GOMA — Troops from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi are starting to arrive in the Democratic Republic of Congo to reinforce the U.N. stabilization mission MONUSCO. Many observers are wondering if the new force can tip the balance against the rebels.
The Tanzanian general commanding the intervention brigade arrived in Goma last week with some of his headquarters staff. The rest of the brigade is expected to arrive in June or July.
A spokesman for a civil society group in Goma, Goyon Milemba, told VOA the brigade’s arrival was welcome news.
"For the first time people feel they can look forward to a better future - because the new force has a mission to put an end to the armed groups," said Milemba.
The U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, MONUSCO, has had 16,000 to 17,000 peacekeepers here for the past eight years, so the arrival of another 3,000 might not look like a game changer.
But Congo expert Jason Stearns, who worked for the United Nations in its previous incarnaton as MONUC, says the brigade will be a force with a difference.
"They will bring with them additional weapons - for example they will have additional attack helicopters," said Stearns. "But they do not bring an enormous amount of logistics. They bring with them most importantly, I think, a new mandate. It is a very aggressive mandate. I would say it is almost an historic mandate for this kind of conflict that allows for aggressive pursuit of armed groups in eastern Congo."
The acting head of MONUSCO for North Kivu province, Alex Queval, puts it slightly differently. He says it is the first time a U.N. peacekeeping force has deployed a brigade tasked with carrying out targeted attacks to neutralize and disarm armed groups.
The U.N. peacekeepers already in the DRC will be mainly protecting civilians, Queval says.
"These troops are spread out on the ground in 36 or 37 different camps," said Queval. "Their aim is to protect civilians, not to attack armed groups. The brigade on the other hand will be concentrated in just two locations. They will be highly mobile and their job will be trying to persuade the armed groups to disarm. They are not here to wage war. They are here to contain, neutralize and disarm the armed groups, so if this can be done without firing a shot everyone will be very pleased. They can shoot if necessary."
Stearns suggests the brigade’s troops have, in a sense, another weapon - their nationalities. The troop contributing countries, particularly South Africa and Tanzania have links with the countries of the Great Lakes region.
"Remember the countries currently participating in the UN peacekeeping force - none of them are from the region," he said. "They’re mostly South Asian, actually Indians, Bangladeshi, Pakistanis some Uruguayans. So their states have no involvement in the conflict."
This, he suggests, means there would be a heavy political fallout if the brigade is targeted by rebel groups, such as M23.
"If 10 South African soldiers die, South Africa will be on the phone to leaders in the region, particularly with regard to the M23, they will be putting pressure on Rwanda to bring an end to their support for the M23," said Stearns.
Rwanda has persistently denied accusations it has been supporting the M23.
Several Congolese observers have asked whether MONUSCO can continue its existing mission if the brigade starts targeting rebels. They suggest the rebels might retaliate against the spread out groups of blue helmets from Asian countries, who could be vulnerable and might even be taken hostage.
Quevel dismisses the idea that the brigade's tasks might become impossible.
"All the necessary precautions will be taken, but I cannot go into military details," he said.
There is broad support for the new brigade from opposition and ruling parties in DRC and from the population, but civil society activist Milemba says they should not be expected to pacify eastern Congo all on their own.
"This mission can only be successful if it is well supported by the Congolese actors," he said. "On its own it would not achieve anything."
Queval says the force is not going to wave a magic wand, a hint perhaps that the United Nations might want to renew the Brigades’ mandate when it runs out in a year’s time.