African leaders have signed a UN-mediated deal aimed at ending two decades of conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo and paving the way for the deployment of a new military brigade to take on rebel groups.
Congo’s army is fighting the M23 rebels, who have hived off a fiefdom in North Kivu province in a conflict that has dragged Congo’s eastern region back into war and displaced more than half a million people.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who witnessed the signing yesterday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, said he hoped the accord would bring “an era of peace and stability” for Congo and Africa’s Great Lakes. He added he would soon name a special envoy for the region.
The Great Lakes area, where colonial era borders cut at random through ethnic groups has in the last 20 years been a crucible of conflict.
“It is only the beginning of a comprehensive approach that will require sustained engagement,” Mr Ban said of the accord, which did not include any representatives of rebel groups.
The agreement was signed by leaders and envoys of 11 African countries, including Rwanda and Uganda, which have been accused by UN experts of stoking the rebellion. They deny the accusation.
Speaking after the signing, Ugandan vice-president Edward Ssekandi said the deal could speed up the deployment of a new, UN-flagged intervention force to take on the rebels.
“We should be able to fast-track the ongoing consultation so that the force with a robust mandate and capability is put in place,” he said.
African leaders failed to sign the deal last month after a disagreement over who would command the force.
A fresh rebellion launched in May 2012 by the M23 group has brought more fighting and displacement to eastern Congo. In November the rebels seized the provincial capital Goma, but left the city to open the way for peace talks, which are being held in neighbouring Uganda.
Those separate talks between Congo’s government and the rebels are aimed at reaching an agreement on a range of economic, political and security issues. And the rebels have broadened their goals to include the removal of president Joseph Kabila and “liberation” of the entire Congo.
Bertrand Bisimwa, M23’s spokesman, said he had not read the full details of the Addis Ababa deal, but hoped it would not reignite fighting between them and government troops.
“What I can say is that if they are choosing the way of peace we are fine with that, but if they are choosing to continue the war then we’re against,” he said.
President Kabila said the talks with rebels would continue, but there was little time left before a 15 March deadline to complete them.
“What we have done in Addis is just a diplomatic measure. The discussions in Kampala will continue but we need to pay attention to the fact that we do not have a lot of time,” Mr Kabila said after signing the deal.
Successive cross-border conflicts have killed and uprooted millions in the Congo basin since the colonial era, driven by political and ethnic divisions and competition for vast mineral resources such as gold, tin, tungsten and coltan – a precious mineral used to make mobile phones.
Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, said the deal should not be taken as an end in itself, but as part of continuing peace process.
“The framework recognises that a holistic approach that addresses the multifaceted root causes is the only way to end instability. Any meaningful contribution toward lasting peace in the DRC and the Great Lake’s region has to abandon the self-defeating practice of selectivity in both memory and responsibility regarding the known, long standing causes of recurring conflict,” said Mr Kagame.