel Vianney Kazarama told Reuters, before adding: “We’re very tired. We’re going to greet our friends now.”

Others see the start of something far more sinister in these events. The DRC — its government and army — Human Rights Watch and the U.N., particularly its Group of Experts, which monitors militia violence in the country, say neighboring Rwanda and to a lesser extent Uganda want to take over eastern Congo and its mines, rich in metals and minerals such as gold, coltan and diamonds. Their instruments for doing this, they say, are the M23 — largely ethnically Rwandese — and other militias that they supply with funds and weapons to foment chaos across the region. The strategy, they say, is this: Congo’s east is a place where the authority of Kinshasa is nonexistent. The ill-disciplined, underpaid and inadequately supplied Congolese army has little stomach for a fight, while Monusco troops have in the decade of their existence demonstrated a profound disinterest in keeping much of a peace, let alone intervening in any actual fighting. With eastern Congo in chaos, Rwanda will have created a situation in which, whatever anyone else’s misgivings, there would be little alternative to inviting the Rwandans to intervene to end the fighting — given the discipline and capabilities of the Rwandan army — and, by default, take over.

There is some merit to this analysis, foremost in the way it recognizes the weakness of so many of the players. That’s a truth some of those players have yet to digest. On Monday President Kabila vowed his forces would fight. “When war is imposed on us, we have an obligation to resist,” he said. Hours later they fled Goma almost without firing a shot, though not before looting a number of businesses and houses.

What the M23′s advance also does, undeniably, is enhance the authority of Congo’s eastern neighbors, Rwanda and Uganda. Underlining that point, on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Rwandan President Paul Kagame to “use his influence on the M23 to help calm the situation and restrain M23 from continuing their attack”; while on Tuesday, Kabila flew to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, for talks with President Yoweri Museveni. The DRC, U.N. and Human Rights Watch will see the takeover of Goma as the partial fulfillment of a conspiracy hatched in Kigali and Kampala. But there is also little doubt that for the Congolese government and army, and the world’s biggest peacekeeping force, it is confirmation of a basic law of human and military physics: create a vacuum, or at least allow one, and someone will eventually fill it.

6 comments
OneCongo
OneCongo

@ whisky87proofYour statements "...what is so wrong with adjusting some line on a map to match political realities on the ground" is simplistic as it does more harm than good. At the bottom line you don't really care. Do you? You are well aware that this bloody has killed more than 6.000.000 people (that's around 10% of the population) and the counting continue. Do you think remapping DR Congo will solve the problem and Congolese will abandon their land? That will bring up vicious circle.If you had a neighbor who likes your compound and would like to have a part of it, I believe you wouldn't care either, since it consists of matching the reality of the ground. You will certainly react with all means to stop him because your compound (everyone and everything in it) is close to your heart.However, I agree with you that sometimes African Rebel groups are demonized. At the same time the image of Africa has been portrayed in a way that African are still believed to be simply wild. If you look to the young generation who see that the world out there is different and the reality in their countries like DR Congo has to change, you'll understand that there is dynamism of strength and hope for a better future. Do you believe that DR Congo can be better? Do you believe that you can be part of the solution in the DR Congo, no matter how small it is? Then, I challenge you to reach out to the dynamic, determined and young Congolese and work with them to bring Congo up. Or you can teach them how to do things right. :-)Congolese hate many things about their country (you have named some of them); yet they wants their Country United and are open to the world to work with them to bring their country to play a positive part in the world. There is a lot to be done, I believe in the power of democracy and I have a determination that DR Congo of tomorrow will surely be a prosperous land.

NicPocker
NicPocker

This region was all part of Rwanda before the western world came to divide it in order to steal the wealth and build their economies

frank.mujabi21
frank.mujabi21

The otherwise genuine complaints by the ex Congo army soldiers are complicated by the addition of the minority Tutsi dictators and empire builders from Rwanda and Uganda.

Both Museveni and Kagame  want to annex eastern DRC for the mineral wealth which is there and then create a Tutsi empire  made up of Uganda, Rwanda and eastern DRC, at the expense of the majority Bantu tribes in Uganda , Rwanda and DRC.

Kabila of DRC is also a Tutsi and has deliberately created a situation so that the DRC soldiers rebel to allow Rwanda and Uganda to move in .

The UN security council has already accepted that Uganda and Rwanda are behind the M23 rebels They The UN now needs to recognize the ethnic problems inherent in this situation, and stop M23 from taking over Goma  to avoid a looming bloodbath.

whisky87proof
whisky87proof

@frank.mujabi21 But what is so wrong with adjusting some line on a map to match political realities on the ground. Those lines were drawn on some map in Berlin by King Leopold of the Belgians in 1883 as a compromise with Bismark, England and France with utterly no input from any African, like three white men had ever even been to the eastern Congo at the time. Is our western hubris so great that we think the artificial borders we drew to be sacred and inviolable? The reason this war is so insidious and perpetual is because the west refuses to accept reality and recognize that DR Congo lost and should give up the game.

whisky87proof
whisky87proof

@sroda6  No person follows no-moral code, they may not recognize the same code as you would expect but they have a code, and only kill for a reason, reasons may seem caprices to you but it is still a reason. To think M23 is some hollywood  cookie cutter, viscous African rebel group who just want to rape and pillage all day every day illustrates the lack understanding of the conflict in general which is a symptom of the undereporting of this conflict worldwide.African Rebel groups in general are demonized by the media. But their grievances are often very real. It is the conflict itself which is brutal, the government soldiers are just as complicit in the brutality, especially when you consider that nearly all of the rebels are deserters from the Congolease army , who have legitimate grievances, they do not receive pay from kinsasha for years, (some other General pockets the payroll) promises are made by the government and nearly always broken, when their family is on the point of starvation they take their rifle, and head to the hills by the hundreds and loot and pillage (and rape) for sustenance, now all of a sudden they are evil irreconcilable beings, but one must ask; what brought good men, neighbors fathers and brothers to this point? is not that the evil that must be extinguished, it is not the mutineers who should be purged it is the generals who remain loyal who are most suspect, they are the ones pilfering the state payrolls and causing the whole mess, yet they remain and the poor captian who leads his men into the bush to survive on pillage is hunted by the ICC. Who is really pillaging?

sroda6
sroda6

Takes a courageous person to cover stories and communicate with people like this who follow no moral code and might kill you for any reason