The eastern Congo powder keg | Africa | DW | 01.03.2013
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The eastern Congo powder keg

Eastern Congo is experiencing renewed fighting. More than 30 people died in Kitchanga in clashes between the army and rebels of the "Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo" (APCLS).

According to the United Nations, residents of Kitchanga, a strategic town in North Kivu province, sought refuge at the base of the UN's MONUSCO mission. The Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS) is a Mai-Mai group operating in the mountains around Kitchanga. They were equipped by the Congolese army to fight the M23 rebel movement. Mai-Mai is a collective term used for local militias in eastern DRC.

M23 political leader Makenga. Photo: Simone Schlindwein

Sultani Makenga is M23's political leader

The Congolese army and the APCLS were united by their opposition to the role being played by neighboring countries such as Rwanda but that has now unravelled.

Martin Doevenspeck, a conflict researcher at the University of Bayreuth, was in the region shortly before the violence broke out. "What is happening is exactly what had been feared," he told DW. "The group is acting autonomously and is now attacking the army."

Internal power battle

Allegiances are also shifting elsewhere. About 100 kms (62 miles) northeast of Kitchanga, M23 rebels are fighting each other. Less than three months ago, they captured the provincial capital Goma on the border with Rwanda and posed a serious challenge to the central government in Kinshasa.

On Wednesday, February 27, Jean-Marie Runiga was replaced as the M23's political leader. His supporters are now fighting those of new leader Sultani Makenga. Several people have been killed in the fighting. But Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group says, "M23 will not disappear. What is happening here is an internal power struggle, with one wing assuming command over another."

Ineffective peace treaty

The internal fighting is weakening the rebels, to the advantage of the government in Kinshasa. It has seized the opportunity to arm other militia groups in the region so they can fight alongside the army in the battle against M23.

Just last month a peace agreement was signed in Addis Ababa by Kinshasa and ten other states in the region.

Rebel and government representatives at the Kampala talks Photo: John Kanyunyu / DW

Talks in Kampala brought DRC rebels and government representatives together

Under the agreement, the DRC central government pledged reforms. The text also specifies that the signatory states should not interfere in the internal affairs of other states. This section is directed primarily at Uganda and Rwanda. The latter was accused by the UN of providing military support to the M23 rebels. Experts such as Martin Doevenspeck say the treaty has only limited value as M23 did not participate. "That means M23 figures such as Bosco Ntaganda or Makenga have no exit possibilty. What should they do? They have no chance of being integrated into the army, they have their backs against the wall," Doevenspeck said.

UN plans African intervention force

Following the capture of Goma by M23 rebels, talks have been held in the Ugandan capital Kampala between the rebels and the Congolese government.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the signing of the DRC peace deal REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

DRC could explode at any time, says Ban Ki-moon

However, neither side is prepared to make compromises, for example over M23's demand that President Kabila should resign and elections should be held.

Against this tense background the UN warns that eastern Congo could explode into violence "at any time without warning." UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is pressing for the mandate for the MONUSCO mission in Congo to be extended. It is the UN's largest peace mission, consisting of some 17,000 blue helmets.They may only use weapons in self-defense or to protect the population. In November 2012 they were unable to prevent M23 rebels from entering Goma. With a tougher mandate, a planned intervention force should ensure such a situation does not arise again.

"This is clearly a reaction to the failure to prevent the rebels seizing Goma. The UN got a lot of criticism for that," Thierry Vircoulon told DW.

The idea now is that troops should also be able to intervene militarily. The UN Security Council is due to decide soon on a force with a robust mandate. This would reinforce the blue helmets who have been in the Kivu provinces for ten years. The new force would be made up of Africans, for example from South Africa and Tanzania.

It's too early to say how effective this will be. There is as yet no information about the size of the force or how it will be integrated into the existing command structure.

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