For DR Congo, Peace With M23 Proves Elusive -- But Does It Matter?

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Sultani Makenga M23
General Sultani Makenga, military leader of the M23 rebels, addresses the media in Bunagana, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, September 8, 2013.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Diplomats and delegates gathered in Entebbe, Uganda, on Monday in hopes of finalizing a deal that could formally put an end to the Congolese militant group M23. But ongoing disputes kept the delegates waiting for hours until the meeting was finally adjourned around 9:30 p.m., with no resolution in sight.

Before its surrender last week, M23 was one of dozens of militant groups in the DR Congo. The group began waging attacks and committing human rights abuses against civilians in April 2012 and captured the eastern town of Goma in November, but its militants were ousted after 10 days by Congolese forces and by an 18,000-strong U.N. peacekeeper outfit called Monusco. The militants didn't go far and continued to pose a threat to Goma and the surrounding region for months. In March, Monusco was strengthened by a U.N. authorization for an "Intervention Brigade" of about 3,000 troops with a stronger mandate for combat, which has worked with Congolese troops since August, and pushed M23 from its final major stronghold in the town on Bunagana on Oct. 30.

After a few more days of skirmishes, M23's surrender brought hundreds of fighters, along with commander Sultani Makenga, to Uganda for talks. Though the discussions were held up by disagreements over amnesty for top commanders and the reintegration of some M23 fighters into the Congolese army, they were expected to come to a close at the Monday-afternoon signing ceremony in Entebbe. But a statement Tuesday from the Ugandan government, which was facilitating the deal, said the DR Congo delegation never entered the conference room where the signing ceremony was to be held, leaving representatives of the United Nations, the African Union, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, and several foreign diplomats empty-handed.

"The DRC government delegation much later informally asked the facilitator for and was given the final text of the agreement document, which they said they wanted to further study in detail to ensure it conforms to what they negotiated," said the Ugandan statement Tuesday. "This process of studying the document took quite a long time till 9:30 p.m. and subsequently [Ugandan Vice President Edward Kiwanuka Sekandi] adjourned the signing ceremony indefinitely."

One sticking point in the negotiations was the very title of the final agreement, explained DR Congo spokesman Lambert Mende to Al Jazeera. "We want to sign a declaration, but the mediator, for a reason we do not understand, wants to impose an accord upon us," he said. A declaration is traditionally less legally binding than an accord; it also does not suggest that the two negotiating parties are equals.

The talks are expected to continue, but there is no set date for a new attempt at forging an agreement. The surrendered M23 fighters remain in Uganda, which has disarmed them but is unlikely to turn the combatants, or their leader Makenga, over to DR Congo authorities. The delays point to ongoing tension between Uganda and the DR Congo. UN experts reported earlier this year that Uganda and Rwanda have likely been supporting the M23 insurgency, something officials from both countries deny.

The M23 is just one of dozens of militant goups in the DR Congo, where government barely exists beyond the capital city of Kinshasa. The country's vast mineral wealth has helped fund criminal activities in lawless areas, where human rights abuses are often committed with impunity -- sometimes by Congolese troops. But even without a peace deal, M23's surrender is a significant development for the country's eastern provinces.

"Many militia groups are still at large and will have to be pacified, but the M23 was not just any militia group," said Maurice Carney, executive director of the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Friends of the Congo. "It distinguished itself by being backed by a state -- and not just any state but one that is an ally of the United States," he added, referring to Rwanda.

The M23 militia, which consists mostly of ethnic Tutsis, is suspected of having ties to the Tutsi-majority administration of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. This connection is rooted in a complex series of conflicts stretching back to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when ethnically motivated violence killed an estimated 800,000, and two subsequent wars pitting Rwanda and Uganda against the DR Congo and its allies, killing millions between 1996 and 2003. Even M23 is a reincarnation of an earlier rebel group called the National Congress for the Defense of the People, which was reintegrated into the Congolese army in a peace deal on March 23, 2009 -- a date that would give the group its name when it coalesced once again last year.

In that context, a peace agreement with M23 fighters would only be a first step on a long road toward stability in the DR Congo, analysts argue. Strengthening civil society groups and political institutions from Kinshasa to Goma, so that Congolese citizens could have greater control over their own affairs, will be at the root of any lasting solution. That would involve widespread social and infrastructural development in a country where more than two-thirds of the population of 65 million live below the poverty line, as well as concerted efforts to reduce the influence of outside interests.

"The peace deal with the M23 is misplaced," said Carney. "The M23 is a proxy militia of Rwanda and Uganda. The deal should be be among Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo. Both Rwanda and Uganda should sing a pact of non-aggression with the DR Congo, and this should get the full backing of the international community."

After talks reached an impasse in Uganda on Monday, the path to peace is looking longer than ever. "The understanding is that both delegations will be in contact with [the] facilitator, Uganda’s Defense Minister Dr. Crispus Kiyonga, and the observers," Ugandan officials said in their Tuesday statement. "If and when they are ready to move forward, the facilitator will give a new date for the signing ceremony."

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