DRC: ‘Time is running out for Tshisekedi,’ says researcher Christoph Vogel

By Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala
Posted on Wednesday, 4 May 2022 11:41

A Congolese FARDC soldier in Semuliki, 10 December 2021. © Sébastien KITSA MUSAYI / AFP

The first round of negotiations between Kinshasa and the armed groups active in eastern DRC ended on 27 April in Nairobi. What should we learn from it? Does excluding one of the M23’s branches compromise its chances of success? Researcher Christoph Vogel answered our questions.

Can talks help bring peace to eastern DRC? Following a summit between the presidents of the East African Community (EAC), Félix Tshisekedi agreed on 21 April to hold talks with representatives from a number of armed groups operating in Ituri and the Kivus – the first round of which ended on 27 April in Nairobi, with Kenya acting as mediator.

Is it possible to achieve peace in the East? We asked Christoph Vogel, author of Conflict Minerals, Inc. (Hurst & OUP, 2022) and research director of the Insecure Livelihoods project at Ghent University (Belgium).

Jeune Afrique: Could the fact that a branch of the M23, the one loyal to Sultani Makenga, is being kept out of the discussions compromise the dialogue?

Christoph Vogel: This dialogue raises questions anyway because the participants were selected in a rather opaque way. The M23 is not even one of the strongest or most violent armed groups at the moment. Its demands are, however, older than the movement itself and their persistence is a sign that a number of problems have never been solved.

Can these negotiations lead to a ceasefire?

A complete and comprehensive ceasefire is not a realistic scenario. There are more than 100 armed groups, the majority of which operate in North Kivu and Ituri. Most of them are not at the negotiating table in Nairobi. I am not saying that they should have been given the red carpet, but if you invite some and not others, you can hardly expect to convince them all to lay down their arms.

War and violence have flourished in the East for almost three decades. Thousands of men have fought for different armed groups, collecting stints in one faction or another like others accumulate ‘work experience’ on their CVs. I am convinced, however, that it is never too late to build true and lasting peace, but it will not be done by using arms.

Did President Tshisekedi only agree to these discussions because he was under pressure to do so? 

The head of state has made pacifying the east a priority of his five-year term and time is running out, as the next elections are due to be held in 18 months. My feeling is that Kinshasa wants to try everything: there has been a state of siege [decreed in May 2021], joint military operations, a new DDR [Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration] and now regional negotiations.

Kenya, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and DRC, which are now all members of the EAC, are considering forming a joint military force to neutralise groups active in the eastern part of the country who refuse to surrender. Is this feasible?

Beyond the announcement that was made at the end of the EAC summit [on 21 April], few details have filtered out about this initiative. Many points remain to be clarified. However, it is interesting to note that most of the countries mentioned already have men on Congolese soil. Sometimes officially, but not always.

If a regional military force is envisaged, does this mean that the state of siege has failed, as have the joint operations with Uganda since last November?

It is also possible that these different strategies complement each other. That being said, it is true that the record of the state of siege and cooperation with Uganda remains poor. Congolese parliament members have noted that the violence attributed to the ADF [Forces Démocratiques Alliées] and Codeco [Coopérative pour le Développement du Congo] has not diminished in intensity since the arrival of the Ugandans, who, according to several witnesses, focus mainly on securing the road works between Uganda and DRC.

Isn’t the idea of a regional force utopian, given the long-standing mistrust between the countries concerned?

It is all a question of perspective. There was a time when the countries of the region were diplomatically and militarily united. In recent days, there have been more and more signs of rapprochement, especially between Kampala and Kigali. Now, does this mean that a strong EAC can emerge and that this can be a solution, that is another question.

What do you think of the M23’s resurgence in recent months? 

It is not really a resurgence. The branch of the M23 that is under Makenga’s command has resettled in DRC since the end of 2016, along the volcanic chain linking Mount Sabinyo and Mount Mikeno. In early 2017, two Congolese army helicopters crashed [in Rutshuru territory] while searching for M23 rebels. There have been regular clashes, including over the past year.

On the other hand, the simultaneous advent of the state of siege, a new DDR and the Ugandan-Congolese operations have arguably led to an increase in this armed group’s activities since March.

Are accusations that Rwanda is supporting the M23 credible?

Simple answers are risky. Rwanda has a long history of supporting rebel movements active on Congolese soil. However, this support has changed over the years, becoming more and more indirect and in pursuit of specific objectives.

The genealogy of rebellions ‘close to Rwanda’ has also evolved. The M23, for example, is much more ‘sceptical’ of its alleged sponsor than the RCD [Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie] ever was during the second Congo war. Many M23 members still feel that Kigali betrayed them when it arrested Laurent Nkunda in 2009.

The support you are talking about is not easy to gauge and, although many observers are convinced, there is little hard evidence at this stage.

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