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Rebels Hold The Cards In DR Congo


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, years after the big banks got support from the federal government and with interest rates at record lows, small businesses are still struggling to get access to credit. We're wondering why that is, so we'll try to find out in our Money Coach conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we head overseas to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was, you may remember, the center of one of Africa's bloodiest conflicts in recent years, often called Africa's First World War.

A rebel group there known as M23 held control of the town of Goma for more than a week, despite the presence of a massive United Nations forestation there. The Congolese Army has regained control of Goma after negotiations between the rebels and regional leaders, but the rebels are promising to retake the city if the government fails to meet their demands.

To find out more about this, I'm joined by Jonny Hogg. He is the Reuters correspondent in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was in Goma when the city fell.

Jonny Hogg, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

JONNY HOGG: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Now, in some ways I think that this story may have been overlooked by events in the Gaza Strip, so can you remind us of why Goma is of such strategic importance? Why were the rebels so focused on Goma and why was there so much international concern about the rebels taking over Goma?

HOGG: I think Goma was important for various different reasons, not least because it's pretty much the biggest city in Eastern Congo. It's a border city. It's where a lot of the trade goes in and out of the country. So from an economic point of view, it has huge importance. But even more perhaps than that, it's the fact that this was the city that both the U.N. and the Congolese Army had said would not fall. They would protect it. It was a red line, really, to say we may lose other territory, but we will hold Goma. In the end, they didn't manage to do that and so the humiliation for both the U.N., but particularly the Congolese government, by looting the city, the first time the city has fallen since the end of the war in 2003, is hugely significant, and what it's given is enormous momentum to the rebels in terms of negotiations, which of course is where this is probably heading now. It gives them very much the onus to be able to demand much more than they would have done had they just stayed in the territory they held before, which was significant, but was out in the countryside where it's less symbolic, if you like.

MARTIN: Sure. Of course. And just briefly, because obviously we want to get to the whole question of what the rebels want and what they're seeking in these negotiations - why were they able to take the city after what is generally described as the largest U.N. peacekeeping force stationed anywhere in the world? How were they able to take the city and why did they withdraw after 11 days?

HOGG: Well, I think in terms of why the city fell, it was almost a perfect storm of events, if you like, because yes, there were thousands of U.N. peacekeepers. There were also thousands of Congolese soldiers protecting the city, trying to stop the rebel advance. I think one of the reasons it fell was because, as has been the case for many, many years, the Congolese Army is enormously deficient. It is - it's very poorly equipped, very poorly trained, very poorly commanded, and a lot of the soldiers, they hadn't eaten for days. They didn't have enough ammunition. They didn't have any motivation, and also their own officers were actually stealing their salaries. Now, that's not exactly the sort of atmosphere that's conducive to having an effective army.

Another key reason is that if you look at the way this rebellion has started, it came from soldiers who were in the army then mutinying and launching this group, the M23.

Now, I think everyone pretty much admits there are still people within the army who have sympathies with M23, and certainly, from the information we've been getting, pretty much all military intelligence was being leaked to the rebels. Now, that made it also very, very difficult.

Another reason, allegedly, certainly according to the Congolese and to other analysts, is that the attack on Goma was supported by Rwandan troops. Now, if this is true, then obviously that would have vastly loaded the odds in favor of the rebels and against the government. And I think one of the other questions that has to be asked is the role of the U.N. Now, the U.N. have said there was very little it could do once the rebels got past a certain point and once they were advancing towards the city and they didn't want to have humanitarian disaster in the streets of Goma by trying to fight the rebels.

But previous to that, despite being armed with attack helicopters and a huge array of weaponry, the U.N. troops were unable to stop the rebels, so I think all of those factors came into play. And also I think almost no one thought the rebels could or would take Goma. And in a funny way, once they got past a certain point, it was almost as if everyone was so surprised that it was too late to save the town.

MARTIN: This rebel group, M23 - what is their objective?

HOGG: Well, that's actually a very interesting question and it's not entirely clear, because if you look at the name of M23, it's called - it's named after March 23rd, which is the date of the 2009 peace accords which brought to an end the last major rebellion.

Now, what M23 are saying is that the deal made by the government then was not respected, and that's a deal very much linked to a small group of rebels, or former rebels, many of them belonging to the Tutsi ethnic group. So it's a pretty narrow-based claims that they have on that basis.

Now, since the start of the rebellion, M23 have attempted, I think, to broaden their appeal within Congo to plug into more of the disaffection that exists within the country. So having started off initially, saying they wanted to revisit the accords of 2009, now they're saying, oh, well, we want talks involving the political opposition, involving the civil society, Congolese diaspora, all of these people. They're really trying to widen out to get all of the Congolese who are very unhappy with the government at the moment behind them. Now, how much that's going to work, and also how genuine that is, I think, is a much more difficult question to answer because obviously it's quite possible that that's just a faint - an attempt to curry favor, really, whilst they still push for their real objectives, which is to secure, if you like, influence and control over Eastern Congo for their members.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense that the regional players there have a strategy to contain this conflict so that it does not spread to the region and draw in all sort of the neighboring countries? Is there any sense that there's a strategy for containing this?

HOGG: For pretty much everybody in the region another full-scale war would be economically disastrous, politically disastrous, and clearly disastrous from a humanitarian point of view as well. Having said that, there are some very powerful forces at play here and how close do I think we've already got to watching this spread suddenly very quickly out of control. I think we were quite close when Goma fell, but then enormous regional pressure came for the rebels to pull out of Goma, which is one of the reasons they have. They've given up this great prize. They've pulled back to their old positions. So I think that that indicates that there are still corridors of influence that can be used to stop this growing even larger and becoming even more likely to drag in neighboring countries directly and even regional forces, perhaps.

But I think the huge danger is now the rebels have pulled out. They are demanding negotiations. Those negotiations will be a very, very difficult political sell for President Joseph Kabila nationally because he's already negotiated with pretty much the same people back in 2009. It was very unpopular and it didn't work. It led to the situation we've got now.

So he'll have to go into there knowing that he's got a lot less support for these negotiations, but the rebels will not back down. I mean they want what they can get and at the moment they're in a very strong position.

If agreements aren't reached, I think there is a possibility that we'll see renewed fighting, and if we see renewed fighting, every time we see renewed fighting, there is, of course, the danger that it gets out of control. Having said that, I do want to reiterate. I think that in the region, yes, people are playing for power. People are playing for influence and people are playing for very high stakes at the moment, but I think everybody is very aware of plunging this region into another war, given that the last war cost millions of lives and really would be catastrophic for all concerned.

MARTIN: Jonny Hogg is the Reuters correspondent. We reached him in Kinshasa, which is the capitol of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and as we mentioned, he was in Goma when the city fell.

Jonny Hogg, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HOGG: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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