UN troops patrol eastern Congo
UN troops patrol eastern Congo

Discussions have been taking place between the UN and the African Union in Addis Ababa to pave the way for a joint military operation in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The operation under discussion would involve United Nations troops currently operating under Monusco and soldiers from the southern African regional body, SADC.

The latter is the so-called ‘neutral force’ that the African Union has been considering since December.

Taking on the M23

The aim is simple: to take on the M23 rebels who currently control areas of the Kivus in Eastern Congo.

The M23 is only one of around half a dozen armed groups in the area, with between 4,000 and 7,000 men.

But it is – according to the United Nations – supported and supplied with arms and troops by Rwanda.

The M23 is, in the view of Western diplomats, currently the ‘master of the battlefield.’

The rebels took the key town of Goma in November, when the Congolese army fled, leaving the UN standing by as the rebels marched into the town.

The fall of Goma humiliated the UN and they have been struggling to recover.

Condemnation or integration?

The M23 attack was condemned by the UN in November and the rebels are considered by SADC to be a ‘negative force’ that has to be confronted.

At the same time, important regional actors, like Uganda, are pressing for reconciliation between the M23 and the Congolese.

This is the agenda of the talks in Kampala, with the M23 wishing to be re-integrated into the Congolese army, but on its own terms.

To this end, the rebels have declared what they call a unilateral ceasefire.

Finding the soldiers

The discussions in Ethiopia between the UN and the African Union have proposed the formation of a new force to fight the M23, which would combine Monusco’s 19,000 troops with and the SADC ‘neutral force’.

There are suggestions that SADC troops from Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa would be joined by Egyptian forces.

Tanzania has offered around 800 troops and would like to take control of the operation.

South Africa had pledged around 200 soldiers, but these have been diverted to face rebels in the Central African Republic and Pretoria is running out of soldiers it can easily deploy.

In total SADC has said it will provide 4,000 troops, but it is not clear where this number will come from.

If this joint UN-SADC force, possibly bolstered by the Egyptians, is to go ahead it would be one of the few occasions the UN has gone to war for over 50 years.

Since the Korean war in the 1950’s and Katanga in the 1960’s the UN has avoided what is termed ‘peace-making’ in favour of ‘peace-keeping’.

More questions than answers

But a joint force raises many questions.

Who would pay for it and what would be its mandate?

Will it be led by Monusco or by the African Union or even SADC?

What role would the UN Security Council play in it – a body on which Rwanda is currently a non-permanent member?

In essence, who will give the orders?

Until these issues have been sorted out it is difficult to see how this proposed force can be deployed.

In the meantime the M23 – along with a range of other rebels – controls Eastern Congo, threatening civilians, recruiting fresh troops and bringing in fresh weapons.