THE two words "Congo" and "stability" are looking as far apart today as at any time in the past 15 years with no sign that Rwanda-backed rebels are ready to halt their stunning offensive in the east of the stricken country.
In just six days, the M23 rebels have seized a swathe of territory, overwhelming the regular army of the Democratic Republic of Congo and brushing past well-armed United Nations (UN) peacekeepers serving in the Monusco force, including a contingent from South Africa’s 121 infantry battalion. The rebels took the key eastern city of Goma on Tuesday, and were pressing south towards Bukavu after grabbing Sake along the way.
Their spokesman said on Wednesday their ultimate target was the capital, Kinshasa, about 1,600km to the east, to overthrow President Joseph Kabila. Given the huge and mineral-rich country’s recent history, that declared ambition was less fanciful than it sounded.
In 1997, Laurent Kabila — Joseph’s murdered father — was swept along exactly the same east-west route into power, with decisive support from Rwanda’s crack troops and their president, Paul Kagame. In a matter of months they made mincemeat of the then Zaire’s demoralised army. The late Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko fled into exile after 32 years in the presidency in Kinshasa.
The first episodes of a remarkably similar scenario were replaying this week.
Again, UN peacekeepers stood accused of failing to protect civilians against armed insurgents. Monusco said on Wednesday it had flown 17 sorties, firing 500 rockets and four missiles in defence of the city, but ended its efforts when the Congolese army fled. Two South African peacekeepers were injured, it said.
"Monusco has 17,000 soldiers, but sadly it was not in a position to prevent what happened," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. Again, Congo’s army was routed almost without a fight.
And once again, foreign governments, the UN and relief agencies were wringing their hands, urging an end to the fighting so that civilians can be helped. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes this week.
Even many of the protagonists of 15 years ago are the same today. Mr Kagame was in the Ugandan capital Kampala yesterday for talks with Mr Kabila — who became president in 2001 when his father was assassinated.
The meeting on the latest crisis to hit the Great Lakes region was hosted by another veteran of the upheavals of the 1990s, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.
The region has had sporadic years of peace in the past two decades. A genocide, a full-blown war in Congo between 1994 and 2003, and constant violent clashes over mineral assets are thought to have led to as many as 5-million deaths. Eastern Congo has a global reputation for mass rape, child soldiers and mutilation.
If the current fighting and instability goes on, hopes for proper governance and new investment will be dashed.
With Congolese troops on the run, it was far from certain when or indeed whether M23 and their alleged Rwandan allies would heed calls for a ceasefire. After such a military setback, Mr Kabila might be forced to agree to direct talks with the rebels, thus giving them the legitimacy they want.
"Kagame can demonstrate that the government in Kinshasa doesn’t even remotely control Eastern Congo," said independent analyst Stephanie Wolters.
"The more territory the rebels gain, the more they are threatening Kinshasa," she said.
South Africa has been building closer ties with the Kabila government while relations with Rwanda have cooled sharply, partly because of the presence here of some of Mr Kagame’s opponents.
Only last month, President Jacob Zuma hosted Mr Kabila in Pretoria at a summit where ministers discussed a raft of co-operation and investment projects. A final communiqué hailed the countries’ "warm and special relations" and condemned unnamed foreign forces whom they accused of destabilising Congo. Two of Congo’s neighbours, Rwanda and Uganda, have long been accused of supporting rebel militias in the east, but last month the charges were in a leaked UN report and were better documented than ever before. Like Rwanda, Uganda heatedly denied any involvement.
This week it blamed the UN for the latest crisis.
"Uganda was mediating in this conflict … and we had managed to restrain M23," Asuman Kiyingi, a junior foreign minister, said. "Then the UN comes up with these wild and baseless allegations against us and we decided to step aside and leave the situation to them, and now you see the results," he said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said yesterday it had proof that Rwanda’s army had helped to recruit and arm the rebels. It said a draft report by the UN Group of Experts on Congo would soon be published and would confirm Rwanda’s role.
Mr Kagame took power in Rwanda in 1994, effectively ending that year’s genocide of an estimated 800,000 people — mostly from the Tutsi minority — by extremist Hutus loyal to the previous Rwandan government.
For most of the past 18 years, the Kagame government has received unstinting diplomatic and material support from the majority of the international community, led by the US.
Clean and efficient administration is seen as Rwanda’s virtue and friends have tacitly accepted its right to ensure that enemies, including Hutu rebels, are never allowed to congregate across the border in eastern Congo.
But some donors have started trimming aid to Rwanda in reprisal for the alleged interference in Congo.
HRW on Wednesday called for Washington to get much tougher with Kigali.
Rwandan soldiers are acknowledged as among the most disciplined and courageous in Africa. If the current crisis degenerates, their continued participation in UN peacekeeping forces in Africa will surely be in jeopardy.