Crisis in eastern Congo: immediate ceasefire agreed

Nfter months of fighting between the M23 rebel group and the Congolese army, African government officials from the region have agreed on an “immediate ceasefire” in eastern Congo. This should begin on Friday at 6 p.m., announced Angola’s Foreign Minister, Tete António, at a summit meeting in Luanda on Wednesday evening. The participants also agreed to demand “the immediate withdrawal of the rebels from the occupied territories”.

Claudia Bröll

Political correspondent for Africa based in Cape Town.

The agreement was signed by the governments of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola and former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. The agreement is a further step in recently significantly intensified peace efforts by both the East African Community (EAC), which includes seven states in the region, and the African Union (AU). Kenyatta mediates for the EAC, and Angolan President João Lourenço for the AU. Both initiatives, the Nairobi and Luanda processes, were brought together at the summit in Luanda.

A week earlier, Kenyatta and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame had already agreed by telephone “on the need for an immediate ceasefire”. The conversation was important because for the first time Kagame had hinted that he was influencing the rebels. For years, the Congolese government has accused Rwanda of supporting the Tutsi-dominated M23 group. So far, Rwanda has always denied this and conversely accused Congo of being behind a Hutu rebel organization that endangers security in Rwanda. The conflict in eastern Congo erupted after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

M23 was inactive for almost ten years

In recent weeks, M23 fighters have advanced ever closer to the provincial capital, Goma. Heavy fighting was reported in Kibumba, 20 kilometers away, and fighters were also seen near the famous Virunga National Park. Many residents left their villages in panic after rumors that the rebels were advancing. The United Nations reported that the humanitarian situation was catastrophic.

The events are reminiscent of November 2012 when M23 took Goma in a coup d’état. The UN mission MONUSCO had watched the invasion without doing anything. Today the situation is different, reports Daniel Michombero, a journalist in Goma. The rebels are well equipped with weapons, but MONUSCO, the army and Kenyan soldiers are securing the city better than before.

M23 was considered inactive for almost ten years. The rebels withdrew from Goma a few days later in 2012. A year later, after heavy and costly fighting with the army, they surrendered. Many fighters fled to Rwanda and Uganda. The M23 group was formed by former Congolese Tutsi rebels who had been integrated into the regular armed forces under the March 23, 2009 peace agreement (hence the name M23). They had formed an army within the army in eastern Congo. The government in Kinshasa then tried to distribute these Tutsi to military bases in other parts of the country, after which they deserted and started a rebellion.

UN Security Council calls for ceasefire

In November of last year, M23 re-emerged with several broad-based offensives. According to the United Nations, around 200,000 people have been displaced in eastern Congo since March and hundreds have been killed. The recent conflict has led to a serious diplomatic crisis between Congo and Rwanda. The government in Kinshasa expelled Rwanda’s ambassador and brought back its own ambassador from Kigali.

Efforts to finally achieve peace in the conflict-ridden region are not limited to talks. In April, the EAC also decided to form a regional intervention force. Kenya’s parliament approved the deployment of around 900 soldiers, some of whom have already arrived in Goma. Uganda announced that it would send 1,000 soldiers by the end of the month, and Burundi and South Sudan also want to send troops. At the same time, the Congolese army is recruiting volunteers from the population. Pictures of men in civilian clothes saluting circulated the internet, many seen huddled in the fuselage of an airplane en route to a training camp.

According to Stephanie Wolters, an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs, the agreement at the Luanda summit shows that the regional governments are cooperating more closely and increasing the pressure on Rwanda in particular. A successful ceasefire and the rebels’ withdrawal to their former locations could pave the way to a solution to the current crisis. It would be the first positive development since the conflict erupted again in November. Rwanda’s President Kagame did not attend the summit but sent his Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta. Before the meeting, the United Nations Security Council had also called for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of M23 from the occupied territories and an “end of external support for all non-state groups, including M23”.

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