Congolese President Joseph Kabila, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame walked into the Kampala hotel meeting room, all looking tired, to talk to the press.
They’d been in closed-door talks over the previous 24 hours discussing the M23 rebellion in Eastern Congo, following the rebels’ capture of the city of Goma. My guess is that at least President Kabila, and possibly his counterparts too, did nogt get much sleep last night.
A Ugandan minister who read out a short joint communiqué from the three leaders that called for the M23 rebels to pull out of Goma immediately, stated that the DRC government should address M23’s grievances, and that a peace plan should be drawn up and implemented urgently.
The three leaders took a handful of questions but did not elaborate on any details of their plan and crucially, when asked, President Kabila did not make any explicit commitment to negotiating with M23 instead avoiding the question by referring to the ongoing process of regional peace talks and an assessment of the previous 2009 peace agreement. The M23 rebels have said they will only stop their advance if the Congolese government negotiates with them.
Ugandan President Museveni chaired the meeting. While on the one hand Uganda has chaired regional peace talks aimed at addressing Eastern Congo’s conflict over recent months, and all parties have agreed to that, on the other Uganda has also been accused by UN experts and a Congolese minister of being party to the conflict, supporting the M23 rebels with weapons and troops.
Rwanda is widely believed to be behind the M23 rebellion providing even more support and, according to UN experts and the Congolese government, commanding it from Kigali, the capital. Rwanda and Uganda both hotly deny these accusations. Donor countries have made minor gestures of disapproval, but while the international community has strongly condemned M23, it has so far been softer on the rebels’ alleged supporters.
This round of talks was preceded by a call from the US State Department on Tuesday for the three leaders to sit down together to “honestly” discuss the conflict. While it seems the international community wants to see peace, it is not willing to do much to achieve it so far we are seeing little more than stern words. No sign of sanctions for M23’s alleged supporters, or for a stronger, or clearer mandate for the UN peacekeeping force in Congo, or the political will behind it required to make it at least slightly effective.
It is a wonder how the three leaders manage to bring together their vastly differing public positions when behind closed doors – Kagame and Museveni denying any involvement while Kabila explicitly blaming Rwanda. It must be tense at the very least.
For Kabila, his negotiating position with his adversaries is now weak – he has suffered a military defeat and is rapidly losing control of parts of his country to a superior military force. However, he may well be stuck between rock and a hard place – reintegrating M23 back into the Congolese army may be unacceptable to other elements the Kinshasa government and army command.
By the time the press conference ended, we heard that M23 were still advancing beyond Goma, and beyond the town of Sake, towards the next key town of Bukavu. The trio’s message that M23 must pull out of Goma seemingly had not been communicated to the rebels, or had been ignored. With M23 still demanding negotiations with Kinshasa, but Kabila not explicitly agreeing to that, it seems for now peace is still out of reach for the people of the Eastern Congo.