The rebel colonel was in good spirits as he drank and dined with the police chief and a top banker at an upscale Goma restaurant Tuesday night. “Bon appetit,” he cheerfully greeted his fellow diners, still wearing his camouflage uniform as he strolled around the restaurant.
The M23 rebels are beginning to enjoy themselves in Goma. A week after shocking the world by capturing this strategic city of a million people in eastern Congo, the rebels are getting comfortable here. And they are showing no signs of leaving, despite a Tuesday deadline set by neighbouring countries.
After defying the deadline and refusing to withdraw from Goma, the rebels’ military and political leaders issued conflicting statements. Some said they might still be willing to pull out in a few days, honouring an agreement by regional politicians who met in the Uganda capital of Kampala this week. But other rebel leaders announced a long series of conditions and demands, casting serious doubt on the possibility of a withdrawal.
The Rwandan-backed rebels, who launched an offensive against Congo’s army in April, have accused the government of violating a 2009 peace agreement. But their real agenda, according to most analysts, is to help Rwanda deepen its control of the mineral-rich eastern provinces of Congo.
The demands announced by M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga at a press conference here on Tuesday were wide-ranging and virtually certain to be unacceptable to the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Among the demands: the full release of political prisoners in the capital, Kinshasa, including opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi; the dissolution of the electoral commission; an investigation into the attempted murder of a prominent doctor in Goma; and the disarming of all Congolese soldiers in the region.
The demands were swiftly criticized by a government spokesman in Kinshasa, who called them “a farce.” A military spokesman said the demands were “a declaration of war.” The Congolese army is still vowing to expel the rebels from Goma, despite its obvious disarray after humiliating defeats in the past few weeks.
The reality is that the rebels are fully in control of Goma and its surrounding villages, and they seem entrenched here for the foreseeable future – as the scene at the restaurant suggested.
The nearest Congolese army troops have been pushed back about 60 kilometres from Goma, and have failed to advance from there, despite sporadic attempts at a counterattack.
The ill-disciplined Congolese soldiers, who have been wreaking havoc on civilians in the town of Minova, show no signs of any ability to defeat the rebels, who are well-financed and heavily armed with sophisticated weapons, including night-vision gear and 120-millimetre mortars.
Although the rebels seem better disciplined than Congo’s poorly paid army, they too have been accused of atrocities and human-rights abuses as they advanced toward Goma this year. There are reports of rebel involvement in reprisal killings in Goma after they captured the city. And another report yesterday said the rebels have begun looting the city’s central bank.
But the rebels have consolidated their rule over Goma by also bringing the city back to some semblance of normality. The streets are relatively peaceful, civilian officials have returned to their posts at the border between Congo and Rwanda, and the border is bustling with traffic in both directions. Humanitarian agencies are moving around Goma, bringing food and water to most of the 140,000 people who fled their homes after the latest rebel advances.
The situation, though, remains volatile. The fragility of the region was highlighted on Tuesday when fighting erupted at the Congo-Rwanda border, just north of Goma. The explosions of heavy artillery fire were heard by aid workers in Goma, sparking fears in the city.
The Rwandan government blamed a Hutu militia in Congo, accusing it of launching an attack on three Rwandan villages, but there was no clear confirmation that this was true. Rwanda has often used the Hutu militia presence in Congo as a pretext for intervening in the country. The Hutu militia fighters, known as the FDLR, denied that they had attacked the Rwandan villages.
Goma’s schools officially reopened on Monday, after closing during the rebel takeover, but few students came to class – partly because many schools had been looted or destroyed, while other schools were filled with homeless people who had fled their homes because of the fighting.
Many of the displaced people are suffering illnesses in Goma’s heavy rains. “Sanitary conditions remain a major challenge due to the lack of toilets and water supply points,” said a statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Some cases of vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory infections have already been recorded,” it added. “These respiratory infections are due to the fact that these people have no shelter and are sleeping in the open under the rains.”
Pulling back the curtain on Congo
The resurgent conflict in the vast African nation of Congo involves several armed groups, at least two other countries and the minerals that go into handhelds and laptops, probably including the one you are reading this story on if you are seeing it on a device.
It’s complicated but it boils down to a struggle for wealth, ethnic animosity and a lack of central government control. Here are some of the issues:
Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to two-thirds of the way across the continent. It is plagued by a lack of roads and railways. The feeble government in the capital Kinshasa is nearly 1,600 kilometres away from Goma, the strategic eastern town that was seized by M23 rebels on Nov. 20. A succession of rebel groups and warlords have for years taken advantage of the power vacuum to get a piece of the mining action in eastern Congo.
Eastern Congo is estimated to have mineral deposits worth trillions of dollars, according to mining experts. The area holds about 70 per cent of the world’s supply of tantalum, a metal used in cellphones, tablets, laptops and other computers, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The eastern region also has massive amounts of gold, tin, tungsten, copper, coltan and cobalt. Much of the ore mined is smuggled out of Congo and passes through Rwanda, Uganda or Burundi, according to the Enough Project, a Washington-based organization campaigning against conflict minerals. Some 450,000 artisanal miners work in eastern Congo, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The M23 rebel group was formed almost eight months ago by former members of a now defunct insurgent group that had been incorporated into the Congolese army as part of a March 23, 2009, peace agreement. The new group was created by the former rebels who deserted from the army. Their name refers to the date of the peace agreement, which M23 accuses the government of not honouring. Since May, M23 has seized territory in North Kivu province, culminating last week with the capture of Goma, a lakeside city of one million and a key trading hub bordering Rwanda.
M23 is believed to have been created by warlord Bosco (The Terminator) Ntaganda, who had been a leader of the former rebel group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP. The CNDP was backed by Rwanda, which also allegedly arms and gives other support to M23. As part of the 2009 agreement, Gen. Ntaganda was made a general in the army and deputy commander for an operation meant to go after a militia made of Hutus who took part in Rwanda’s genocide. In early 2012, Congolese President Joseph Kabila came under international pressure to arrest Gen. Ntaganda and transfer him to The Hague to face war crimes charges in the International Criminal Court. Gen. Ntaganda avoided immediate arrest, launched a mutiny and was joined by some loyal men who are believed to have formed M23. Mr. Kabila, whose father had led a rebellion in 1997 that toppled dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, had also vowed to dismantle a parallel chain of command that Gen. Ntaganda established in eastern Congo’s North Kivu and South Kivu provinces. Gen. Ntaganda had operated lucrative businesses with other army officers in the east, including a smuggling racket taking minerals into neighbouring Rwanda, according to a United Nations report released on Nov. 21.
Rwanda has backed rebels groups in eastern Congo as a defence against other militias of Hutu extremists, many responsible for Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, who operate in east Congo. But many analysts also think Rwanda is motivated to support sympathetic power networks in the east so that it can profit from the export of smuggled Congolese minerals. M23’s success has been due to direct support from powerful figures in Rwanda and neighbouring Uganda, according to UN investigators researching the conflict in eastern Congo. The report says that high-ranking Rwandan government and army figures, most notably Defence Minister James Kabarebe and Chief of Defence Staff Charles Kayonga, have supported the M23 by providing recruits, sophisticated arms, ammunition and finances. Rwanda also wants to use M23 as a Tutsi force to counter the Hutu rebels of the FDLR, also operating in eastern Congo, the UN report said. The Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame vehemently denies it supports M23.
Uganda has also supported the M23, although on a smaller scale, said the UN report. This has allegedly been driven by a few powerful Ugandans intent on profiteering from access to Congo’s rich mineral resources. Uganda denies supporting M23. The rebels feel comfortable in Uganda and can come and go as they wish. Their external relations official is now based in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. The UN report did not accuse Uganda of orchestrating an official policy of backing the rebels, but it said some within the military were using their influence to procure arms and ammunition for the rebels. The UN investigators even claim that units of the Rwandan and Ugandan armies have fought alongside M23 soldiers against the Congolese army. A “mixed brigade” of Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers allegedly numbered more men than the massed ranks of the M23 forces, the UN report said.
What’s next The Congolese army – underfed, poorly supplied and rarely paid – have repeatedly retreated in the face of M23 attacks. Even if the rebels withdraw from Goma now, military experts say the well-organized, well-supplied M23 will remain to seize the key city again. UN investigators claim that the ultimate goal of M23 and Rwanda is the annexation of the North and South Kivu provinces and the region’s mineral wealth. They say the battle for Goma may be just the beginning of a long and bloody conflict for control of eastern Congo.