Entebbe, Uganda – Hopes for a lasting peace in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo have been growing since the armed M23 movement led by Sultani Makenga announced the end of its rebellion in early November .
The surprise announcement came nearly a year after the rebels conquered the bustling border town of Goma in the country’s east. A joint offensive by the Congolese army (FARDC) and a UN intervention brigade had forced M23 to surrender and flee to neighbouring Uganda.
Two months later, however, that idea of a lasting peace remains elusive. On January 2, Colonel Mamadou Ndala was killed in North Kivu province. Ndala had led the advance of the Congolese army against M23, and he was supposed to command upcoming military operations against other rebel groups, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
A few days earlier, DRC’s capital , Kinshasa, as well as the towns of Lubumbashi and Kindu, were rocked by mass demonstrations , led by the unsuccessful presidential candidate-turned-pastor Joseph Mukungubila Mutombo. More than 100 people were killed, including eight soldiers, in an episode which highlighted the general fragility of the country’s political landscape.
Any lasting solution needs to be political and take into account the local dimensions of the conflict. While reducing the fighting force of FDLR to some extent, previous joint operations also exacerbated the suffering of local populations.
Back in the east, meanwhile, M23 still remains a concern – despite its pledge to halt violence. Questions over amnesty and refugee return are still unresolved and represent a potential flashpoint for future insurrection.
“T he recent peace agreement does not really solve the fate of the 1,500-2,500 M23 officers and soldiers in Rwanda and Uganda,” Jason Stearns, director of the Rift Valley Institute’s Usalama Project, told Al Jazeera. “That’s a political issue that will have to be hammered out between the UN and the governments concerned.”
M23’s dismantling encouraged other militias, either for a lack of enemies or allies, to lay down their arms – a positive outcome if it were not for 40-50 rebel groups persisting in Congo’s eastern highlands.
“After their demise, we observed several groups demobilising, but as long as FDLR, ADF, and others continue to operate – or pose unrealistic conditions for their disarmament – peace will be hard to obtain,” said Josaphat Musamba, a university lecturer from Bukavu.
In light of these challenges, the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO retains a critical role. Its intervention brigade is now targeting the FDLR, a militia assembling remnants of Rwandan génocidaires . But both the peacekeepers and the Congolese army have been accused of not effectively pursuing this rebel group and allowing it to continuously wreak havoc on the Congolese population.
“The intervention brigade was created to neutralise and disarm all armed groups in DRC, without exception, and this includes performing anti-FDLR operations with the same resolve and determination as it did for the anti-M23 operations, ” Rwanda’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Olivier Nduhungirehe told Al Jazeera.
“Although I am not a military [person], I believe that MONUSCO’s intervention brigade should, without wasting time, use its full force against FDLR and issue a deadline for surrender,” Nduhungirehe said.
But UN envoy and MONUSCO chief Martin Kobler disagreed with the accusations that it was giving FDLR free rein.
“We confront the FDLR with the same determination as we confront all armed groups. This is our mandate,” Kobler said. “We take it seriously and cooperate with our Rwandan and other partners, and use the most modern technologies such as unarmed drones to find out where the hardcore of FDLR are hiding.”
Kobler also noted the issues at hand in neutralising the FDLR on the battlefield. ” Let’s be clear, you will not witness massive operations, t his is a different kind of operation. Against M23, MONUSCO and FARDC fought an army, while the FDLR use guerrilla tactics. Their positions span an area as big as Switzerland.”
Analysts say that to be successful, the UN force needs to improve its understanding of the topography of armed conflict and social interaction on the ground in the troubled east.
“The intervention brigade is a military solution, while everybody knows there is no such thing for eastern Congo,” said Columbia University’s Séverine Autesserre, author of Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of Conflict Resolution.
“Any lasting solution needs to be political and take into account the local dimensions of the conflict. While reducing the fighting force of FDLR to some extent, previous joint operations also exacerbated the suffering of local populations.”
Over the past two decades, armed groups in the DRC have blossomed and faded away again. While offensive action may be one way to achieve stability, the government has proven ineffective in tackling sources of insecurity in the east.
The most urgent need in areas freed from armed groups is to quickly and sustainably re-establish state authority and economic perspectives for the people. MONUSCO and the whole UN are here to help in this Herculean task.
“Large-scale disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration [DDR] programmes ultimately backfired due to mismanagement, embezzlement, and the resulting disincentives for ex-combatants,” a senior military officer told Al Jazeera on condition on anonymity, because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media.
Currently, both the DRC government and the United Nations are setting up new DDR programmes aimed a stabilising the region, I nformation Minister Lambert Mende told Al Jazeera.
“The government has also made available additional funds to kick-start a DDR initiative in favour of the surrendered and captured members of M23,” Mende said.
Stearns, from the Usalama Project, said it was imperative for the Congolese government to roll out its new programmes quickly. “There are already several thousand soldiers and dependents in army camps, with little food or support.”
Past mistakes in handling former fighters should not be repeated, he added.
“Senior commanders should not be rewarded with top ranks and positions, and abusers should be prosecuted more aggressively,” said Stearns. “For the rank-and-file, the main concern is that the government currently wants to relocate them elsewhere in the country to ‘re-educate’ them, which could be difficult logistically and, if done improperly, stoke further resentment.”
In the 20 th year of DRC’s conflict, M23 ‘s defeat brings both opportunity and risk.
“The most urgent need in areas freed from armed groups is to quickly and sustainably re-establish state authority and economic perspectives for the people,” Kobler said. ” MONUSCO and the whole UN are here to help in this Herculean task.”
But Autesserre remains sceptical that MONUSCO and the DRC government can effectively handle the task at hand.
“It is increasingly alarming how the UN, within the past years, has developed from a once-impartial broker into an ally of the Congolese government. This makes it hard to credibly deal with other parties to the conflict such as M23 or FDLR,” she said.
Follow Christoph Vogel on Twitter: @ethuin