IT TOOK less than a fortnight for a lightweight force of rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to lay bare the frailties and the fictions behind African and international policy in the Great Lakes region.
The M23 rebels who entered the lakeside city of Goma on November 20 drove out of it at the weekend with very little fuss but carrying a lot more weaponry, previously the property of Congo’s routed army.
In just 12 days, the group of 1,200 rebels helped to change important parts of the game in one of the world’s most troublesome regions and ensured a long-lasting resolution is further away than ever.
Rwanda and Uganda, two of Congo’s eastern neighbours, were officially blamed by the United Nations Security Council for abetting the rebels and may suffer significant financial and diplomatic consequences for the first time.
Analysts say South Africa is gradually getting drawn into the Great Lakes imbroglio and the presence of South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the African Union has made no obvious difference so far to the pan-African body’s traditional irrelevance to this multinational conflict.
The hope that stability was inching its way forward in the Congo, Africa’s second-largest country, is now in sad but urgent need of reassessment.
Viewed from the capital, Kinshasa, about 1,600km to the west, the fertile provinces of North and South Kivu resemble foreign territory more starkly than at any time since the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
Profitable mining in isolated areas is barely at risk for now, industry analysts believe, since even the crudest warlord will know on which side his bread is buttered.
But which multilateral bank will invest the billions of dollars required for the transport and other infrastructure to physically connect the Congo’s heterogeneous parts?
Politically, President Joseph Kabila has emerged weakened from the M23’s lightning offensive. His regular army, the FARDC, folded almost as swiftly as its discredited predecessors did in the 1990s, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on equipment and training, mainly by western donors and the United Nations (UN).
Diplomatic sources said American officials were asking last week who ordered the US-trained 391st Infantry Battalion to stop its counterattack against the rebels.
"The reality is that the FARDC is one of the weakest forces on the continent," Nelson Alusala, a Congo specialist at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said last week.
The UN’s Monusco peacekeepers around Goma, including units of a South African battalion, had no orders to confront the rebels once the Congolese army had retreated.
The purpose of deploying a UN force in a dangerous theatre and without a muscular mandate defied understanding, not for the first time in African conflicts.
The M23 leaders told their men to be on their best behaviour during their brief occupation of Goma and smaller towns. Reports by local news agency Syfia suggested the orders were generally obeyed.
But a mini-exodus by fearful civilians brought the number of people who have fled their homes in the east since the rebellion began in April to 285,000, outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
Apart from the misery, the financial cost of carrying the humanitarian burden of eastern Congo’s man-made conflict is mounting.
The rebels took their name from a deal signed on March 23 2009 between their predecessors and the Congolese government. They accuse Mr Kabila’s government of reneging on agreements to recruit them into the regular army, on full salaries and with their existing ranks, in return for peace.
The deal was supposed to have ended a series of rebellions in the east, and the latest outbreak has led many to believe that a long-threatened secession is closer today than previously.
Whatever his other motivations for ignoring parts of the 2009 agreement may be, Mr Kabila knows that most of Congo’s 70-million citizens are not in favour of concessions to the rebels and the minority Tutsi people they are widely seen as representing.
Several western donors have suspended or frozen aid to Rwanda and Uganda, showing bluntly that they no longer believe the two countries’ denials of supporting the M23.
This is new diplomatic territory. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and particularly President Paul Kagame of Rwanda were once feted as model leaders by donors, led by the US and Britain.
Despite the mistrust between them, after Goma’s capture Mr Kagame, Mr Museveni and Mr Kabila all attended a crisis summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, a weak regional body which Mr Museveni currently chairs.
They agreed to send what was called a Neutral International Force to the conflict area, to be commanded by a Tanzanian and with logistic support from the South African National Defence Force.
Questions remain unanswered. Who will pay for the neutral force? When will it be deployed? Which countries will be acceptable to all parties as troop contributors? Some analysts and diplomats said the plan as it stands was a non-starter.
South Africa has supported a greater role for the Southern African Development Community but since Mr Kabila’s government occupies Congo’s seat in that body, its neutrality will be challenged.
Rwanda is also looking askance at the presence in South Africa of exiled opponents of Mr Kagame’s, including former military and intelligence officers.
© BDlive 2012