GOMA, DRC — Civil society groups in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have backed a call by several opposition parties for a national dialogue, or conference. Large parts of North Kivu province are currently controlled by M23 rebels or other militias, and civil society groups say a dialogue is needed to help unite the country. The government has hinted that it might organize such a conference, so this now seems likely to happen. But it may not be enough to end the war.
Civil society in eastern Congo doesn’t always speak with one voice, but on the question of whether a national dialogue is needed, there seems to be broad agreement.
Readiness for dialogue
A group describing itself as 45 members of civil society in eastern Congo met in Entebbe, Uganda, recently and issued a declaration calling for a national dialogue. That call was echoed over the weekend by another group which calls itself the civil society of North Kivu.
Those two groups are broadly aligned with the two main political factions in North Kivu.
Omar Kavota, spokesman for the civil society of North Kivu, said that it’s important that a national dialogue should be held, so that the opposition can be heard and national cohesion can be reinforced. He said that would enable the country to finish with the M23 and other armed groups.
Three out of the four main opposition groups in the parliament have also announced that they are ready for a dialogue. President Joseph Kabila, has said he is planning an ‘initiative’ to rally the country which would be open to all political and social forces.
The president may have been reluctant to use the word dialogue as that would remind people of a power-sharing dialogue that he had to submit to 10 years ago, to end a long civil war. But the statement seems to indicate that he is planning some kind of conference.
About the only group that seems reluctant to take part in a dialogue is the biggest opposition party, the UDPS, (or Union for Democracy and Social Progress) which has said it will only take part if certain conditions are met first, such as releasing its leader from virtual house arrest.
But a national conference is unlikely to bring peace overnight. Civil society spokesman Kavota stressed that holding a dialogue should not rule out pursuing the military option against the M23.
He said that these are two different things. If the government has to envisage the military option, he said, it’s to resolve the problem of the M23 and the crisis in the east of the country. He added that the aim of a national dialogue with the opposition and civil society, on the other hand, would be to unite the country and to discuss national policy and governance problems.
He said his group is not counting on the current peace talks to resolve the crisis in North Kivu.
Talks started this month in Kampala, Uganda, between the government and the M23. The opposition boycotted the meeting, which broke up on December 21 and is due to restart on January 4.
Peace deal unlikely
Goma-based analyst Maria Lange, who works for the NGO International Alert, also thinks the Kampala talks are unlikely to lead to a peace deal. She said, "It seems the two parties are not terribly interested in reaching a deal and each side seems to be preparing militarily, so I think it’s quite unlikely - unless there could be a kind of back-door agreement between the presidents, outside of the negotiations."
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week he is trying to resolve the eastern Congo crisis within "a broader political framework" involving several presidents in the region.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame is likely to be involved in any peace deal. Mr. Kagame has persistently denied U.N. reports that he’s backing the M23, but donor countries have cut some of their aid to Rwanda over the issue, and have threatened to cut more.
Lange thinks Mr. Kagame will be resistant to pressure. She said, "I think Rwanda’s primary interest is regime stability and stability within the country and on its borders, and I think any sign of a threat to that primary interest will make Rwanda react in a way that cannot be influenced by international pressure."
Mr. Kabila is also under pressure from his own military and from other armed groups not to agree to a peace deal that will compromise their interests.
Some of the militias are organizing their own response to the peace talks. Last week a new group was formed calling itself the Alliance of Patriots against the Balkanization of Congo (APCBCO). The alliance claims to be a coalition of armed groups, and said it’s against any talks with the M23.
Its spokesman goes by the pseudonym Eddy Tourbillon, or Eddy the Whirlwind. He said his group does not agree with the government continuing its talks with the M23 because, he alleged, the M23 are the same people who have, under different names, facilitated the invasion of the country by Rwanda five times in the past two decades.
He also said that last time the government concluded a deal with the people now leading the M23, they were given too much power and used it against other communities.