Is African Peacekeeping Mission in DRC Doomed to Fail?

The M23 insurgents operating in the eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) wrote an open letter dated 11 April 2013 “to the people and the Parliament of Tanzania”. Though couched in polite language, the letter is not terribly friendly. It makes a grim reading.

Basically M23 rebels were asking Tanzania to cancel its decision to deploy troops to the DRC as part of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). They argue that the peace keepers in fact constitute UN intervention brigade designed to fight armed groups in the eastern DRC.

The movement’s political leader, Bertrand Bisimwa asks President Jakaya Kikwete to use his wisdom and put a stop to this intervention brigade which he calls “dangerous adventure.”

“M23 invites the parliament and the people of Tanzania to carefully re-consider this situation and prevail upon the Tanzanian Government not to send the sons and daughters of this noble nation to engage in an absurd war against their Congolese brothers,” Bisimwa said.

He warns that they would retaliate if attacked by the intervention brigade.

Bisimwa wrote another letter to South Africa, asking them not to come and “kill their brothers”. He cautioned them that they are going to face similar treatment to the one they received when facing Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) who killed 13 South African soldiers.

“If they (the South Africans) think they will go out into the hills and annihilate M23, they’re crazy,” Bisimwa said, adding: “If an army goes in, when it does not know the terrain or the politics is overconfident and is itself not combat equipped for these kind of operations, they’re going to be kicked. If South African special forces could not keep Seleka at bay – not nearly as coherent a target as M23 – how are they going to defeat M23, which are in their own back yard?”

South Africa is deploying more than 1000 troops in the DRC. Tons of weaponry, including helicopters, were flown in huge cargo planes from South Africa to Entebbe in Uganda, close to the Congolese border, where SA forces are expected to be based. The rebel group accuses Zuma of sending his troops to the DRC to protect his nephew Khulubuse’s oil interests.

While SA military is getting threats of ‘revenge-attacks’ by the M23-rebels, a South African weekly Rapport warned that the country is badly underestimating the strength of the M23-rebels.

M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa told the Rapport in a telephone interview from the DRC: “We don’t want to kill our brothers from South Africa. But if they attack us, we will use all our power to defend our positions.”

What makes this planned intervention by the SA forces hazardous is the fact that M23 rebels have robbed grenade-launchers and a 37mm double barrelled aircraft defence cannon from the Congolese defence forces. In fact a source inside the SA army admitted that there could be ‘loss of lives’ among the South Africans because the rebels know the terrain better.

The South African troops are part of a multilateral regional force, which includes the armies of Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania, with the blessing of the UN Security Council which passed Resolution 2098 on March 28, 2013.

M23 claims the resolution transformed the UN peace keepers in a belligerent force, entrusted with offensive mission. The UN security council thus authorised an “intervention brigade” to allow “neutralisation of armed groups in the east of the DRC.” This decision was in sharp deviation of the UN’s historic peace mandate in the Congo, who in the past only had a mandate to ‘protect’ the area.

UN Security Council unanimously approved the creation of a brigade of more than 2,500 troops with a mandate to conduct “targeted offensive operations” against M23. The new UN force is to consist of three infantry battalions, an artillery company, a reconnaissance company and “special forces.”

It marked the first time that UN peacekeepers were given a mandate to conduct offensive operations, marking a dramatic change from the UN’s peace mandate in the past, which only allowed soldiers to shoot back when they were being shot at.

M23 says the UN is, in effect, coming to the “rescue of one of the most corrupt regimes in the world and will contribute to extending the reign of an army that is infamous for rampant rape and other atrocities that it wantonly and habitually inflicts on the Congolese population.”

The ironical side of the Resolution 2098, is the UN Secretary General’s own words stating that corruption is the main cause of the failure of the DRC Government.

M23 also wrote to President Yoweri Museveni who, as Chairman of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), is facilitating the mediation between the DRC government and M23.

After M23 took control of the city of Goma in November 2012, the Heads of States of ICGLR countries encouraged them to withdraw from the city so as to allow the possibility of finding a political solution.

M23’s letter to Museveni says the UN Security Council has created a belligerent force, targeting specifically M23, instead of keeping peace, which is the UN mission. “By so doing it is violating the regional efforts initiated under the mediation of ICGLR, of which you are the current Chairman, making a regional solution impossible and despising the effort your country and ICGLR have already invested in the process,” M23 told Museveni.

In other words, the UN resolution created a force with a mandate to wage war, at the time when negotiations were taking place in Kampala between the DRC Government and the M23, on the recommendation of the 11 countries of the Great Lakes Region. Under such circumstances Tanzania is planning to send at least 800 troops to the DRC. Regarding the M23 letter the government spokesman said Tanzania will not be intimidated by any threats from the rebellious group.

He said Tanzanian troops will join their counterparts from South Africa and Malawi to provide a balance to the already prevailing MONUSCO.

At the end of last year, Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Membe clarified that it won’t send troops to the DRC to fight the M23. He refuted reports that Tanzania was ready to deploy troops in the DRC to fight the rebels. He said Tanzania would contribute one battalion to the international neutral force, which would be deployed to protect and monitor the boarder between DRC and its neighbours. The international forces will mainly come from the International Conference on Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and the SADC region.

While denying that Tanzania was unilaterally going to war against M23, he added that if necessary to engage all “negative forces including M23, Tanzanian forces would do so.”

The DRC Minister of Foreign Affairs, Raymond Tshibanda, during an interview on April 2nd 2013, said that “Countries who have contributed militarily to the UN intervention brigade (South Africa, Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique) have accepted that their soldiers might be killed on the Congolese land.

In fact, M23 said by taking a decision to engage in war in DRC, these countries are giving a de facto mandate to the “oppressed forces of M23 to retaliate and inflict fatalities upon the soldiers of the Intervention Brigade as the M23 defend themselves and the population under their protection.”

Paul-Simon Handy, director of the conflict prevention and risk analysis programme at the Institute for Security Studies, warned that a more robust UN mandate could mean there would be a loss of lives among the troops involved in the intervention force.

Tanzania People’s Defence Force spokesman Colonel Kapambala Mgawe said Tanzania has been involved in peace, training and advisory missions to many countries, explaining that Tanzanian troops have been in missions to Lebanon, Darfur, South Sudan, the Comoros, and Liberia.

However, the fact that 12 South African troops lost their lives in CAR points to the risk involved in such peacekeeping operations. One only has to look at how the US, a militarist super power, has been bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nizar Visram, a free-lance writer and retired lecturer of Development Studies, is Tanzanian citizen, born in Zanzibar and currently in Ottawa. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Nizar.