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Do African nations have an ulterior motive in joining UN Congo brigade?

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Jana Asenbrennerova/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Congolese children gather in front of a United Nations peacekeepers' tank in the city of Bukavu in February.

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In March, the United Nations approved a so-called "intervention brigade," the first of its kind, to carry out offensives against militant groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo's conflict-ridden eastern regions. Now the brigade has been formally organized, and as Congo analyst Jason Stearns explains, its impact is likely to be felt across the continent. 

• A version of this post originally appeared on the blog Congo Siasa. The views expressed are the author's own.

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

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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 UN 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, with its base in the town of Sake and operations probably beginning in the following months. But, despite the aggressive media campaign waged by Congolese militant group 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 kills ten South Africans. It doesn't matter whether we support the M23 or not, [South African President Jacob] Zuma will blame us." The brigade forms a sort of political firewall – if the M23 puts it to shame, it will draw some of the most powerful countries in the region into the conflict. 

This points to a larger dynamic, the regionalization of the conflict. Between 1998 and 2003 the Congolese war drew in eight countries and effectively split the region between 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.

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First, relations between Pretoria and Kigali have soured since the assassination attempt against Rwandan 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, South Africa's 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 Mr. Zuma is alleged to have personal interests in the oil sector in the Congo).

Just last month, both countries put final touches to a draft agreement that would give South Africa around 2,600 megawatts of power from the Inga II dam, around 6 percent 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 Congolese President Joseph Kabila granted the South African government a contract for Inga III. Zuma was then one of the first presidents to congratulate Mr. Kabila for his victory, despite rampant irregularities in the voting process.

Then, when Uganda began facilitating peace talks with the M23 rebels as chair of the ICGLR – a regional organization dedicated to stability in the Congo and its surrounds – South Africa and Angola, worried about Uganda and Rwanda's influence in the ICGLR, offered to send troops to Kinshasa's aid through the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Kabila reportedly believes that the brigade will help bring an end to the nettlesome M23 rebellion. 

Tanzania is more of a cipher – while relations between the country's president, Jakaya Kikwete, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame have been strained in the past, Tanzania, where 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. 

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