KINSHASA — Opposition parties in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have rejected an invitation by the government to attend talks with the M23 rebels in Kampala. The talks are due to start on Friday.
The government and the opposition are agreed on one thing - the opposition will not be at the Kampala meeting. The leaders of four opposition groups in the DRC parliament were invited by the government, and the M23 had also said it wanted the opposition to be there.
Ruling party member Francois Kasende, who is president of the defense commission in parliament, said the opposition had insisted on certain conditions for going to Kampala which the government could not accept.
Kasende said they had asked that first of all there should be a consultation at the national level between the government and the unarmed opposition before the meeting with the M23.
One of the presidents of the four opposition groups, Jose Makila, confirmed that they had insisted on certain conditions before they would agree to attend.
The opposition will not go to Kampala, Makila said, because they could not just be like flowers on the table. If they were to go, he said, the terms of reference would have to be clear and their role in the talks would have to be defined.
The coordinator of another of the four parliamentary groups, lawmaker Martin Fayulu, said that there had been a meeting of the four groups this week.
"Almost everybody said we can't go because we don't know the agenda in Kampala," Fayulu explained. "We don't know what was really in the agreement between Kabila's government and the CNDP. We don't know and we can't go."
The M23 rebellion is a successor organization to the CNDP (National Congress for the Defense of the People), a rebel movement which signed a peace agreement with President Joseph Kabila's government on March 23, 2009. The M23 takes its name from that agreement which it claims was never implemented.
Although there is a text of the agreement, opposition leaders in the DRC say there was also an unwritten agreement ceding control of part of North Kivu province to the CNDP, a movement dominated by Kinyarwanda speakers with ethnic ties to Rwanda. The Kabila government denies such an agreement.
In the past month, since they captured and then relinquished the city of Goma, the M23 rebels have effectively offered opposition parties in the DRC an alliance, at least at the negotiating table.
To its list of demands, it added a call for the release from house arrest of Etienne Tshisekedi, the veteran opposition leader whose supporters assert won the presidential elections last November.
But Tshisekedi, who the government says is not under house arrest, has not publicly given any signs of wanting to ally with M23, a movement that according to U.N. experts is backed by Uganda and Rwanda, although both countries deny this.
Martin Fayulu, whose parliamentary group is closely allied with Tshisekedi, said that the opposition does not trust Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni nor Rwandan President Paul Kagame to facilitate negotiations with the rebels.
"We are ready to meet, we the opposition with the ruling majority, inside Congo or even outside, but not in Kampala and not in Rwanda," Fayulu added. "And the guy who is to lead the meeting should not be Museveni or Kagame. We want somebody else to first of all facilitate discussions between Congolese to solve the legitimacy problem [we have] because of the bad elections we had in November last year."
It is hard to gauge the feelings of the opposition in general to the prospect of negotiations with the M23. A debate was supposed to have been held in the lower house last week on the general subject of the M23 rebellion but it quickly degenerated into a shouting match and the session was closed.
Jose Makila said that most opposition deputies would have been happy to attend the meeting in Kampala if they had been invited.
Makila said whenever there are negotiations, all the politicians want to go, but it's not possible, when there are more than 500 political parties in the country. The problem, he said, is people are thinking "why should he go and not me?" Congolese politicians, he added, are more interested in form than in substance.
But the Congolese media strongly suggest that many Congolese politicians would see the invitation to Kampala as a poisoned chalice which might do lasting harm to their reputations if they were seen as condoning a peace deal which allowed Rwandan or Ugandan proxy forces to dominate part of the country.
Even some ruling party politicians, such as the former foreign affairs minister, Leonard She Okitundu, have spoken out against the idea of holding the talks in Kampala.
Fayulu said going to Kampala would mean accepting a partition of the country.
The M23 has not said it wishes to split the country, but its predecessor movement the CNDP did propose a division of North Kivu province into two new districts.
Congo's vice prime minister told the senate last week that the government could not accept the idea of dividing North Kivu province into two parts, as this would likely heighten ethnic tensions.