GOMA, Congo – Despite the signing of a Congo peace accord on Sunday, this Central African country remains unsettled by signs of a return to war.
The peace agreement, signed in Ethiopia by 11 neighboring countries and backed by the United Nations, elicited much praise from African and other world leaders who said it points the way to stability in Congo.
But on the ground here in eastern Congo, there are signals that fighting may soon erupt between the Congolese government and the M23 rebels. The regional peace accord is helpful but it does not have specifics to immediately improve the tense security situation, said an expert on eastern Congo.
"I think it is a step in the right direction. But the agreement is more a statement of principles than a concrete action plan. It is lacking in details, such as what an oversight mechanism for its implementation would look like," Jason Stearns, a Congo specialist for the Rift Valley Institute, said to The Associated Press.
The agreement did not mention the much-awaited intervention forces that would come to reinforce the UN peacekeeping troops in eastern Congo, nor did it state how a drone force could patrol the border.
Another problem is that no conclusion has been reached in the negotiations between the M23 rebels and the Kinshasa government of President Joseph Kabila.
Instead the M23 rebels appear to be positioning themselves for a new attack. And the Congolese government is making alliances with other rebel militias. The result is that eastern Congo remains tense and unsettled.
Just over three months ago, on Nov. 20, the M23, who are allegedly backed by neighboring Rwanda, seized this strategic city of 1 million and threatened to take the rest of mineral-rich eastern Congo. Two weeks later, as a result of international pressure and the Congolese army's pledge to negotiate, the rebels withdrew from Goma. But now it appears the rebels are poised to strike again.
The rebels have reinforced their positions and are just 3 kilometers (2 miles) from Goma airport. Rebel soldiers are visible along the road from Goma to Rutshuru, unbothered by the daily patrols of U. N. peacekeepers.
Little progress has been made in the negotiations between the rebels and the Kabila government that have been going on for two months in Kampala, Uganda, said Stanislas Baleke, an M23 official.
The M23's nearly one-year-old rebellion is led by fighters who defected from the Congolese army. They are from an earlier rebel group and complain that the Congo government did not properly implement a previous peace accord signed on March 23, 2009. The M23 take their name from the date of that accord.
Neither the rebels nor the Congolese government are willing to compromise on their demands. The rebels' insist that President Joseph Kabila must resign and be replaced by a transitional government that would run the country while new elections are organized, say experts following the talks.
"The M23 has political ambitions that Congo does not want to discuss. And the government wants the arrest of the top five M23 leaders, which is a completely unacceptable condition for the rebels. The talks will go nowhere," said Stearns, the author of "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters" and a Congo expert.
Last month several high-ranking M23 officers were called back from the Kampala negotiations to the rebels headquarter in Rutshuru, Congo, as the armed group is planning new operations, according to rebel sources.
When the M23 rebels seized Goma in November, the UN peacekeepers were harshly criticized because they failed to defend the city, the capital of North Kivu province. The U.N. has 17,000 troops in Congo, its largest mission in the world, but they do not have the authority to intervene to stop fighting, only to protect the civilian population.
Meanwhile, the Congolese army is enrolling new recruits throughout the country and has been forging new alliances with other militia forces in North Kivu province.
Since the creation of the M23 last year, many areas North Kivu have suffered from a security vacuum as the army has focused its forces on fighting the M23 and has ignored the several other militias operating in the area.
Aware that it cannot fight several fronts at once, and playing on the anti-Rwandan feelings of these militias, the army has forged alliances with them. The army has supplied the militias with weapons and ammunition, with the agreement they will fight alongside the regular forces, according to a Congolese colonel speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
"The M23's main problem is its lack of weapons and troops. So if the army can gather more men, they would have the upper hand," explained Congo analyst Stearns. "Militia proxys are a very crude tool for the Congolese army to use, but they are very efficient as well."
Armed by the Congolese army, the militias have started patrolling the muddy tracks running around the hills of Masisi, and are terrorizing the local population with impunity, according to residents. The undisciplined militias stir up ethnic rivalries, force children into their ranks and claim taxes, report residents.
"Our army is weak, they cannot protect us, and now they are letting the armed groups do their job. They have no discipline and they create trouble for us. They are drunk most of the time," said a Felicite, who would only give her first name because she feared reprisals.
North of Rutshuru, the M23's stronghold, the army is also using local militias to regain territory it had lost in recent months.
"The army sees us as cows. They push us ahead to regain territory and they come after us to settle in the areas we have retaken from our enemies," said Col. Moise Visika, the second-in-command of the Mai Mai Shetani, a local militia in the areas of Ishasha and Nyamilima.
The city of Goma remains vulnerable. Few government troops came back to Goma after the M23 rebels withdrew from the town, leaving the city susceptible to an M23 comeback despite the presence of U.N peacekeepers.
The result of all these factors is that, despite Sunday's peace agreement, eastern Congo remains threatened by a return to conflict, say experts.
"The overall situation is volatile and precarious," said Roger Meece, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, speaking to the Security Council on Friday. He said that eastern Congo "could break down at any time into large-scale conflict without much, if any, prior warning."