Will there be a military solution in the Congo?

It has been a tumultuous week for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The M23 rebel movement, which now calls itself the Congolese Revolutionary Army (a name that doesn’t seem to have stuck in international media), took Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, last Tuesday. This is a big deal because Goma is a city of about one million people, and this is the first time since the official end of the war in 2003 that a rebel force has entered Goma.

A tenuous stalemate has emerged, in which the rebels appear willing to negotiate with the government but the government refuses to negotiate until the rebels retreat from Goma; which so far they refuse to do. It seems to me to be a peculiar demand when the rebels appear to be holding most of the cards. Upon taking Goma, government troops surrendered and MONUSCO, the peacekeeping mission, were not able to halt the rebels for fear of a clash that would endanger civilians.

The ICGLR conference in Kampala over the weekend issued an ultimatum to the rebels to pull out of Goma by midnight on Monday, but didn’t say what would happen if they didn’t. Melanie Gouby and Rukmini Callimachi reported on Monday that the rebels announced they planned to move their headquarters to Goma, indicating no intention of withdrawing. The government army chief said that if the rebels don’t pull out by Tuesday, the army will attack. The government army tried, and failed, to retake Goma on Thursday.

On Tuesday morning, M23 political chief Jean-Marie Runiga said M23 would withdraw from Goma if Kabila holds national talks, releases political prisoners, and dissolves the flawed electoral commission. This contradicts the announcement of Ugandan military leadership that M23 agreed to withdraw without mentioning any conditions, and Katrina Manson of the Financial Times reports that M23’s Colonel Makenga said “The presidents in Kampala asked us to leave and we’ll respect what they demanded.”

It was also reported that Congolese President Kabila met with an M23 spokesman, who welcomed the meeting on Saturday during the Uganda-led ICGLR peace talks in Kampala. Despite widespread reporting of the meeting, on Sunday Kabila said he left the talks “without meeting anyone from the rebellion.” Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste puts it this way: “It’s very hard for the Congolese government to acknowledge that they are speaking to the rebels as they consider them an illegitimate group… The M23 want to discuss sweeping reforms and broad issues concerning the country, like healthcare, education and human rights. They say these topics are on the table. But the government would find it very difficult to discuss such issues with them.” In any case, it is now reported that the military commander of M23 has flown to Uganda to participate in the negotiations.

An overarching question here is whether a military solution will be pursued instead of continuing negotiations. With a fractured government army and a peacekeeping mission too under-resourced to police such large areas of a country the size of DRC, it seems like negotiation is the most logical way forward. The Angolan secretary of state for foreign affairs refuted rumors that Angola was going to militarily intervene by saying that “it is of our interest finding a definitive solution and ruling out the possibility of war,” and that the causes of the conflict need to be addressed rather than just its effects. Likewise, the Angolan presidential envoy said “I do not think that the solution to the situation in the DRC is a military one, this has already been proved since 1994.”

In the meantime, France has called for a strengthening of MONUSCO’s mandate to intervene. MONUSCO has an authorized strength of 19,815 military personnel, and an actual strength of 16,996. This is, indeed, miniscule for a country the size of Congo. (Contrast that to the NATO-led force in Kosovo, a tiny fraction of the size of DRC, which at its height numbered 50,000.)

Although Security Council resolutions 1925 and 2053 stress that MONUSCO’s priority should be security sector reform — that is, getting the national army and local police into shape since security is the government’s job — MONUSCO also has a Chapter VII mandate to “use all necessary means” to protect civilians. I wrote earlier this year about the Security Council’s renewal of MONUSCO’s mandate: “MONUSCO has indeed been described as being under-resourced and under-staffed; and this is, unfortunately, old news. So the question is not just whether the Security Council will significantly alter or broaden MONUSCO’s mandate, but whether Council members will then allocate the resources and personnel necessary to execute that mandate.”

In the absence of such a mobilization of resources — which would take quite some time, even if there was an intention to supply them — it seems there is not much choice but to talk. If a military solution is pursued and fighting erupts again, it would be devastating for the civilian population and MONUSCO would risk further politicizing its presence as a supporter of the government army. With any luck, cooler heads will prevail and the ICGLR peace process can continue; though according to Congo scholar Jason Stearns, the army is preparing its next offensive and “It is difficult to imagine what the possible compromise could be between the two sides.”