Can compromises bring peace at last?
It’s usually preferable to agree some sort of ceasefire before holding formal talks. Suspending hostilities – however temporarily – is the polite thing to do. It builds confidence, sets the tone, and helps the concentration.
But no such niceties marked this month’s peace conference in Goma, eastern Congo, which was hastily convened after an attempt to overcome a group of Tutsi rebels ended in a demoralizing retreat by the ill-disciplined Congolese army, itself composed of former rebel factions.
In a memo to President Kabila in mid-December, parliamentarians, provincial ministers and civil society leaders (two-thirds of whom were based in Kinshasa) “noted with bitterness the loss of strategic positions in North Kivu” and, reluctant to admit defeat, proposed the “simultaneous use of ‘Fight and Talk'”.
Sure enough, violence continued, as belligerent groups sought advantage and spoils ahead of an agreement, although the UN and the media have struggled to confirm the various rumours and reports of forced recruitment, massacres and looting.
More than a thousand delegates registered to take part in the conference, doubling the planned capacity. AbbÃ© Malu Malu, the former election commissioner who is chairing the conference, described the first few days as ‘group therapy’, as a succession of minorities and armed groups aired their grievances, presented their versions of history and declared their pure intentions.
Behind the scenes, it appears an agreement has now been brokered between the Tutsi rebels and the government. This will involve an immediate ceasefire with a UN-patrolled buffer zone to separate their forces, and a ‘partial amnesty’ for the rebels (who will not be tried for insurgency but could still face charges for war crimes). The status of their leader, Laurent Nkunda, remains undefined. He continues to say he no intention to go into exile.
Confusingly, even as this news broke, journalists received an email from the rebels objecting to being ‘put in the same basket’ as Mayi Mayi militia groups allied to the national army, and alleging the involvement of Angolan troops and FDLR militia on the side of the government. The email pointedly suggested that Rwanda could yet intervene if provoked by the presence of Rwandan FDLR guerillas near its border.
As I write, a BBC World Service bulletin says “peace may be in sight” in eastern DRC. It remains to be seen whether the agreement indeed sets the scene for genuine progress or merely marks a return to the status quo. An impressive total of 32 sub-commissions will be set up to oversee a plethora of tricky tasks identified by the conference. History suggests that the rebels will be slow to demobilise, insisting on progress with the return of refugees from Rwanda and disarmament of the FDLR. In the meantime, the most obvious spoiler to the ceasefire agreement is the FDLR, who were not invited to the conference and have a vested interest in instability.