Following a year of fighting and negotiation between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the M23 rebel group, last month the M23 announced it was ending its military campaign in Eastern Congo, without a formal agreement.
The unilateral cessation of hostilities should not be misconstrued as an indication that the fighting is over. The absence of a formal agreement implies, rather, that it is likely to be just a matter of time until the conflict resumes. The M23 movement was formed by former militia leaders of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), a rebel group formed after the Second Congo War in 2003. The government of the DRC was compelled to sign a lopsided agreement with the CNDP and Rwanda in 2009, providing the group with political party status and promising to integrate its soldiers into the DRC army. When CNDP military leaders became unhappy with their status within the army — which they had fought against for more than ten years in one form or another — they declared that the 2009 agreement had not been honored, and returned to the jungles bordering Rwanda to form M23.
M23’s capture of the provincial capital of Goma in November 2012 sent a clear message to the international community that the army and the UN were failing in their mission. Since the fall of Goma the DRC army was restructured, its neighbors committed soldiers to fight the M23, and the UN dramatically altered its approach to defeating the M23. The UN sponsored Foreign Intervention Brigade (FIB) — which recaptured Goma and defeated the M23 militarily — was the first offensive engagement undertaken by a UN peacekeeping mission. In December 2012 major Western donors began suspending their aid to Rwanda after a UN investigation found the Rwandan government responsible for supporting M23. International pressure on Rwanda resulted in a withdrawal of its support for the organization, prompting the unilateral cessation of hostilities.
The most pressing question for Eastern Congo concerns DRC President Kabila’s commitment to reforming the military. As was the case in 2009, the integration of lower level M23 soldiers back into the army is a necessary precursor to any formal agreement, in order to prevent the group’s return to rebellion. Yet this fails to take into account popular support for the army following Kabila’s restructuring of the country’s military leadership in favor of career soldiers. Further, the UN is set to continue providing offensive assistance to the army under the terms of UN Resolution 2098, which legitimizes the FIB and authorizes an ‘offensive’ combat force. Regardless of how President Kabila treats the reintegration issue, if the M23 soldiers remaining in Uganda and Rwanda were to reorganize, there is every reason to believe they would return to fight.
By appointing former Finance Minister Augustin Ponyo as Prime Minister, and by restructuring the army’s leadership, Kabila has at least demonstrated an understanding of the political value of implementing good governance policies, which foster a stronger national identity. In light of his albeit limited success in this area, and considering the new commitment of the DRC’s neighbors and the international community to peace between the parties, neither Kabila’s reforms nor his popularity are threatened by refusing to sign an agreement with M23 leaders.
Kabila has more to gain by leaving the matter where it is. By continuing to promote a professional army and working with the FIB, Kabila can work to establish a presence for the central government in Eastern Congo and rally the country around a respected army with a successful track record of defeating rebel groups, rather than engaging in corruption and senseless acts of violence. In the absence of a legitimate national army, rebel groups will continue to form, either in response to or in cooperation with a corrupt army command structure.
If military reform and UN involvement continue to develop in the same vein which lead to the M23’s defeat, the days of militia groups in Eastern Congo could in theory be numbered. The international community will not stand for regional leaders — such as Rwanda’s Kagame and Uganda’s Museveni — supporting rebel groups that kill UN troops in the field. Now that drone technology is being brought to bear, the FARDC and UN may have the upper hand in a fight with those rebel groups that rely on guerrilla tactics. Yet the propensity for rebel groups to proliferate in the region will not truly be overcome until poverty is alleviated and economic growth becomes a more consistent component of the landscape. Once the military can provide safety for foreign workers, mining projects in the DRC should provide a vehicle for economic development in the region.
In the short-term, Kabila’s ability to follow through with reforming the military, and whether he decides to run for the Presidency in 2016, loom large. If he is to run again the constitution’s term limits will need to be revised. The fear is that he would use the same strong-arm tactics that enabled him to fraudulently win the election in 2011. It seems unlikely that the international community would raise strenuous objection to such an eventuality, as Kabila has become important to the region’s emerging security protocol.
We do not expect Kabila to step down as that is not consistent with how the region’s ‘great leaders’ rule. By the same token, by having formed a ‘national unity’ government in October, Kabila has effectively neutralized opposition leaders, and as noted, he enjoys popular support as a result of the Army’s success in defeating the M23. Either Kabila or his successor will need a professional army to bring security to Eastern Congo and unite the Congolese people, enabling ministers such as Ponyo to tackle official corruption. When sustainable development does come to the Congo it will be because institutions like the military have the credibility to establish law and order outside of Kinshasa, paving the way for infrastructure and cross-border trade. Until then, there is every reason to believe the M23, and groups like it, will continue to emerge in central Africa.
This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.