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Why M23 rebels hold all the aces

Government's call for the rebels to quit Goma before talks can held is unlikely to be heeded.
Last modified: 25 Nov 2012 15:34

In any negotiation, both parties want to be starting from a position of strength. In the impending talks between the DRCongo's M23 rebels and the government in Kinshasa, it seems the rebels hold all the aces, with one notable exception: international pressure.

In military terms, M23 is clearly dominant. Within the past eight months, they have steadily extended their reach across a relatively small but strategically crucial part of eastern Congo, and in a few decisive battles proved their ability to sweep aside not just the Congolese army, but the UN peacekeepers with all their heavy armour and air power.

Now that they control Goma. M23 also has the keys to a national treasure-chest – the huge mineral wealth rather unfairly concentrated around that part of the country. And they've crafted an agenda that they hope will give them some semblance of moral authority – demands that the government address issues including human rights abuses, appalling health-care, education and law and order.

The demoralised, underpaid and ill-equipped Congolese military has proven hopelessly incapable of holding the rebels back, abandoning their posts rather than fight for their often absent commanders.

The rebels will no doubt feel the international pressure to withdraw from Goma. It is loud and significant, but we've been here before. Months ago, when M23 made its last big surge, a similar meeting of regional heads of state demanded they give up newly-won territory. They didn't. Instead, they waited for the complaints to die down and attention to turn elsewhere while they quietly organised themselves for the next push.

With no consequences for the rebels apart from finger-wagging and "strong condemnation" from the UN and neighbouring states, it is hard to see why they would give up Goma simply for a chance to talk to the Congolese government.