By Steve McDonald, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Steve McDonald is senior advisor to the Africa program at the Wilson Center. The views expressed are his own.
The standing down of rebel group M-23 in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo made international headlines this week. After a short but intense campaign, the National Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC), backed up by the newly formed U.N. Intervention Brigade, had captured all of M-23’s strongholds and pinned it down in a small, isolated area on the border of Rwanda and Uganda. It was therefore no surprise that against such odds, they have now laid down their arms and sued for peace – an effort set to be reciprocated by Congo’s government, which announced Friday it will sign a peace deal with the rebels on Monday.
M-23 was never very strong – at its height maybe 1,000 fighters, but recently as few as 200 to 500. But it operated freely over the last two years or so because of the incompetence of the FARDC and U.N. peacekeeping forces’ unwillingness to engage, as well as the ongoing support of the Rwandan government. In fact, the Rwandans have been supporting one group or another of Tutsi militias since 1994-95 in its continuing effort to neutralize the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and Mai Mai militias, Hutu groups of soldiers who fled Rwanda in 1994 after the genocide there.
The fact is that M-23 was just the latest manifestation of determined Tutsi militias, and the group’s history has been marked by constant falling out among the leadership. This suggests that yet another faction and leader is likely to emerge in the wake of this surrender if Rwanda continues to send support to these Tutsi rebel groups. So, while the surrender of M-23 will be welcomed by Congolese and international observers, given the horrendous human rights violations they have perpetrated, the fighting is not necessarily over.
Still, whatever new permutation of M-23 eventually emerges, this development is a good sign for a number of reasons. The use of the U.N. Intervention Brigade in combat operations represents a sea change in the way the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) is conducting its mandate and puts real “teeth” into their military effectiveness. Under its new head and Special Representative of the Secretary General Martin Kobler, MONUSCO has become more aggressive and independent. In the past, as a partner of the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, MONUSCO worked only in consultation and in tandem with the government and FARDC. While it continues to do so, it has recognized that the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda have been stirring up violence in Eastern DRC, where FARDC troops have been just as guilty of rape and pillage as the M-23.
So how can such complex and competing forces be tackled? Kobler’s most recent assignments prior to taking up his post were in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this appears to have provided some useful insights into how best to work in Africa. He told me in a private meeting this spring that in those previous posts, he learned how to separate the U.N. mandate from the policy objectives of a national government when that government was corrupt, ineffective, and contributing to internal divisions and violence.
Regardless, M-23’s surrender comes at a time when the international pressures for a permanent solution to this situation are increasing on both Rwanda and the DRC. On February 24, the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC was signed in Addis Ababa. The framework agreement resulted from an initiative of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in response to the continued fighting, rape, and mayhem being caused by M-23 in the east of the country. Ban pointedly threatened sanctions against neighboring countries that continue to support rebel groups, implying their culpability without naming them. An agreement was therefore signed by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region , the Southern African Development Community, the African Union, and the United Nations, as well as numerous individual countries in the region.
With the appointment of Kobler as well as former Irish President Mary Robinson as a U.N. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region and former Senator Russ Feingold as the new U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, there now seems to be in place a high-profile, effective international mechanism for holding these recalcitrant leaders to their oft-stated but never implemented commitments to sustainable peace in the region.
And it is significant now that Kobler was reported this week to have said that his next target will be the Hutu militia, FDLR, and any other such armed groups fighting in eastern DRC. Ironically, should the FDLR be defeated, that would remove one of the concerns – or excuses, depending on one’s perspectives – of the Rwandan government of Paul Kagame. Should that serve to dry up Rwandan support for dissident Tutsi militias in the DRC, then, combined with this new firm international and regional leadership, there might be real light at the end of this tragic tunnel.