Yesterday Goma fell to the M23, a rebel group in eastern DRC with alleged links to both Rwanda and Uganda. The fall of Goma increases the likelihood of an all out war in eastern Congo that might quickly degenerate into a regional war – just like the Second Congo War was (for more on why peace failed see this ICG report).
I am on record as lacking any sympathies for the Kinshasa regime under Joseph Kabila (see here, here, and here). The horrendous situation in eastern DRC is as much his fault as it is of the alleged meddlers from Kampala and Kigali. The fact that the international community has taken to viewing the conflict as primarily regional is a mistake as it masks Kabila’s own failings in improving governance in the eastern DRC . It also gives him a chance to continue free riding on MONUSCO’s presence in the region.
Sadly, the international community appears set to waste this latest crisis by issuing statements and imposing sanctions which will only tackle the symptoms rather than the real problems behind the conflict. As the ICG argues:
If international donors and African mediators persist in managing the crisis rather than solving it, it will be impossible to avoid such repetitive cycles of rebellions in the Kivus and the risk of large-scale violence will remain. Instead, to finally resolve this conflict, it is essential that Rwanda ends its involvement in Congolese affairs and that the reconstruction plan and the political agreements signed in the Kivus are properly implemented.For these things to happen Western donors should maintain aid suspension against Rwanda until the release of the next report of the UN group of experts, in addition to issuing a clear warning to the Congolese authorities that they will not provide funding for stabilisation and institutional support until the government improves political dialogue and governance in both the administration and in the army in the east, as recommended by Crisis Group on several previous occasions.
In the past, I have speculated that it will be difficult for the M23 to conquer and hold territory, mostly due to their lack of manpower, which started off at around 400-700 and is probably around 1,500-2,500 now. They have been able to rely on Rwandan (and, to a lesser degree, Ugandan) firepower for operations close to the border (in particular Bunagana and Rutshuru, allegedly also this recent offensive), the farther into the interior they get, they harder it will be to mask outside involvement.Alliances with other groups––Sheka, Raia Mutomboki, FDC, etc.––have acted as force multipliers, but have been very fickle, as the surrender of Col Albert Kahasha last week proved. From this perspective, the M23 strategy could well be more to nettle the government, underscore its ineptitude, and hope that it will collapse from within.However, the recent offensive on Goma has made me consider another, bolder alternative. If the rebels take Goma, thereby humiliating the UN and the Congolese army, they will present the international community with a fait accompli. Yes, it will shine a sharp light on Rwandan involvement, but Kigali has been undeterred by donor pressure thus far, and has been emboldened by its seat on the Security Council. Also, as the looting by the Congolese army and their distribution of weapons to youths in Goma has shown, the battle for Goma is as much of a PR disaster for Kinshasa as for Kigali.