Despite the international outcry over the seizure of Goma by M23 rebels, a solution to the ongoing crisis in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remains elusive. Although there has been a relative improvement of the security situation, humanitarian agencies remain concerned over meeting the basic needs of more than 140,000 civilians displaced by recent M23 advances. It is unclear at this point whether the Congolese government will engage rebels in talks or if M23 will not only agree to withdraw from Goma, but actually follow through.
What is clear is the necessity of meeting the immediate humanitarian needs of the population and promoting transparent peace negotiations to avoid an escalation of the conflict and lay the foundation for long-term regional stability. Civilians are left to pay the price of uncertain political prospects for peace in unpredictable security outlook. Conservative estimates suggest that more than half a million people have been displaced since the onset of the fighting in April. According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), humanitarian agencies were able to resume assistance to internally displaced people (IDPs) in 12 sites around Goma, the first-large scale aid delivery since Goma was captured by M23 on November 20th.
Emergency meetings held in Kampala under the auspices of the regional bloc International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) persuaded Congolese President Joseph Kabila to hold talks with rebels and urged the M23 to withdraw its fighters from Goma. However, both sides appear unwilling to engage in productive talks with rebels’ demands deemed outrageous by the Congolese government.
Doubts remain as to whether rebels will follow through with their promise to leave the strategic eastern town, especially after indefinitely delaying their withdrawal today following United Nations troops blocking the rebels from seizing Congolese military ammunitions that were being stored at the Goma airport.
Meanwhile, a cross-border attack into Rwanda by rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), as confirmed by the U.S. embassy in Kigali, raises fear of an international war. But Rwanda maintained that it won’t allow the incident to derail the regional peace process.
The ICGLR peace process has been heavily criticized as lacking in credibility. Despite strong denials, Rwanda and Uganda have been accused by a UN panel of experts of supporting the M23 rebellion, raising questions over the legitimacy of the regional peace initiatives. Yet international responses—strong condemnations from the Security Council without explicitly naming Rwanda and Uganda, imposing asset freezes and travel ban on M23 military leaders, and the suspension of donor aid to Rwanda—are yet to yield tangible results on the ground.
The rather high profile failure of UN stabilization mission in Congo (MONUSCO) to prevent Goma’s capture underlies the desperate need to change its current mandate to reflect realities on the ground. Furthermore, slapping targeted sanctions on M23 leadership, DRC, Rwanda and Uganda without addressing the underlying lack of legitimate state presence in eastern provinces risks antagonizing parties that are critical to finding a long-term solution.
These dynamics highlight the need for sustained high level engagement between key international players and regional governments or peace and stability in eastern Congo will remain unreachable. The U.S. government should appoint a presidential envoy to work with a joint African Union and United Nations appointed mediator to begin a constructive and genuine dialogue that addresses both the immediate crisis and the underlying longer-term economic and political interests of the parties. The outcomes of these talks should be accompanied with the threat of punitive measures for parties that renege on their promises. As expressed by demonstration held throughout the country and across the globe, the Congolese people deserve peace and stability after decades of conflict.