The much-hyped defeat of the M23 rebels in eastern Congo means little, unless firm action is taken to deter Rwanda and Uganda, both US allies, from destabilizing of the country.
The 17-year quest for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo has taken a significant step in the right direction; however, many concerns remain. Last week the Congolese military routed the Rwanda and Uganda-backed M23 and declared an end to its reign of terror against the Congolese people. In order to support this victory and make lasting improvements in stability and security in the region, it is critical to understand why, after such a long time, these efforts to defeat a Rwanda-backed militia group have finally met with success. The following factors have played a decisive role:
1. The group was weakened earlier this year after an internal split that drove an estimated 600 of its members to seek refuge in Rwanda. The leader of one wing of the group, Bosco Ntaganda, was delivered to the International Criminal Court to stand trial.
2. Through demonstrations and rallies the Congolese people have been increasingly pressuring their government to defend the nation and provide its soldiers the necessary tools to protect the people.
3. The Congolese military in the North Kivu province was restructured and reorganized to better orchestrate offensive operations.
4. The United Nations implemented resolution 2098 issued in March 2013 and fielded a new 3,000 strong Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) made up of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian soldiers. The FIB provided back-up and support for the newly retooled Congolese forces.
5. After 17 years of providing virtual carte-blanche to the Rwandan regime and its repeated interventions in the DRC, both the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom and the Secretary of State of the United States called President Paul Kagame and impressed upon him the importance of his noninvolvement; President Kagame was instructed to refrain from sending back-up and reinforcement to the M23 while they were being confronted by the Congolese military and the UN's Force Intervention Brigade. The international political pressure brought to bear on President Paul Kagame and the Rwandan regime is probably the most critical element resulting in the defeat of the M23 militia.
After 17 years marked by impunity and lack of accountability the last two years of instability in eastern Congo (supported mainly by Rwanda and to a lesser extent Uganda in their backing of the M23 militia) has driven Washington to act. A series of factors contributed to the U.S. taking a reluctant stance against its key ally in the Great Lakes region of Africa. UN reports documenting Rwanda's support for the M23 led the U.S. to withdraw military aid from its staunch ally in the summer of 2012.
A number of European nations followed suit in withholding aid from Rwanda on the basis of the UN findings. A game-changer came only a few months after. In November 2012 the Rwanda backed-M23 captured the city of Goma (a city with an estimated 1 million inhabitants) and humiliated the nearly 20,000 strong UN troops who are in the Congo ostensibly to protect Congolese civilians. UN reports subsequently documented the role of Rwandan soldiers in the capturing of the city by the M23. The U.S. sanctioned Rwanda in the fall of 2013 for its support of M23 who continued to recruit and abduct children and again withheld military aid to Paul Kagame’s regime.
Until recently the U.S. has been largely silent on its allies’ destabilization of Congo despite a law on the books since 2006 that unequivocally calls for holding them accountable (Section 105 of U.S. Public Law 109-456, authorizes the Secretary of State to withhold aid from neighboring countries that destabilize the Congo). Damning evidence of the destabilizing role that Rwanda and Uganda have played is well documented and some international actors have sought to hold them accountable.
In 2005 the International Court of Justice ruled against Uganda in a case involving war crimes, crimes against humanity and the pilfering of Congo’s riches. The court ruled that Congo was entitled to billions of dollars in reparations as a result of Uganda's crimes in the Congo. In 2008, the Spanish Courts under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction issued an international arrest warrant for 40 of Rwanda's top officials for crimes they committed both in Rwanda and the Congo. The documents show that President Paul Kagame would have been indicted, himself, if heads of states were not immune from such an indictment. That same year, both the Netherlands and Sweden withheld aid from Rwanda for its support of militia (Congress for the National Defense of the People – CNDP, the precursor and parent of M23) in the DRC.
Although many other militia groups remain active in the DRC and must be dealt with in order to stabilize eastern Congo, responsible reportage must acknowledge that M23 is unique and more symptomatic of a regional and international problem than a merely national one. M23 is not simply “a militia;” it is a proxy military force that has been repeatedly reinforced and backed by neighboring states. Enabled by their status as U.S. allies, Rwanda and Uganda have been free to act with impunity in the region and at the same time shielded from the institutions of justice put in place to ensure accountability. Despite the mounds of evidence, neither the U.S. nor the UN has placed any of the top level Rwandan leaders recommended by the UN Group of Experts on its sanctions list – a sure sign of the continued favor and protection that has been feeding the cycle of military aggression and instability in eastern Congo.
Unless stronger political action is taken and these violent actors face justice, history indicates that this cycle is likely to repeat. The M23 constitutes the latest iteration of so-called rebellions that have, in fact, been a series of militia groups backed by both Rwanda and Uganda since 1996. The militia backed by Rwanda include: Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, 1996 - 1997; Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) 1998 - 2003; National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), 2004 - 2009; and M23, 2012 - Present. Rwanda is still holding militia leaders who are either on the UN and US sanctions list or wanted by the Congolese government for their war crimes in the Congo – most notably Jules Mutebusi, Laurent Nkunda and Jean-Marie Runiga and Uganda is in possession of Sultani Makega. These individuals and other top-level officials in the Rwandan regime must face justice.
Though there’s much current celebration around the “defeat of M23,” it is important to understand that peace will ultimately take root in the DRC only when at least three conditions are met:
1. Rwanda and Uganda must definitively cease its 17 years of intervention and military aggression in the DRC. Although the U.S. and UK have put pressure on Rwanda to abandon its support of the M23, pressure must be placed on both Rwanda and Uganda to permanently abandon their interventions in the DRC.
2. The Congolese people must have a legitimate government that has the support and popular will of the population at large. The current government, which lacks legitimacy, has mainly served to exacerbate the conflict and has contributed to serious diplomatic blunders at the regional, continental, and international levels.
3. Finally, and most importantly, it is only once the Congolese people control and determine their own affairs that lasting peace, stability and human dignity can be restored in the heart of Africa.
* Kambale Musavuli is based in New York City, and serves as the spokesman for the Friends of the Congo, a group that raises global consciousness about the situation in the Congo and provides support to local institutions. He is featured in the short film "Crisis in the Congo: Uncovering the Truth," an abbreviated version of the upcoming feature length documentary that explores the role that the United States and its allies, Rwanda and Uganda, have played in triggering the greatest humanitarian crisis at the dawn of the 21st century. He can be reached [email protected] Follow him on twitter @kambale or Facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/kambalemusavuli
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