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SADC grapples with old problem in eastern Congo

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Congolese M23 rebels are seen as they withdraw from the 3 antennes location in Kibumba, near Goma, North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo on December 23, 2022. PHOTO | REUTERS

The United States on Friday rallied warring sides in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to a new humanitarian truce, paving the way for the displaced to be provided with aid, while counting on a spinning coin to fall for the elusive dialogue.

According to Washington, the two-week truce starting midnight on Friday to July 19, is supposed to enable relief supplies to the more than three million people internally displaced in North Kivu Province and estimated 100,000 people forced out of homes near Kanyabayonga town.

US National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the deal commits the parties to the conflict “to silence their weapons, allow for the voluntary return of displaced people, and provide humanitarian personnel unfettered access to vulnerable populations."

This is the second time the US has pushed parties to a temporary truce in eight months. In November, US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines travelled to the DRC as well as Rwanda and reached a similar deal.

Washington says it fully backs Luanda process and the Government of Angola’s efforts to address the current and historic factors perpetuating this longstanding crisis: tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali, who accuse each other of fuelling rebel activities against their authorities.

“The Governments of the DRC and Rwanda have expressed support for this two-week humanitarian truce to ease the suffering of vulnerable populations and set conditions for broader de-escalation of tensions in eastern DRC. The US Government calls on all parties to honour the spirit of the truce prior to it taking effect.”

But that directly posed a challenge to Kinshasa’s own view of the war: That it will not negotiate with the M23 it accuses of causing trouble in the country backed by Kigali (Rwanda denies the charge).

This week, the M23 rebels seized the strategic town of Kanyabayonga in North Kivu, after intensified fighting that began in June and saw Prime Minister Judith Suminwa visit the camps for displaced persons in Goma and Mugunga camp.

They had fallen victim to a bombardment that killed more than 30 people. The coincidence is all the more striking, given that in Kinshasa, President Félix Tshisekedi was preparing to address the nation on Independence Day on June 30.

Ms Suminwa sent a clear message: The government will not dialogue with rebels.

“We are not going to negotiate with those who are attacking us. Diplomatic channels must force the aggressor to stop.”

In seeking a military solution, Kinshasa has tried all sorts of backers: It relied on the UN peacekeepers (Monusco) but they received a public backlash for sitting on their hands, as civilians were maimed. It then tapped the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) but got disappointed: The EAC forces refused to fire a shot, choosing instead to provide buffers on civilian areas. Kinshasa, angry at that strategy, refused to renew its mandate and the troops left last December. It then turned to South Africa Development Community (SADC), to which it is also a member.

SADC troops, whose mission is called SAMIDRC, arrived at the end of January with intent to target M23, with Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa contributing. But they have been stuck with the old problem after M23 became more voracious at war.

On June 25, the South African troops in the SAMIDRC recorded a new tragedy.

“The South African National Defence Force (SANDF), confirms the mortar attack on one of our bases in Sake, in the eastern DRC on June 25, 2024, which resulted in two fatalities and 20 injured,” a statement from the South African government said. “Four members who were critically injured have been hospitalised, whilst the rest suffered minor injuries.”

South Africa, which commands the SAMIDRC, has been the most targeted in the mortar attacks so far, losing six soldiers since they arrived.

Washington says it prefers a political solution, which most African leaders have backed too. But the political processes; Nairobi Process for dialogue with armed groups, and Luanda process for bilateral talks between Rwanda and DRC, have stalled. However, both countries say they prefer peace to war.

“Rwanda seeks peace, for ourselves and for everyone in our region. We know the value of peace, just as well as anyone else, maybe even more,” President Paul Kagame told a crowd in Kigali’s Amahoro Stadium on Thursday as the country celebrated Liberation Day.

“Where there is a need for humanitarian action, Rwanda will not be absent. But the only real answer to any humanitarian crisis is to fix the root cause of the political problem. Humanitarian response cannot substitute for political solutions.”

The US, France and a team of UN experts on the DRC, have often corroborated Kinshasa’s claims that Kigali supports M23. But DRC is also accused of fomenting the FDLR (Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda), remnants of the 1994 perpetrators of genocide against the Tutsi.

In spite of rejecting dialogue with M23, President Tshisekedi agreed to meet his Rwandan counterpart Kagame, with a view to continuing talks under the aegis of Angolan President Joao Lourenço. The Rwandan and DRC delegations had even begun preparatory work for the meeting together. But that stalled as violence ensued.

Despite the many failures to achieve peace in the conflict in the eastern part of the DRC, the mediator, President Lourenço, said he won’t give up. He plans to arrange a meeting between President Kagame and his Congolese counterpart.

While on an official visit to Côte d’Ivoire recently, the Angolan head of state declared that plans were underway to organise a meeting between the two heads of state “very soon.”

“We are negotiating at ministerial level with a view to bringing together the two heads of state of the DRC and Rwanda, in the very near future for a direct exchange on this situation, with the aim of achieving peace in these two countries.”

Diplomatic efforts, however, have often been undone by events on the battlefield.

Corneille Nangaa, a former head of the election agency, has allied himself with the M23.

“Kanyabayonga is a large town with a population of nearly two million. It overlooks the Virunga National Park. For the FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo), which has made a strategic withdrawal, losing Kanyabayonga simply means that the Congolese army will retreat and the Rwandans will continue to advance as far as Beni,” saidmilitary expert Nicaise Kibel Bel.

The M23 seem to be changing their strategy. The threat to the town of Sake, the last stop before Goma, seems to have been removed. FARDC, on its part, is strengthening its positions.

“Goma has been spared any major fighting, thanks to pressure from Western countries, which have their own interests to protect in the town,” a senior civil society player in North Kivu told The EastAfrican on condition of anonymioty as he didn’t want to jeopardise confidence with his contacts in the diplomatic community.

On the eve of the General Election on December 20, 2023, the stance of the Congolese authorities was particularly martial. And as the General Election in Rwanda approaches (on July 15), there is every chance that the Rwandan authorities will harden their stance as well, and the region risks experiencing yet another rift, with each leader vowing to defend his country tooth and nail.

In his speech to the nation on June 30, Tshisekedi said: “ In my capacity as President of the republic and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces...I would like to assure you of my unshakeable determination to defend our territory and restore peace. Our valiant soldiers are on the front line, and together we will triumph over this unjustified aggression.”

Mr Kagame, on his part told French broadcaster France 24 last month: “We are ready to fight.” But he added that he won’t be the one to start a fight.