In the latest attempt to address the escalating crisis in the resource-rich eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), regional leaders agreed to deploy a “neutral international force”. But the agreement was long on promises and short on details, dimming any hopes of a speedy resolution to the conflict in North Kivu.
Situated near Lake Kivu, not far from the Rwandan and Ugandan border regions, North Kivu has been plagued by conflict since the 1990s Rwandan genocide destabilized the delicate ethnic fabric in the region. Over the past few months, though, the security situation has deteriorated after a new rebel movement, calling itself M23, entered the fray.
According to a UN experts panel, the Rwandan government has aided, armed and provided recruits to M23, a charge the Rwandan government has vehemently denied.
The latest conflict has inflamed long-standing tensions between the governments of Rwanda and DR Congo, who have accused each other of supporting militias in this vast, war-torn, poorly administered African nation. Rwanda suspects DR Congo of colluding with the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), a Rwandan Hutu rebel group based in Congolese territory. The Congolese government, on the other hand, blames its Rwandan counterpart for supporting armed groups, like M23, fighting in the eastern Kivu region.
In a bid to counter the rising violence, heads of states of a regional grouping meeting on the sidelines of an African Union conference on July 15 endorsed the idea of a neutral international force. Its stated goal is to “eradicate M23, FDLR and all other negative forces in Eastern DRC and patrol and secure the border zones.”
Both Congolese President Joseph Kabila and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame agreed in principle, but they don’t quite see eye-to-eye when it comes to the composition and mandate of the force.
Even defence ministers from the ICGLR (International Conference on the Great Lakes Region) - the 11-member regional grouping - merely stated that the new force “should work under the mandate of African Union and United Nations, and shall be composed of African troops”. No further details were provided.
Which troops should be deployed?
Senior Congolese officials have maintained that troops in the new neutral force should not hail from countries involved in the Congolese crisis. That would leave out Congolese troops, as well as troops from neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, two countries DR Congo accuses of supporting M23.
Jean-Louis Ernest Kyaviro, spokesman for the local North Kivu government, told FRANCE 24: “It would be outrageous to let Rwanda and Uganda take part in the eradication of armed groups they support and which have caused millions of deaths in eastern DR Congo.”
Thierry Vircoulon, director of the Africa department at the International Crisis Group, was sceptical about the deployment of an international force. “The African Union does not possess the necessary military capabilities to deploy a force in eastern DR Congo in the short term because it is already overwhelmed by the crises in Somalia, the Central African Republic and Mali,” he told FRANCE24.
Assuming the theoretical deployment of a neutral force, Vircoulon also doubted it would be very efficient. He recalled that the 18,000 UN peacekeepers, present in DR Congo for years, have never been able to weed out militias. “The proposal of a neutral international force seems to be a false solution,” he added. “Meanwhile, the M23 rebel group will keep on gaining ground, at least until the next meeting of regional heads of states scheduled for September.”
The M23 rebellion does not believe in the deployment of such a force, either.
“It’s a distraction,” the group’s spokesman, lieutenant-colonel Vianney Kazamara, told FRANCE 24. “We are waiting to see how these troops will be deployed and above all how long it will take.”
Instead, Kazamara encouraged the Congolese government to choose a course of “talks with the movement - including civil society and political opposition groups - to find a final solution to the crisis.”
But local North-Kivu government spokesman Kyaviro dismissed the M23 spokesman’s call for talks. “No political agreement would be sufficient to break up all the militias currently active in eastern DR Congo,” he said. “What will be needed is action on the ground.”
Getting a neutral force together, however, is easier said than done. While African diplomats scramble to put boots on the ground, ICG’s Vircoulon warned the warlords will most likely keep on fighting, “financing themselves by illegally exploiting natural resources”.