President Joseph Kabila expressed the view of many Congolese when he said, during his speech to the country today, that the Kampala talks have dragged on for too long. This despite the optimism that was on display last week as international envoys––Martin Kobler, Modibo Toure, Ibrahim Diarra, and Russ Feingold––converged on Kampala in hope of a deal. And in all-night sessions substantial progress was made, as the Congolese government and M23 agreed on a majority of the issues on the table. This included the release of prisoners; the end of M23 as a rebel movement and the possibility to establish itself as a political party; the return and resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs); and the return of extorted and looted properties during the M23’s brief occupation of Goma in November 2012. The parties even made some progress on transitional security arrangements, although the M23 was still reluctant to talk about redeploying its troops across the country.
At the end, however, everything hinged, unsurprisingly, on the fate of the top M23 leadership. Since the beginning, this had been the main stumbling block. It is practically unconceivable for commanders such as Sultani Makenga and Innocent Kaina––both listed on the UN and US sanctions lists and candidates for war crimes charges––to be reintegrated into the Congolese army. Still, the Congolese delegation seemed to exaggerate––some reports suggested that the list of officers who couldn’t integrate still stands at 133, far higher than the list of 27 that had been spoken about several weeks ago in Kinshasa. But even if Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda––the head of the Congolese delegation––lowers those numbers considerably, it is difficult to imagine the M23 accepting the exclusion of even its top 20 officers. There were also reports that Kabila is now willing to accept a general amnesty for crimes of insurrection (not war crimes or crimes against humanity, obviously) for all M23 officers if they can agree on that list.
(There was also some talk that the reason for the collapse in talks was that one of the M23 delegates, Roger Lumbala, had insulted Joseph Kabila. It is true that the Congolese are still outraged that Lumbala had said, when he was arrested in Burundi last September, that he would kill Joseph Kabila is he saw him in the street. And the Congolese delegation did demand that Lumbala be excluded from talks. But Lumbala left, and the final plenary took place, so this was not the main problem).
There is still hope for a deal, although the Congolese main negotiators will be in Kinshasa for some time now, with only a skeleton crew left in Kampala. The next step will probably be for regional powers to discuss the M23 at a joint ICGLR/SADC summit, to take place in South Africa in early November. The danger, as always, is that a unraveling of the talks could lead to another escalation on the ground. This time, if reports from within the UN peacekeeping mission are accurate, the Intervention Brigade may be willing to push further north against the M23, using military pressure to push the M23 and its allies toward a peace deal. Of course, that’s a risky gamble, as a failed offensive could humiliate the UN and embolden the M23 at the negotiation table.