The tactics behind DR Congo's mutiny

  • 11 July 2012
  • From the section Africa
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Col Makenga (centre) commander of the M23 rebel movement, stands on a hill overlooking the border town of Bunagana, DR Congo, Sunday 8 July 2012

As with most mutinies, the turmoil now spreading across the lush green hills of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is, despite appearances, a calculated and calibrated affair.

Its ultimate purpose is not to conquer territory or defeat enemies but to strengthen a negotiating position and to win, for its various partners, a bigger slice of power or money or security.

In this case, all of the above.

And as usual in DR Congo, it is the civilian population - on the move in huge numbers once again - that is paying the heaviest price for the monstrously casual violence meted out by the various armed groups still vying for control over in the mineral-rich east of the country.

Although it is only now making the headlines, the mutiny began in a desultory fashion back in April.

It is led by a group of ethnic Tutsi soldiers who used to be rebels in DR Congo's endlessly complicated conflicts, but who were, in a spirit of weary reconciliation, eventually amalgamated into the Congolese government's armed forces back in 2009.

'Bunch of thugs'

The soldiers are commanded, from behind the scenes, by Bosco Ntaganda - a man indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes.

His colleagues - "a bunch of thugs" according to one experienced Western observer - also include a number of other figures allegedly linked to atrocities.

The mutineers were for several years involved in a government-backed military campaign called "Amani Leo", aimed at pacifying the turbulent region.

Amani Leo was not only moderately successful but also gave its commanders power, patronage, and control over lucrative mines and trade routes.

Two things seem to have triggered this latest mutiny - firstly a move by the Congolese government to reign in, and perhaps even redeploy, those in charge of Amani Leo; and secondly the uncomfortable news that another notorious local militia leader, Thomas Lubanga, had been convicted by the ICC.

The curious and telling thing is that over the course of the last few days, the rebellion has been transformed from a fairly minor and contained irritant into something that now threatens the city of Goma and the security of the region.

Surely, you might think, the Congolese army - totalling some 150,000 men - could easily crush a mutiny involving no more than a few hundred soldiers.

The reason they cannot - a reason confirmed in exhaustive detail by UN investigators, human rights groups and defectors - can be summed up in one word: Rwanda.

Bargaining chips

Naturally, the government of the tiny neighbouring state of Rwanda emphatically denies any involvement in the current rebellion, a line it has repeated stolidly over many years and many similar episodes.

But the evidence on the ground - and again this is coming from UN sources and reports and other credible organisations - seems conclusive: that Rwandan soldiers have been actively involved in supplying guns, other military equipment, recruits, and perhaps even fighting alongside the M23, as the mutineers now call themselves - and that Rwanda's intervention has been a game-changer.

Tens of thousands have fled their homes in the most recent violence

The origins of all this go back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the subsequent flight of Hutu civilians and militias into DR Congo.

Ever since, the Rwandan government has sought to crush the Hutu fighters responsible for the genocide, and to prevent them returning to undermine Rwanda's hard-won stability and economic growth.

And so for years Rwanda has been accused of supporting various proxy armies in the eastern DR Congo, with or without the agreement of the Congolese government.

Given the rampant and enduring corruption and chaos within the Congolese armed forces and government, Rwanda wants and - you could argue - needs its own loyal commanders in key positions of operational control in the eastern DR Congo in order to protect its own borders, its legitimate security interests and its far less legitimate economic interests.

So once again Rwanda has, presumably, calculated that any international criticism will be outweighed by the benefits of shoring up its local allies across the border.

As for what happens next, there is a real danger that the mutineers could try to seize the city of Goma. Certainly, more military muscle flexing is almost a given.

But Rwanda, if it can control M23, may be reluctant to allow the rebellion to go too far.

Of course the mutineers will want amnesties, and job guarantees from the Congolese government, and they now have plenty of bargaining chips.

They do not appear to care that their cynical negotiation strategy has pushed hundreds of thousands of civilians out of their homes once again.

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