The fall on Tuesday of Goma in eastern Congo to rebel forces is another sad milestone in the giant, poverty-striken country’s never-ending internal warring. The success of the M23 military group, numbering perhaps no more than 1,500 fighters but with an abysmal human rights record, in pushing back the Congolese army reflects that army’s chronic weakness and disorganisation, mirroring that of President Laurent Kabila’s dysfunctional government in Kinshasa, some 1,600 kilometres away.
Mandated only as a humanitarian protection force for civilians, some 1,000 UN peacekeeping troops stood by as the M23 marched in to the vibrant commercial city of one million people on the Rwandan border. The Security Council unanimously condemned its takeover. And yesterday Great Lakes states urged African countries to contribute troops to an international force to take on the rebels, while the Congolese and Rwandan presidents, Kabila and Paul Kagame, met in Kampala to try to bring an end to the conflict.
Rwanda’s engagement in the talks, if genuine, is important. Over the past 15 years its army has repeatedly intervened in Congo’s conflicts and there is widespread suspicion, confirmed in a UN expert report to be published tomorrow, that it has helped finance and arm M23 and wants to to carve out a sphere of influence in eastern Congo that would allow it to control the lucrative mineral wealth in the area. All of which Rwanda fervently denies.
The rebels yesterday announced that they intend to “liberate” the country, marching first on the town of Bukavu and then to Kinshasa. Such bluster notwithstanding, the group, largely made up of defectors from a previous rebel army which had been drafted into the Congolese army under a failed peace agreement, is capable yet of creating prolonged bloody mayhem. M23 has a record of murder of civilians, rape, and the forced recruitment of children. Robust vigilance by the UN force was never more important.