The politics of the intervention brigade, from Pretoria to Kigali

The intervention brigade is on its way, and it has inspired Cassandras and Pollyannas alike.

Most of the talk has focused on the military efficacy of the brigade, which will consist of 3,069 troops from southern African countries and will be led by a Tanzanian general. This focus is not surprising, given the robust mandate the Security Council provided in Resolution 2098 to “carry out targeted offensive operations…to neutralize [armed] groups.”
The brigade is expected to deploy by June or July (around the same time as drones), with its base in Sake and operations probably beginning in the following months. But, despite the aggressive media campaign waged by M23 against the brigade, its political importance is likely to be as hefty as its (few) helicopter gunships and armed personnel carriers. As one Rwandan official put it to me: “Imagine the M23 kill ten South Africans. It doesn’t matter whether we support the M23 or not, Zuma will blame us.”The brigade forms a sort of political firewall––if the M23 puts it to shame, it will draw in some of the most powerful countries in the region into the conflict.
This points to a larger dynamic: the regionalization of the conflict. Back in 1998-2003 the Congolese war drew in eight countries and effectively split the region between the enemies (Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi) and allies (Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe) of Kinshasa––we are obviously not back to that sort of escalation, but the intervention brigade makes this conflict more regional than at any point in the past decade.
The big, muscular newcomer to the Kinshasa camp is South Africa. Two reasons can be made out: First, relations between Pretoria and Kigali have soured since the assassination attempts against General Kayumba Nyamwasa in South Africa in the middle of the FIFA World Cup in 2010, the country’s most important international event in a generation. Secondly, the ANC government has become increasingly financially invested in the Congo––the energy-strapped country is particular intent on cornering access to Inga Dam hydroelectric projects (and Zuma is alleged to have personal interests in the oil sector in the Congo). Just last month, both countries put fina touches to a draft agreement that would give South Africa around 2,600 megawatts of power from the Inga II dam, around 6% of that country’s current power supply. At full capacity, Grand Inga could produce up to 39,000 megawatts.
South African involvement was particularly on show during the 2011 elections, which took place just weeks after a Kabila granted the South African government a contract for Inga III . Zuma was then one of the first presidents to congratulate Kabila for his victory, despite rampant irregularities. Then, when Uganda began facilitating peace talks with the M23 as chair of the ICGLR, South Africa and Angola (which has also just signed a lucrative offshore oil deal with Kinshasa), worried about Uganda and Rwanda’s influence in the ICGLR, offered to send troops to Kinshasa’s aid through SADC. Kabila reportedly believes that the brigade will help bring an end to the nettlesome M23 rebellion.
Tanzania is more of a cipher––relations between Kikwete and Kagame have been strained in the past, but the country where Joseph Kabila grew up has been much less politically and economically involved in the Congo than South Africa.
The arrival of the brigade will therefore introduce new political as well as military dynamics to the conflict. The M23 may well try to use another military offensive, either before or after the brigade’s arrival, to gain political leverage. But while it is unclear whether the brigade will be able to live up to its ambitious military mandate, it comes with hefty political clout to back it up.