A rebel group known as the March 23 Movement, comprised of army deserters, took over Goma yesterday, a Congolese city of about a million people in the Great Lakes region, with little resistance from government troops, who are poorly equipped and paid sporadically, or the United Nations forces there to provide the Congolese government support. The U.N. says it fired hundreds of rockets in failing to defend the city. The rebels, meanwhile, addressed residents and local government officials and troops at a soccer stadium, where they say thousands more defected to them.
The rebels are widely believed to be backed/influenced by Rwanda and/or Uganda. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has been president since 1986, fighting as a guerilla in the central African jungle since the 1960s. U.S. special forces are assisting the Ugandan-led counter-insurgency aimed at the warlord Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, but the Great Lakes region is plagued with rebel outfits. In July, the last time M23 rebels threatened to take over Goma, it was to Museveni that both Joseph Kabila, the president of the Congo since 1997, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon went in order to stop it.
Rwanda, meanwhile, has been backing rebel groups in the eastern Congo since the 1994 genocide of Tutsis by a Hutu-led provisional government following the mysterious plane crash of the long-time Rwandan dictator Juvenal Habyarimana. That government retreated to the jungle after the genocide, and Rwandan-backed rebel movements have helped fuel a succession of long-term regional conflicts, namely the First and Second Congo Wars. Rwanda is widely believed to be backing the M23 rebels, even being condemned by the United Nations for doing so, but its president denies it. The United States pulled $200,000 in military aid to Rwanda when the allegations hit the tipping point in July.
$202 million in foreign aid funding was requested by the State Department in the 2011 budget for Rwanda (with $438 million for Uganda and $228 million for the Congo). The U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the takeover of Goma has been criticized for not sanctioning the Rwandan backers in addition to rebel leaders. Rwanda joined the Security Council last month despite growing condemnation for its backing of rebels in the Congo. The presidents of Rwanda and Uganda have now joined Kabila in demanding the M23 rebels withdraw from Goma, as the rebels consolidate territory and look ahead to the capital Kinshasa.