Ben Shepherd
Consulting Fellow, Africa Programme

As fighting once again flares between the Congolese military and the M23 rebel group, it may be that president Joseph Kabila is on the cusp of a high-stakes and potentially era-defining gamble. 

The parameters of the conflict in Eastern DRC are depressingly familiar. An endless series of false dawns has flickered across the Kivu provinces. The most recent resumption of hostilities may be no more than the opening steps of the macabre dance of violence, suffering, hand-wringing and dissembling that is so familiar to long-term observers of Eastern DRC, and which will end in a few months in humiliation for an outclassed Congolese military (FARDC), a surge of international outrage, and another sticking-plaster deal.

So why would Kabila choose to re-tread this well-worn path? To start, Kabila needs to re-build his fragmented political base through a face-saving national political consultation, first mooted in late 2012. Planning is underway in Kinshasa, despite deep disagreement between government and opposition on leadership, agenda and rules. Few observers hold out any hope that it will bring meaningful change to the nature of Congolese politics; it will be far too tightly controlled. But it might constitute a forum for Kabila to bring in 'moderate' opposition and civil society actors – for which read 'compliant' – and so revitalise his network in advance of the long-delayed provincial and local elections, and perhaps smooth the way to a constitutional change lifting term limits and allowing him to run again. 

But he cannot go into such a high-stakes forum while the East burns; his only claim to leadership is as a republican peacemaker, above the rough and tumble of daily politics. Though the fighting in the East is a continent away from Kinshasa's teeming streets, Kabila’s inability to impose his will is a fatal Achilles heel. 

More violence to come

So Kabila needs peace. But he may need to go through renewed war to get there. The most obvious short-term solution – a new political deal with the M23 – would be a compromise too far for a population that is deeply suspicious of any further concessions to a profoundly unpopular group, widely perceived as a puppet for Rwanda. Negotiations in Kampala stagger on, but Kabila cannot afford to give ground. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Kabila’s only option is the military. It may be that the fighting of recent days is the opening move. 

The FARDC has lost many times to the M23 and its predecessor, the CNDP. The units on the front line are reported to be performing well in comparison with past debacles, and are making gains. The M23, weakened by factional infighting in early 2013, is not the force it was, despite continued recruitment and brutal suppression of dissent, documented by a UN Panel of Experts and human rights NGOs. The signs so far are positive for Kinshasa. But the stakes are high - the capitulation of the FARDC, were it to happen again, would have disastrous political consequences for Kabila. The national consultation would be put in jeopardy, exposing Kabila's precarious political position still further. 

Rwanda's role

The key, as so often in Eastern DRC, will be the attitude of Rwanda. The aforementioned UN report alleges continued Rwandan support for the M23, though at a significantly lower level than in previous iterations. Without Rwandan help, the M23 may be unable to hold out for long; with it, they are likely to be able to resist indefinitely. 

So Kabila's gamble is that the international community is willing and able to restrain Kigali. On paper, the commitments are there. A UN intervention brigade – made up of some 3000 South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops operating under a mandate authorising aggressive operations – is nearly deployed. The UN has appointed a heavy-hitter – former Irish President Mary Robinson – as Special Envoy for the region. The US also seems on the cusp of a more active engagement, illustrated by the appointment of Senator Russ Feingold as its own Special Envoy. The World Bank has announced a billion-dollar programme for peace-building in the DRC and wider region. A Framework Agreement signed in February 2013 by 11 African states and the four key multilateral institutions provides robust political cover.

But these commitments will soon be tested. Continued FARDC aggression toward the M23 will undoubtedly cause displacement, suffering and atrocities on all sides. It will also open more space for the myriad armed groups operating in the Kivu Provinces to take advantage. In the short term, things may get very bad indeed. And the temptation for international actors nervous of complicity in a humanitarian catastrophe will be to push for negotiations – regardless of the failure of previous deals, or the little legitimacy M23 has on the ground. 

The M23 will hope to hold out until the FARDC collapse or the international community runs out of nerve. In the meantime, Kabila is likely to increase the military pressure until Rwandan assistance is exposed, and the M23 cracks and sues for peace. Victory could give Kabila a bounce sufficient to clear the political hurdles in his path; failure would be a body-blow. Kabila's gamble will place the international community and its newly-minted Special Envoys squarely in the spotlight.