It was always going to be a messy affair. South Africa’s commitment to help disarm rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was a bold move that initially earned it much respect after the military victory over the M23 armed group in mid-2013.
Now, however, pressure to follow through on its promises and also to attack the much more nebulous Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda is creating panic and internal divisions among government officials.
This was evident at the 24th African Union summit that ended last weekend in Addis Ababa, where ministers and officials made seemingly contradictory statements about whether South Africa is at war in the DRC and about the nature of the disarmament process.
There has been pressure on all the legitimate forces in the eastern DRC to follow through on their threats to attack the rebels, after a deadline for them to disarm by January 2 expired.
The offensive by the South African and Tanzanian-led force intervention brigade, which is the lethal arm of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the DRC, has been put off several times.
Finally, on Friday last week, the DRC army announced that it would go in alone without the intervention brigade, raising a number of questions about the relationship between the UN and the DRC, and about the role of the intervention brigade.
For South Africa, one of the main sticking points in the planned offensive against the rebels is the danger of civilian casualties.
The rebels are largely made up of Hutu soldiers who fled after the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago and many of these fighters have since settled in villages in the eastern DRC. Attacking them could mean that women and children might die in the process.
“You guys [the media] are going to crucify us,” a South African official told the Mail & Guardian in the run-up to the summit. “If we go in [against the rebels] there is going to be collateral damage,” he said.
Said Djinnit, UN special representative for the Great Lakes region, also warned that civilian casualties were a “big concern” in the offensive against the rebels, “especially in countries like South Africa where public opinion counts”.
At a press conference on Tuesday, however, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, minister of international relations and co-operation, said the military option against the rebels was now “inevitable”.
“An attack could happen as we are sitting here,” she said. “Our role is to neutralise negative forces who don’t want peace.”
She said the military on the ground are experts at separating women and children from combatants, so there is no danger of civilian casualties. Yet the operation will be thorough. “We don’t want comebacks,” she said.
Time has run out
The next day, South Africa’s defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, convened a press briefing where she said talk of war was “irresponsible” and that the disarmament was a largely peaceful process.
UN forces would go into villages and take combatants away to a holding centre in Kisangani in northeastern DRC. The intervention brigade will only respond if attacked, she said. “It is about disarming and demobilising, not about eliminating them [the combatants].”
Insiders, however, say time for a peaceful disarmament has run out. Only a handful of soldiers voluntarily disarmed after the rebels were given a six-month deadline to do so in the middle of last year. The remaining 1?500 to 2?000 troops have refused to surrender.
Some of them are accused of war crimes in Rwanda and others are allegedly regrouping to form a united opposition against Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame.
The UN intervention brigade was specifically launched with a so-called Chapter VII mandate from the UN to carry out offensive military action, something peacekeepers in the DRC haven’t done since they were first deployed in the country almost two decades ago.
Martin Kobler, the head of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC, said in an interview with the local Radio Okapi earlier this week that the UN is supporting the DRC army with its current operation against the rebels. It has “some problems with the command structure”, which it is discussing with the government, he said.