Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo - In the space of just one week, Congolese rebel group M23 has dramatically increased the significance of its presence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by seizing control of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. The Congolese army and UN peacekeepers swore Goma would never fall, yet over the course of just a few days the rebels secured control of the sprawling city of one million people.
M23 accuses the Congolese government of not respecting a peace deal signed in 2009 with the rebel group National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). The CNDP fighters had integrated into the army but this year mutinied to form M23 and make their claims against the government. The rebels, who are allegedly led by international criminal court-indictee Bosco Ntaganda and backed by Rwanda and Uganda, threatened on Wednesday to take the capital Kinshasa. Congolese President Joseph Kabila now faces the gravest crisis of his leadership.
The fall of Goma
Fighting began on November 15. M23 soldiers advanced from their positions some 30 kilometres north of Goma and by Saturday November 17 had forced the government troops back to Kibati, just seven kilometres from Goma and the last defence position before the city.
A bloody urban gunfight was expected, but after battles around the edge of the city on Monday and then in the city centre on Tuesday morning, the Congolese army soldiers gave up and fled, leaving Goma to the rebels. Troops from Monusco, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo, stood by as the rebels swept through the streets.
Asked whether he was surprised by the ease with which they took control of the city, M23 military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Vianney Kazarama could only laugh.
The citizens of Goma, who have suffered repeatedly and egregiously at the hands of a host of rebel groups over the last two decades, were relieved that the battle was, at least, swift and decisive. "The combat in the city wasn’t bad at all," said a shopkeeper in Goma who declined to give his name. "A lot of the fighting was outside town, and when it moved to the city it was over very quickly."
Others were furious that Monusco had allowed M23 to take the city without firing a shot in anger. "What purpose do they serve?" demanded one man, who also did not want to be named. "They drive out in their tanks, they watch the fighting, then they return. They do nothing!" Indeed, on Tuesday morning Monusco armoured personnel carriers sped back to their bases barely an hour after being deployed, and without engaging the rebels.
A senior UN source, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, sought to excuse the UN’s inaction. "There is no army left in the town, not a soul," he said on Tuesday. "Once [M23] were in the town what could we do? It could have been very serious for the population."
Even a week ago, M23's official line was that they had no interest in taking Goma; analysts were sceptical whether the rebels had the strength to take, let alone hold, such a massive population centre. Emboldened by their success, Kazarama addressed a rally in the Stade du Volcan football stadium in Goma and declared the rebels' intention to march to Kinshasa and remove Kabila from power.
"Kabila failed - he doesn't pay you, doesn't give you food or take care of your family," Kazarama told a crowd of three or four thousand. "This is why we have decided to remove him." Buoyed by the cries of approval, the rebel leader asked, "Do you want us to go to Kinshasa?"
"Yes!" came the response.
DR Congo soldiers defect from government
Such grandstanding is only rhetoric, for now, but it would be foolish to underestimate an army that began as a small mutiny in April and is now occupying the biggest city in eastern Congo. The UN and organisations including Human Rights Watch have attributed M23's meteoric rise to backing from Rwanda and Uganda, but both countries have furiously denied supporting the rebels.
The UN Group of Experts on the Congo issued an interim report in late June that accused key figures in the Rwandan government of backing the rebels and supplying them with recruits, weapons, ammunition and financing. The accusations caused a diplomatic storm, and many countries withdrew aid to Rwanda.
Despite Rwanda’s strenuous denials and efforts to discredit the members of the UN panel, the Group’s final report for 2012 – published on Wednesday – insists that Rwanda continues to support the rebels and that Uganda, too, has helped in M23 operations against the Congolese army. The Ugandan government reacted furiously, threatening to withdraw its peacekeeping troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia.
The UN Experts accuse the Rwandan and Ugandan armies of contributing thousands of troops to reinforce the M23 fighters in major operations against the Congolese army. This, they say, helps to explain M23's advance to the gates of Goma. Many citizens reported seeing Rwandan troops among the M23 fighters as they took city, while others claimed that M23 had crossed into Goma from Rwanda.
"M23 are here, they entered by the small border crossing from Rwanda," claimed Gabriel Alamazani, minutes before the rebels marched down the principal Boulevard Kanyamuhunga in Goma to secure control of the border. Later, an English teacher named Peter claimed Rwandans had been among the M23 forces that entered the town. "We know they are Rwandans because they speak Kinyarwanda, and they also speak a different French to Congolese French," he said.
Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo tried to refute the claims of Rwandan support for M23, and suggested the key actors should focus on a solution to the crisis. "By focusing on the blame game and ignoring the root causes of conflict in the DRC, the international community has missed the opportunity to help the DRC restore peace and security for its citizens and bring about much needed stability in the Great Lakes Region," she said. “We just cannot afford to continue along a path that has failed to produce results.”
Just the beginning?
The fall of Goma was unthinkable for many before this week. It is the first time the city has been captured by rebels in over a decade, despite the regular insurrections in and around Goma over that period. M23 now poses a real threat to Kabila's power; even if the rebels do not make it to Kinshasa, their successes have weakened Kabila and given his enemies succour.
Kabila was elected on the back of a promise to push forward reforms on five "chantiers" or "pillars" of development: infrastructure, jobs, education, electricity and health. His government has failed to improve the lot of the Congolese people in any of these areas, and security in the east has been perilous at several points during his nine-year reign. M23 is capitalising on many people's frustration and anger at the president, although most remain suspicious of the militia's true motives and links to Rwanda.
"Kabila’s little game is finished," said Alamazani, as he watched M23 soldiers seize control of the border crossing into Rwanda. "He must resign, he must hand power to [opposition leader Etienne] Tshisekedi. He cannot continue now."
Significantly, the sorry state of the national army – troops complain of scarce rations, outdated equipment and irregular payment of meagre salaries – has encouraged soldiers to defect to M23. At the rally in the football stadium in Goma, M23 recruited 2,100 deserting government troops and 700 police to their ranks.
As the army disintegrates and the rebels strengthen, Kabila flew to Kampala, Uganda, for a show of diplomacy with Rwandan and Ugandan counterparts Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni – the leaders of the two countries accused of aiding M23. The result was a vaguely-worded statement of willingness to consider negotiation, but many will not see this as enough.
Anger is growing at Kabila’s dithering over this crisis and the complete failure of his army to stop the rebels. If the M23 troops make further advances, they may not even need to reach Kinshasa to bring about the end of Kabila’s rule.