Fear of civil war as Congolese rebels march into Goma

As world attention has been focused on the Gaza conflict, a geopolitical crisis has unfolded in central Africa where the rebel seizure of a large Congolese city could have grave consequences for the troubled region.

As most of the world has been focusing on ongoing conflict in Gaza,  a geopolitical crisis of another sort is unfolding in central Africa  where the rebel seizure of the substantial Congolese city of Goma could have grave consequences for the troubled region.

"It's just the beginning. We don't know what will happen next and it has the potential to destabilize the Eastern Congo and the potential to destabilize the Congolese government depending on what the rebels decide to do next," Severine Autesserre, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University, told CBC News.

The M23 rebels  — soldiers who defected from the Congolese army — took control of the provincial capital of Goma and its international airport Tuesday, having met little resistance from government troops or the UN peacekeeping force stationed in the area. 

Thousands of residents from this part of the Democratic Republic of Congo had already fled as reports emerged of civilian casualties, abductions and destroyed property, sparking concerns of a full-out civil war like what had taken place a decade ago.

Adding to the volatility is that neighbouring Rwanda is accused of backing the rebels and supplying them with weapons

"People who live in Goma, they are really afraid, are very worried and have good reason to be," said Autesserre, an expert on the African region. "Because whenever some kind of armed group takes over a city in the eastern Congo, it's really bad news for people there. It means a lot of human rights violations.

"If the rebel groups actually leave the city and the Congolese government troops takes over the city again, you have another process of human rights violations, of targeted killings and revenge killings. That's what happens everytime you have a change of control of a city," she said.

In this case, the rebel advance has disrupted all the humanitarian work that has been underway as aid workers have been forced to flee.

Autesserre said there were also reports of looting by the Congolese government forces as they evacuated Goma, which may in part explain why thousands of people welcomed the rebel troops.

Not much government support

"The Congolese government is not providing much in the East in terms of development," said Holly Dunn, a Carleton University graduate student who has spent time in the Congo conducting research. 

"So people don't often have access to clean water, and their food supply is at times threatened.

"Education, health, jobs — these things are not readily available to the majority of the population. So you can see the people supporting a rebel group trying to counter the government because I don't think they feel they're getting much government support."

M23 rebels celebrate in the streets of Goma after rebel group seized the strategic provincial capital in Congo. (Phil Moore/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Goma is not only the provincial capital, it is also considered an economic and political hub.

"So strategically, it's super significant for this rebel group to have taken Goma because they had control of parts of North Kivu," says Autesserre. "They had control of rural areas but now they have been able to solidify their control by taking control of the city. They can use Goma as a base for further attacks on other places."

She went on to note that Goma is also "symbolically extremely important. The last time there was an attack on Goma by the same kind of rebel groups, it was in 2008, and everyone was panicking. Everyone was saying at that time that if they had taken over Goma everything would have unravelled."

In 2008, those fighters from the now-defunct National Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP, stopped just short of the city. The Congolese government negotiated a peace deal with the group to put down its arms in return for being integrated into the national army.

That deal fell apart this April, when up to 700 soldiers, most of them ex-CNDP members, defected from the army, claiming that the Congolese government had failed to uphold their end of the deal.

They charged that they were not properly paid and equipped, and that the government had systematically discriminated against ethnic Tutsis, which make-up the majority of the ranks.

Some analysts believe the main objective of the M23 is to gain control over the rich mineral resources of North Kivu province. Autesserre, however, said that while control of natural of resources is important, control of land is also "extremely important" as it's a source of power.

But the worry now is that the escalation could plunge the region into civil war, similar to the conflict that officially ended in 2003.

A decade of tension

The situation has remained tense since 2003 and violence has continued to plague the region. Autesserre said that when she was stationed in Goma between 2010 and 2011, there continued to be fighting in the area.

"You had this kind of violence ongoing since the official end of the war in 2003. So to me the civil war has continued. It's just the fact that now it's escalating. The fact that Goma was taken is really marking the escalation of violence and that’s really worrying."

So far, UN troops, because of their mandate to not engage rebel forces, have done little, saying they were holding fire to avoid triggering a battle.

But Autesserre said the UN forces could be more proactive. "The mandate can be interpreted in many different ways and to me it's interpreted very restrictively right now."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press