Brief hints of compromise on Tuesday raised hopes that insurgents in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, would dial back their offensive against cities in the eastern provinces. But a flood of mixed messages quickly dampened hopes of reconciliation, renewing fears that an all-out war could once again threaten a vast area of Central Africa.
A rebel group called the March 23 Movement, or M23, has fought against Congolese government forces since April of this year. They seized Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, on Nov. 20, embarrassing the national army – which is notoriously inept – as well as the United Nations peacekeepers who had been stationed in town.
Regional African leaders had set an ultimatum for M23, demanding that they leave Goma by Monday night. But when it became clear that the occupation was still in effect as dawn broke on Tuesday, conflicting reports began to fly.
Ugandan officials, who have played a major role in handling negotiations between M23 and the DRC government, said Tuesday that the insurgents had agreed to withdraw from Goma, citing statements made by M23 officer Sultani Makenga.
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But hours later, M23 political chief Jean-Marie Runiga told reporters that the group’s departure would proceed only if the government agreed to speak with the rebels and accommodate certain demands.
After that, M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha endeavored to set the record straight – but his comments were less than straightforward.
“There's no division; Gen. Makenga has said that we'll withdraw, so that's what we're in the process of doing," said Kabasha, according to Reuters. "If we withdraw the force, everyone leaves ... It's not contradictory [to Runiga's statement]. He said we were prepared to withdraw from the town but that [DRC President Joseph] Kabila must listen to us."
Now, the DRC government is standing by, awaiting diplomatic progress as it gears up for a possible counterattack in the coming days.
“We prefer to wait,” said DRC spokesman Lambert Mende. “These [M23 insurgents] are not people who keep to their word.”
M23 is widely believed to be backed and financed by the Rwandan government, making the violent insurgency of problem of regional scope. Rivalries in and around the DRC are complicated, having roots in various ethnic and national conflicts of the past two decades, including the 1994 Rwandan genocide and two major wars between 1996 and 2003 that cost about 5 million lives in Central Africa.
Ethnic conflicts between the Hutus and Tutsis, which resulted in the devastating 1994 massacre in Rwanda that cost 800,000 lives, have fueled the M23 rebellion. The insurgents are mostly (though not entirely) Tutsi, like the ruling administration of neighboring Rwanda. Goma, which lies on the border with Rwanda, has become a pivotal territory in the conflicts.
The M23 rebels do not openly profess allegiance to the Rwandan government. Its fighters, most of whom defected from the official DRC army this year, are demanding talks with the Kabila administration in the faraway capital city of Kinshasa.
Although the DRC has engaged in talks with Rwandan and Ugandan officials, the Kabila administration has rejected many M23 demands for negotiations, in part because M23 rebels have committed criminal atrocities against the people of the DRC in recent months. Several human rights watchdog groups report that the insurgents have looted villages, raped women, recruited child soldiers and performed summary executions.
Chances are slim that a peace agreement will be worked out between M23 and the DRC, unless the rebels’ alleged supporters in Rwanda step in to rein in the conflict. Similar insurgent groups of years past have been absorbed into the Congolese military, but that has never worked out in the long run. On both sides, patience in running thin – especially as the Goma debacle continues to defy resolution.
"If each day [M23 rebels are] going to come back with new demands, it becomes ridiculous,” said Mende on Tuesday, according to the New York Times.