M23 spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Vianney Kazarama addresses a crowd in Goma
These are confusing times in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the city of Goma was seized by rebels belonging to a militia called M23 early last week.
Goma's capture was followed by a frenzy of diplomatic activity. The United Nations Security Council demanded that the rebels vacate the city and the Rwandan and Ugandan governments, which had earlier been accused by the UN Group of Experts of supporting and sustaining the rebellion, came under strong international pressure to do what they could to secure M23's withdrawal.
The Rwandan and Ugandan governments publicly called for M23 to pull out and, early this week, M23 promised it would leave Goma in preparation for negotiations with DRC President Joseph Kabila, whose spokesperson Lambert Mende had previously insisted that there could be "no talking" to the rebels.
Yet by Thursday there was no sign of an M23 retreat, although its leadership promised a hand-over ceremony of sorts on Friday and claimed to have begun pulling troops out of the nearby town of Sake. But this was contradicted by Sake residents, whereas M23 fighters in the town told Reuters they had received "no orders" to leave.
On Wednesday, Mende accused M23 of looting Goma and transporting precious infrastructure across the border to Rwanda. M23 commanders have denied the charge, but unconfirmed reports are emerging that the Banque Centrale du Congo – the central bank in Goma – has been robbed of $17-million.
Kabila's standing has been weakened by Goma's fall. His army ran away, the UN mission in the DRC (Monusco) folded its arms and watched the rebels take over and, having earlier called on the Congolese people to "rise up" against foreign aggression, the Congolese president then felt compelled to go running to Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan president Paul Kagame for talks, indicating for all to see that it was they, not he, who could resolve the crisis.
If and when the M23 vacates Goma, Kabila's spin doctors will no doubt claim a diplomatic victory, boasting that they forced the rebels' removal without confrontation, thanks to the support the government enjoys in the international community.
Even if the rebels do pull out, they are unlikey to move far away, and could always return at speed should negotiations with the government not proceed to their satisfaction. And the negotiations are sure to feature rebel demands for humiliating concessions from the government, further weakening Kabila's already battered public standing.
There were noisy demonstrations in the Congolese capital Kinshasa against the government this week, against Monusco and against the United States government, which the protestors are claiming installed Kabila against their will by allowing his controversial return to power following disputed elections late last year. There have also been demonstrations against the government in Kisangani, the country's third largest city, and in Bunia and Bukavu.
At the same time, demonstrations, or indeed any indication at all of public or even elite political support for the president, have been conspicuously absent.
So could the president fall?
Supporting Kabila's position, the Congolese army and the elite Republican Guard still appear to be loyal. And Western powers still seem prepared to back the president, if only because they do not see a more palatable alternative. No Western governments have shown much sympathy for Etienne Tshisekedi, the elderly opposition leader who claimed to have won the 2011 presidential election and has been under house arrest since, despite a courtesy call from French President Francois Hollande in mid-October during a summit of the Francophonie (French-speaking nations) in Kinshasa.
A Western diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, said on Wednesday that the best approach would be to put Kabila on a plane out of Kinshasa, tell him not to come back and then call on Senate president Leon Kengo wa Dondo to form an interim government until fresh elections could be held. But it seems highly unlikely that this proposal would get much support from Western governments.
The politician who becomes the next US secretary of state will be an important factor. President Barack Obama's preferred candidate is Susan Rice, who as US ambassador to the UN displayed strong support for Rwanda at a time when the state department's own Central Africa section had been taking a much more critical stance towards Kigali. The Rwandan government would be delighted if Rice secured the nomination, but the news would be a blow in Kinshasa and could push Kabila further into the arms of China.
The recent publication of the final UN Group of Experts report for 2012 on the DRC is a blow for the Rwandan and Ugandan governments, presenting in powerful detail the case for their intimate involvement in the M23 rebellion. The report includes a detailed rebuttal of the Rwandan government's earlier tirade against the group's interim report that convinced many international observers that the group's case against Rwanda was sound. The impact, however, will be mitigated by Rwanda's ascension to the Security Council in January for a two-year stint and Kagame appears to be betting that, with careful handling, his government could escape significant further cuts in aid.
As so often in the DRC's recent history, the position of other regional states will be key to the president's survival. When Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed forces struck out against the government of Kabila's father, Laurent Desire Kabila, back in 1998, the president was saved by the speedy intervention of Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian troops. Rumours are now swirling in eastern DRC that Angolan troops have returned and there is speculation that it was the grim prospect of fighting these soldiers that persuaded M23 and its backers to change course.
Another indication of Angolan involvement is the signals from Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the president of Congo-Brazzaville and a close ally of Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos, that he would be interested in playing a mediation role.
Relations between Kabila and Dos Santos have been frosty in recent years, largely because the Congolese government has laid claim to a sizeable portion of Angola's offshore oil assets. But the DRC government's efforts to press its oil claim have been waning and it has also been permitting Angolan troops to cross its territory at will in order to access the Cabinda enclave. If Angolan troops are deployed in eastern DRC, the payoff will probably be an end to Kinshasa's demands for more offshore oil, ensuring that the billions of dollars of revenue it will bring in coming years rest firmly in Dos Santos's grasp.