A war with many fronts: Congo conflict enters a new phase

By James Stairs

Goma – Earlier in the week, Commander John Tshibango looked across a deep valley to the front lines of the war 10 kilometres outside Goma in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Heavily armed soldiers moved in and out of the thick trees on the opposite hillside.

Tshibango, 35, commander of the 18th Brigade of the Congolese army (FARDC) leads what was, until Tuesday, the last line of defense for government troops outside the regional capital.

Across the valley were soldiers of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), General Laurent Nkunda’s rebel army, which has been fighting the government since 2004.

‘We all have rebel roots in this country,’ Tshibango said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘I don’t see why we just don’t just collaborate?’

His words turned out to be prophetic.

Two days later, the war took a dramatic turn when around 4000 Rwandan troops crossed the border and launched an offensive against Hutu rebels who fled to the DR Congo during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, organizing under the banner of the Forces Democratic de la Liberation de Rwanda (FDLR).

Rwandan troops leave Eastern DRC weeks after launching a surprise operation in Eastern Congo.
Rwandan troops in Eastern DRC weeks after launching a surprise operation in Eastern Congo.

By the end of the week, Nkunda was in custody in Rwanda, reportedly facing extradition to the DR Congo, and bitter enemies were preparing to work side by side in a joint offensive against the FDLR.

The development has stunned Congolese citizens and analysts alike.

The dominoes began to fall in early January when Bosco Ntaganda, the CNDP chief of staff, claimed that he had removed Nkunda as head of the rebel army. The general, Ntaganda said, was blocking the signing of a peace agreement.

Nkunda’s spokespeople denounced the declaration. In Goma rumours flew of violent purges against Ntaganda and his supporters.

But when Ntaganda strode into Goma’s Ihusi hotel a week ago, flanked by several senior CNDP commanders, officials from the Congolese army, and tellingly, James Kabarebe, the head of the Rwandan army, the situation became even more unclear.

The group announced that it was prepared to abandon the rebellion and work with the government in exchange for peace.

Pareco, a pro-government rebel group, announced the next day that it too had ceased fighting and was placing its forces under the control of FARDC commanders.

The only leader not to fall in to line was Nkunda.

The notoriously eloquent general has been silent since Ntaganda’s challenge, leading many to question if he was still in control of his army.

The CNDP rebellion launched in 2004 when Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi, split from the Congolese army and retreated, with 4000 soldiers, to dense forests in the Eastern Congo.

Nkunda claims he is fighting to protect the Congolese Tutsi population from the FDLR – many of whom carried out the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The CNDP also demanded that Congolese president Joseph Kabila cancel billions of dollars in mineral access contracts signed with China, claiming that they were unfair to the Congolese people.

Since August, the rebels captured large swathes of the Eastern Congo, reigniting a ten-year war that has killed up to five million Congolese and displaced over one million.

The general accused the Congolese government of failing to uphold the 2008 Goma Peace Agreement, which agreed to disarm the FDLR

Nkunda appeared to be ascendant, even going so far as to muse publicly about a march on the Congolese capital of Kinshasa.

But Ntaganda’s rebellion weakened his authority and when the Rwandan army crossed the border Tuesday at Kibumba, heading North towards CNDP positions, confusion reigned.

The Congolese army erected roadblocks several kilometres outside Goma and blocked UN peace keepers, humanitarian workers and media from traveling towards Rutshuru, 65 km away.

The reason why became clear Thursday when Rwandan and Congolese troops attacked Nkunda’s headquarters in Bunagana, on the Rwanda/Congolese border.

FARDC soldiers await an intergration ceremony in Rumangabo, DRC
FARDC soldiers in Rumangabo, DRC

In a joint statement issued Friday, the two countries said that Nkunda was over-run and had fled into Rwanda, where he was arrested late Thursday night. He was reportedly being transferred to the Rwandan capital Kigali Friday.

The events mark more uncertainty for the Congolese war, said Kodi Muzong, an associate fellow in the Africa programme at the UK-based Chatham House think tank.

‘The offensive appears to be a hastily planned campaign,’ he said, adding it doesn’t appear to address the fundamental issues of the war, which include illegal mining and the refugee problem.

The FDLR will likely put up a strong fight, Muzong said, meaning that Nkunda’s arrest could be of little relevance to hundreds of thousands of Congolese already weary of war.

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