M23’s defeat following concerted FARDC and FIB attacks was a breath of fresh strategic air. The willingness by M23, or at least its political wing, to negotiate terms of disarmament and demobilisation is an equally promising start. However, Kabila’s team at Kampala is refusing to concede a semantic problem of what to call the settlement agreement. This stubbornness can cost them dearly if they are not flexible on what to call M23’s return from the bush.
In our war studies classes at Kings College we are taught the importance of using military means for political ends, and that the former without the latter generally ends up in disaster (for examples in history look no further than Napoleon’s endless wars and ultimate crumbling of his empire). For the Congolese government, negotiation with M23 must be flexible. A defeated enemy such as M23 is already sensitive to punitive reprisals against its organisation after surrender. Provoking this further by insisting M23 not be negotiated with in Kampala as a “legitimate political entity” is dangerous for two very important reasons.
Firstly, M23 is not a unified organisation. The military and political wings of the organisation do not necessarily see completely eye to eye in negotiating an end to hostilities in the Eastern DRC. Although FARDC and FIB forces have made tangible military gains against M23, to the point where they are no longer an effective conventional force, there is nothing stopping the remnants of the military arm to resort to the same guerrilla/bandit style of tactics employed by the other few dozen or so insurgent groups in the Eastern DRC. Mai Mai groups threatening tin mines in the region, for example, pose a larger threat. However, should the Congolese government attempt to rub M23’s face in its defeat hard enough, they just might push the rebel group back into the bush. This would be a disasterous waste of the political capital gained by its armed forces – and the FIB – in the areas north of Goma. M23 has not been completely destroyed, and even twenty insurgents waging low-level banditry in the hills around Goma is sufficient to reverse current military gains.
Secondly, the defeat of M23 within two months of relatively high-tempo fighting by the FARDC/FIB forces is a profoundly important vindication of the UN’s decision to take such an aggressive stance against Eastern DRC’s rebel groups. For this to mean anything, however, there must be real gains – and compromises in the settlement’s language – on the political front. The UN and MONUSCO, after all, is less interested in fighting a protracted and politically-endless war with Eastern DRC’s rebel groups, but rather securing the region for the reintegration of the thousands of displaced Congolese and progress from a conflict zone to a post-conflict development environment. This cannot be achieved if the Congolese government does not negotiate mutually-amicable terms and avoid its own militarily-earned hubris during negotiations.
Although FARDC and the FIB have determined the outcome of this particular game, it would be very easy for a wrong word from the government to provoke M23 into taking the ball back and starting another game somewhere else.