Goma gasps under rebel occupation

Uncertainty lurks behind the veneer of normality in the eastern DRC city that M23 rebels seized last week.

Many residents fled Goma as M23 rebels fought government troops for control of the city [AFP/Getty Images]

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo Fresh showers splash across the city, momentarily emptying the sky of thick grey clouds.

The rain, though, does little to cool down tensions. This is a city tightly wound up, on edge, after M23 rebels wrested Goma from government control last week.

Residents of this scenic city, located in the northeastern corner of DR Congo, bordering Rwanda on the shores of Lake Kivu, are reeling from the effects of the military takeover by M23 rebels.

On the surface, the city is bustling.

Vendors flock at the flanks of the airport road, selling vegetables and children’s shoes and cutting meat. Other shops hang their wares off the sides of their wooden stalls, and mechanics crouch as they wipe the grease off motorcycles on elevated ramps.

The rebels, in comparison, are conspicuous by their absence.

A M23 rebel looks on at a M23 rally in Goma last week 

Despite Goma’s city administration and security being taken over by M23, there is scant representation of the soldiers themselves in the city.

A few soldiers are seen hanging outside the handful luxury hotels in town; a few more, wrapped in green fatigues and berets, clutch their semi-automatic rifles and lean on a wall in a side street of the city.

The UN says about 500 M23 soldiers are in the city with an estimated 1.5 million people.

But even as residents go about their business in a bid to continue with normal life, there is an uncomfortable hum to daily activities.

By day, Goma might not seem to be a city in a supreme lockdown. But the perceived security is farcical: the movement of people smacks of a society forcing normality when the conditions are anything but normal. 

Tellingly, anything significantly important is closed.

Feeling the pinch

The children playing in Munigi on the outskirts of Goma are supposed to be in school. The men and women roaming the streets are not consumers, they are the jobless searching for work. The vendors – sitting on the hard earth under umbrellas selling over-ripe bananas – bicker among themselves.

We are waiting for something to happen, they say.

After protracted negotiations, the rebels have agreed to a phased withdrawal in eastern DRC. But they are still firmly entrenched for now in Goma, and a fresh round of fighting has not been entirely ruled out.

Meanwhile, residents are feeling the pinch of this uncertainty.

Issa Hamzati, owner of a mobile communications store opposite the mayor’s office, told Al Jazeera with all official communication cut with capital Kinshasa, business across the city is suffering.

“My business requires credit – it’s the nature of my business. But with banks closed, I can’t conduct any business,” Hamzati said. 

The collapse of public administration and services, and the confusion over who is running Goma, means businesses can’t reopen. This has a trickle-down effect across the city. 

Goma, the regional capital of North Kivu province, is considered the gateway to the riches of eastern DRC. Not only is Goma under rebel control, so too are a series of neighbouring towns, including Rutshuru and Kiwanja, along the Goma-Rutshuru highway bordering Uganda. 

Goma’s reputation as a main throughway for trade with east Africa via Kigali and Mombasa makes the city a point of leverage. It also tells a tale of M23’s daring audaciousness that has shocked many.

Bigger than Goma

One of the biggest promises President Kabila [before his election in 2011] made was to improve security in eastern Congo, [which] he has not managed to fulfill.

– Primo Pascal Rudahigwa, journalist

While residents reel under the ambivalence of M23’s occupation of Goma, with some citing improved security following the exit of the Congolese army, others say the crisis is greater than the loss of the city. 

The formation and success of M23 is symptom of a larger problem of governance in DR Congo. “This is an economic as much as a political crisis,” said Primo Pascal Rudahigwa, a journalist at RTNC, a state radio station.

“One of the biggest promises President Kabila [before his election in 2011] made was to improve security in eastern Congo, [which] he has not managed to fulfill,” Rudahigwa told Al Jazeera.

In many ways, the city of Goma has had to bear the brunt of the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which culminated in two tragic wars that involved up to eight countries in the region.

But the end of the second war in 2003 has held little respite for the city as it continues to sit on the frontline in a series of skirmishes on the border with Rwanda. Goma has also had to navigate a clutch of rebel groups fighting proxy wars on its doorstep for land, resources and dominance.

The current crisis itself has its roots in a peace accord signed in 2009 between the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), an armed militia, and the government – a year after fighting between the two groups erupted in Goma forcing 20,000 people to flee the city.

It is this 2009 agreement that M23 now say the government has betrayed.

Blame game

Disdain for President Kabila is a recurring theme in Goma, where many resent the administration’s continued neglect of the region. 

Civil society groups and opposition leaders say Kabila’s failure to build a strong public administration and a lack of commitment to the needs of ordinary people has led to the emergence of parallel structures in the country. 

The M23 is the latest structure to emerge as a result of the failure of the state to provide the necessary conditions of development, governance and security for its people.

“Practically, the government has failed in its responsibilities in protecting its own people and showed that it’s a dying power,” Rubins Mikindo, the president of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party in North Kivu, told Al Jazeera.

I don’t even know who fired the bomb. I just want to call on the government and other leaders to bring peace to this place.

– Wanny Rebecca, student

Mikindo said the blame for this crisis has to be placed on the central government and not on foreign interference from Rwanda or Uganda, which the UN says have been supporting the rebels.

“Kabila has been in power for a decade and in this time he has never been able to build a strong army … The time for excuses are over.

“The government forgot that they should be constructing a state … The real problem here is that the apparatus of the Congolese government does not exist,” Mikindo said.
Meanwhile, the people of Goma say they are tired of it all.

Sitting in the Heal Africa hospital in Goma with her leg in a plaster cast, fiddling with her phone out of boredom, Wanny Rebecca, 24, said she just wants leaders to restore peace.

Rebecca was hit by shrapnel from a mortar round and wounded, like 106 other patients who were admitted for treatment from gunshot wounds in the past week.

“I don’t even know who fired the bomb,” said Rebecca, a student in management studies at the University of Goma. “I just want to call on the government and other leaders to bring peace to this place.”

Source: Al Jazeera