Rwandan-backed M23 rebels have taken Goma, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, almost as an afterthought with few casualties and a measure of civilian support.
After nearly eight months of mutinies, skirmishes, advances, retreats, declarations, claims and counter-claims, the actual fighting lasted just a matter of hours. By Monday evening M23, which has been accused of killings, rapes and recruting child soldiers since it launched an uprising in April, had advanced to within four miles of Goma.
On Tuesday morning some bolder civilians crept along the main city boulevard towards the central roundabout where the army and M23 exchanged fire for more than an hour. Volleys of bullets from the rebels’ Kalashnikovs whizzed mostly towards army positions, but some flew down the boulevard and prompted those who had crept too close to throw themselves against walls and to the floor. Occasionally the army would respond with heavy arms fire, though that brought only more bullets from the rebels.
Some in Goma fear that, once international attention is diverted, the rebels will commit abuses that have previously earned condemnation from the UN and human rights groups. Tens of thousands of people have fled neighbouring villages and refugee camps, prompting warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Or, is this just a Rwandan occupation?
And, for those who would relegate this duel in the Great Lakes region to the bottom of a very thick and expensive, intractable pile of bloodbaths that just happen to be playing out worldwide, it gets better. Rwanda might just make the United Nations compelling again.
For cynical observers, this current crisis in the eastern DRC is a dreary reversion to form. In April 2012, a group of soldiers and officers based in the country’s restive east, and led by International Criminal Court indictee – and then-army general Bosco Ntaganda defected from the Congolese military. Ntaganda had once been the commander of a Rwandan-backed insurgency against the DRC’s government. Throughout the 2000s, Rwanda embraced proxy militants as a counter-balance to DRC-based Hutu militias attempting to overthrow the largely Tutsi government of President Paul Kagame. This policy also became a means of projecting hard power and protecting Rwandan economic interests in a resource-rich area.
Rwanda’s ethnic conflicts — and Kagame’s political and military ambitions — have spilled into the neighboring DRC for the two decades since Rwanda’s devastating anti-Tutsi genocide in 1994, feeding a nearly continuous state of war. Nkunda and his followers were brought into the DRC’s military as part of a peace agreement finalized on March 23, 2009. But that agreement has broken down, and fighting in the eastern Congo, aftershocks of a series of conflicts that have killed nearly 3 million people since 1996, goes on.
This past weekend’s escalation notwithstanding, the latest development in the M23 crisis might be taking place thousands of miles away from its front lines. On October 18, Rwanda was elected to a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, achieving a long-sought after goal for Kagame’s government (UNSC seats are decided by a General Assembly vote and apportioned by continent; because it was the only African nation to stand for a Security Council seat this time around, Rwanda essentially ran unopposed). The election could hardly have come at a more opportune time for Rwanda. In June, a U.N. Group of Experts report<, prepared by a UNSC-approved panel that investigates possible violations of an arms embargo against the DRC, detailed how elements of the Rwandan government were actively aiding the rebellion in the country’s east.
This is only beginning.