After nearly a year of confrontation between the DRC Army and M23 rebels in the violence-ravaged east of the country, the United Nations authorized an intervention brigade to go beyond peacekeeping and support the government with offensive operations. By November, M23 had surrendered. Now government and U.N. forces are jointly tackling other militant groups in eastern Congo.
A year can make a big difference, even in eastern Congo. At the start of the year people there were still reeling from the shock of the M23 rebels capturing the provincial capital, Goma, in November.
The M23 had pulled out of the city after regional leaders came under diplomatic pressure, and in February neighboring states signed a framework peace agreement with the DRC.
Fighting flared again outside Goma in May, just days before U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon was due to visit the city. Undeterred by the violence, Ban arrived on schedule, with this message for the many women and girls who have suffered sexual violence in eastern DRC.
"I am very angry that women and girls have to endure such barbarity, here and anywhere. This must stop. And I am humbled at their courage. I told them, have a strong courage. The United Nations stands with you and will always support you to overcome your wounds," said Ban.
Ban called for speedy deployment of an intervention brigade of 3,000 troops from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi, to reinforce MONUSCO, the U.N. mission in Congo. The U.N. Security Council had given this brigade a tough mandate to neutralize armed groups.
As this new force started deploying, the mission’s commander, the Brazilian Lieutenant General Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, tried to damp down expectations of what it could achieve.
"It’s very important to know that the intervention brigade is one more tool in the mission in order to bring peace to this region. But we need to be very realistic, because it is not the magic solution to all the problems," said Cruz.
In August, the brigade went into action alongside the Congolese army and, after a week of heavy fighting, the M23 abandoned its positions overlooking Goma. In a ten day offensive in October, the Congolese army and U.N. forces finished off the M23, driving them out of the rest of their territory.
Observers agree that the Congolese army has been much better led this year than last, and clearly it did most of the fighting. The army said 201 of its soldiers and three U.N. soldiers were killed in the October offensive.
Nonetheless, many observers think MONUSCO’s contribution was vital. Timo Mueller is a security analyst in Goma for the U.S. based Enough Project.
"I believe the intervention brigade and MONUSCO played an essential role in helping the Congolese army to defeat the M23 in early November. It provided above all logistical support to the Congolese army, such as gas and medical evacuations, secondly operational support, such as prior planning of operations and, thirdly, it participated in the fighting," said Mueller.
Mueller cautions that there are still dozens of other armed groups in eastern Congo, although none has as many troops or as much heavy weaponry and ammunition as M23 had. The two main foreign armed groups, the Rwandan rebel FDLR and the Ugandan rebel ADF-NALU, are more embedded in the local population, however, and pose a different challenge. Mueller expects one or other of those groups to be the next target.
"I hear mixed messages as to who might be the next target. FDLR is mentioned, but the ADF-NALU is increasingly receiving attention from the brigade," he said.
As for the Congolese armed groups, the U.N. believes there may be some 7,300 men and 3,600 children that will need to be demobilized. Around 1,500 have already volunteered for demobilization, according to Mueller.
So far, there is no publicly announced government plan for what will happen to ex-armed group members. It is a very delicate issue, Mueller suggests.
A Congolese civil society activist says he believes the government will not repeat mistakes it made in the past, when it allowed armed groups to be reconstituted as army units, sometimes under their former leaders.