Surprise Surprise, Congo’s Awful Army Is Actually Winning Battles
With a little help from the U.N., Congolese troops make enormous gains against one of Africa’s most formidable rebel groups
It all started on the Kanyamahoro, a strategically important hill near the Congolese town of Kibumba. It is unclear who started the fighting last Friday, but when it ended the Congolese army had scored a rare victory against M23, a rebel group that has controlled the area for more than a year.
Together with Kanyamahoro, Kibumba fell as well, taken by M23 fighters “without resistance,” according to rebel commanders. The FARDC, a French acronym under which the Congolese army is widely known, then started an all-out offensive against M23 positions.
In quick succession the government troops retook the important military base Rumangabo, the town of Kiwanja and the district capital Rutshuru, pushing the rebels back into the hilly terrain along the Rwandan border.
Surprising success for an army long vexed by poor discipline, inadequate training and inept leadership.
The FARDC’s biggest victory in recent memory is result of a stunning political and military shift that, while fragile, could help bring peace to a country that has been at war for almost two decades.
Abandoned by its allies, M23 collapses
More than anything, the current developments signal a new approach to regional politics by Congo’s neighbour Rwanda. M23 is a Congolese rebel group with grievances and an agenda rooted in local political dynamics, but it has also always been a Rwandan proxy.
This is also true of M23’s predecessor, the rebel group CNDP. Rwanda has manifold interests in eastern Congo, mainly the presence in the region of Rwandan rebel groups opposed to the current regime in Kigali. Kigali also maintains solidarity with the rwandophone population of Eastern Congo, which has often been discriminated against.
And then there’s the minerals trade originating in Congo’s tin and coltan mines, in which Rwanda has a huge stake.
M23 has been Rwanda’s latest weapon of choice for exerting influence over Congolese affairs. The U.N. has found conclusive evidence that Rwanda provided training, logistics and weapons to M23 — and there are credible reports that regular soldiers of the Rwandan army, one of the continent’s most capable fighting forces, fought side-by-side with M23 fighters during a major offensive that briefly let to the capture of the major town Goma by the rebels.
But Rwanda has shown remarkable restraint during the FARDC’s current offensive, obviously not willing to support its rebel allies in any meaningful way. Kigali didn’t even retaliate after at least six Congolese artillery rounds landed on Rwandan territory.
Maybe this is a sign that the Rwandan government under Pres. Paul Kagame has forged some form of compromise with his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila and the international community and is willing to give up military means as a method of intervention in Congolese affairs.
If so, the recently deployed Force Intervention Brigade — part of the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission in Congo — is likely essential to this understanding.
An aggressive U.N. gets what it wants
The FIB is a new addition to the long-standing U.N. presence in the country and quite a novelty for the organization’s peacekeeping efforts. It has an extraordinarily broad mandate and is allowed to take aggressive and preemptive action against armed non-state actors.
Staffed by African soldiers from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi who brought artillery, armored vehicles, snipers and helicopter gunships, the brigade has already made use of these weapons to rout the M23 from its positions near Goma in late August.
During the current fighting, the FIB seems to have taken a back seat, claiming that the FARDC’s offensive is a purely Congolese affair. That’s not entirely true. After all, one Tanzanian peacekeeper was killed on the front line, probably while advising or observing Congolese troops.
The FIB is probably also a key part of the delicate political compromise. It embodies the international community’s promise to Rwanda that after the M23 is eliminated, the same effort will be made to get rid of the FDLR, a Rwandan rebel group which regularly executes grenade attacks in Rwanda and which harbors some individuals responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Congo’s army has changed
But the hype around the FIB shouldn’t cover up the fact that there have been important changes in the FARDC. Famously declared the main human rights violator by many advocacy groups, the Congolese army is usually known more for its incompetence, corruption and drunkenness than for its military prowess.
Experts largely agree that most arms in the hands of the country’s more than 50 rebel groups are not sold by Lord of War-style gun runners, but corrupt Congolese army officers.
But after the fall of Goma, the Congolese government finally went to the task of bringing some change to its armed forces. Dozens of officers were recalled to the capital Kinshasa and replaced by new commanders. Logistics were improved and codes of conducts enforced. So far, rebel claims that the FARDC has committed human rights abuses during its offensive and cooperated with other rebel groups against M23 are not confirmed.
All of this means a measure of hope for the otherwise intractable situation in eastern Congo. But it shouldn’t divert attention from the massive challenges that the country still faces.
There is a clear danger that the Congolese government will get to like its new military power a bit too much and use it instead of negotiation and reconciliation to resolve local conflicts. This would of course turn the current strategy — talks before fighting — on its head.
The U.N. has to take great care to keep Rwanda and other neighboring countries happy. Rwanda in particular has tremendous potential to derail all gains made so far — and will gladly do so if it feels its interests are not being respected. But if, for a change, all actors in the Congo get it right this time, there is a chance that we will look back on 2013 as the turning point in the country’s deadly and long-running conflict.