Is Nkunda reading the Saakashvili playbook?

For the next three days, at least, the world’s undivided attention will be on the US election. It will be all but impossible for any other news story to get a look in.

It was a similar story in early August. World leaders, including George Bush and Vladimir Putin, were gathered in Beijing for the start of the Olympic Games. Like the US election, the Beijing Olympics was the only story in town.

And then Georgia happened.

The question now being asked in Goma, the Congolese city which rebel leader/dissident general/warlord Laurent Nkunda now has in his sights, is this: Will Nkunda take a leaf out of the Mikheil Saakashvili playbook and launch an attack while the world is looking the other way?

There are three reasons why, I think, he won’t.

One: The world’s media is actually already in Goma. I spoke to a hack friend in Goma yesterday who was standing next to seven muddy Toyota Pajeros with the word ‘press’ stuck on the windows. He had to break off the call as two other Nairobi-based journalists had just turned up. Most will try and scramble back to Kenya by Tuesday so they can hang out with Obama’s Granny Sarah on election night, but enough will stay around to ensure that while coverage of the US election will dominate, an Nkunda invasion of Goma will not go unnoticed.

Two: Nkunda does not need Goma. If his aim is to get the world’s attention then, well done Laurent, you’ve got it. Also, take a look at the narrative of the last week or so. Nkunda, a man whose troops rape, pillage and kill for breakfast, is not being portrayed as the ultimate bad guy. Okay, so he’s cleared out a few refugee camps, but so far the big story about out-of-control-men-with-guns has been referring to the Congolese army. If Nkunda takes Goma – and his troops behave the way they did when he took Bukavu in 2004 – then Nkunda will suddenly find he is public enemy number one. Rwanda, which is of course not supporting Nkunda in any way at all (oh no guv, not us), will not be happy.

Three: The international community may have to actually do something.* Within days of Nkunda’s troops threatening Goma Bernard Kouchner, David Miliband and Jendayi Frazer were on their way to the besieged city. Britain is considering sending troops, so is the EU. A regional conference involving Kabila and Kagame is being organised. Taking Goma would not just be a declaration of war against Kabila’s government. It would be a massive and public slap in the face to the US, Britain and France.

*This is easily the weakest argument of the lot, I admit. The notion that the international community will ‘do something’ other than issue a strongly worded condemnation is pretty laughable. Seriously, British troops in the Congo? As Presidents Bashir of Sudan and Mugabe of Zimbabwe know all too well that the only punishment for slapping world powers in the face is a timid slap on the wrist.

(Of course if I’m wrong about this expect to see a similar looking three-point-post explaining why it was actually really obvious all along why Nkunda would take Goma.)


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