Rebels of the M23 group declared the end of insurgency in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo following government announcement of military victory. The M23 move generated a wave of hope for Congolese people and the international community that finally this troubled country could achieve peace at last. However, it also received cautious reception given especially past examples and the complexity of the issues that surround Congolese politics.
M23 in a statement said that it was ceasing any military activity and pursuing its goals by political means, also urging the remaining fighters to disarm and demobilise. The move followed government offensive that since October was targeting the rebel bases. Although it may look like a purely military operation result, the end of hostilities was part of a more structured plan devised by the involved parties in months of negotiations. The latest agreement signed by African leaders in Pretoria invited the M23 rebels to make public their intentions to depose arms to allow the Congolese government to draft its peace plan for demobilisation and reintegration. Therefore this announcement shows that M23 rebels are complying with the summit resolution.
The summit nonetheless opened some questions on the real impact and role of other regional powers; while Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni was present at the summit, the absence of his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, was quite visible, although represented by his foreign minister. Rwanda has been accused openly by DRC and UN of supplying M23 with arms and money.
The Congolese army declared that many rebel forces have been disarmed, captured or surrendered, with some fleeing across the borders with Uganda and Rwanda. It also announced that those who will not disarm will be crushed by force. The military breakthrough started in October when the Congolese army stepped up its offensive against the rebels, with the support of tanks and helicopters from a UN intervention brigade. At least 800,000 people have fled their homes since the M23 took up arms in 2012 but several other armed groups still operate in the mineral-rich eastern DR Congo.
The defeat of M23 if on one side opens a new scenario, on the other it also leave to the government a difficult task in dealing with insurgencies. The government is aware that this victory will not solve all problems and that there is still possibility that those who escaped can resort to hit-and-run operations. The government nonetheless is making the most of its positive moment by threatening the other rebel groups, inviting them to surrender or to be suppressed by force. The main threat for Kinshasa is represented by the Rwandan Hutu Forces Démocratiques deLlibération du Rwanda (FDLR) militias which have been the real centre piece in this puzzle that is DRC conflict. Rwanda has always justified its intervention, or backing of armed rebels, because of the connivance or incapacity of the DRC government to destroy FDLR forces.
M23 origins and Rwanda’s links
The M23 has been the most active group since April 2012 and posed serious threats to DRC stability. Made up of ethnic Tutsi, like Rwanda’s leaders, has often been speculated that it was supported militarily and financially by Kigali’s government, although Rwanda rejected these claims. The origins can be traced from the action related to the forces of General Laurent Nkunda who, accusing the Congolese government of not doing enough to destroy FDLR Hutu militia, decided to challenge both openly, arriving to clash even against the UN forces. The Congolese government accused Rwanda of backing Gen. Nkunda, who arrived to threaten the capital of North Kivu, Goma, in 2009. Nevertheless, in the same year, a deal was reached by DRC and Rwanda to fight against FDLR and disarm the Tutsi rebels of general Nkunda; as part of the deal, Gen. Nkunda was taken out of the country and put under house arrest in Rwanda, where he remains.
However, it soon appeared clear that Congolese government troops, backed by thousands of UN peacekeepers, have failed to defeat the FDLR rebels. Reports of mass rapes, killings and other atrocities committed by rebels and government troops continued to alarm Rwanda. The deal between DR Congo and Rwanda inevitably collapsed, and a new group, the M23, largely made up of former Nkunda loyalists, started military operations in eastern DR Congo in 2012. The DR Congo government has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing the M23. The group was initially said to have been led by Bosco “Terminator” Ntaganda, but earlier this year, after heavy fighting broke out between rebel factions of the M23 he fled to the US embassy in Rwanda. The former Congolese army general then surrendered to the International Criminal Court to face trial in The Hague on war crimes charges. A UN panel investigating the conflict says M23 leaders “receive direct military orders” from Rwanda’s chief of defence staff, Gen Charles Kayonga, “who in turn acts on instructions from the minister of defence”, Gen James Kabarebe. It also says that Kigali has supplied the M23 with heavy weapons and recruitment, all allegations that President Paul Kagame has strongly denied.
Rwanda’s involvement in DRC conflict is not new and not even the only one as the history of this giant teach; however it is without doubt that its influence is the key to unlock the conflict and bring stability.
A History of Foreign Interference, Interventions and Plunder
DR Congo is the second biggest country in Africa for extension and extremely rich in natural resources: diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, zinc, it supplies coltan, which is used in mobile phones and other electronic gadgets, and cassiterite, used in food packaging. This double extraordinary dimension has been paradoxically the reason of its misfortune: vast resources attracted exploiters, unscrupulous companies, foreign powers, warlords and rebels; on the other the vast geographical dimension has incorporated a mosaic of ethnic groups that although had lived in the areas for centuries have been soon exploited for political means in proxy wars and ethnic clashes. On the centre of this puzzle sit the Congolese government that since independence has been characterised by widespread corruption, inability of managing the vast resources, to bring unity and to abandon its population.
In the early 20th Century, Congo was conquered by Belgian forces with King Leopold ruling the country as it was personal property. One of the most brutal and retrograde colonialism took form until a struggle for independence eventually achieved its goal in 1960. Patrice Lumumba was appointed prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu president. However, the peace was short lived as Lumumba, accused to be a communist and to steer the country towards socialism, was dismissed by president Kasavubu, while sections of the army mutinied and Moise Tshombe declared the independence of the mining rich Katanga region. Belgian troops were sent in to protect Belgian citizens and mining interests while UN Security Council, although voting to send in troops to help establish order was unable to act as troops were not allowed to intervene in internal affairs. Following the arrest and the murder of Lumumba in 1961, reportedly with US and Belgian complicity, UN troops finally intervened to disarm Katangese soldiers. Only in 1963 Tshombe agrees to end Katanga’s secession and in 1964 President Kasavubu appointed Tshombe prime minister as part of a reconciliation plan.
The re-achieved unity in reality did not comfort external powers, still worried of a weak country that could easily become a fertile terrain for Soviet backed operation or Marxist guerrilla fighters, as demonstrated by Che Guevara’s attempt in 1965. In this optic Mobutu’s rise to power corresponded to the logic of the Cold War to appease a brutal and questionable ruler, but effective in being a bastion against communism. Joseph Mobutu seized power in 1965, crushing internal rebellions, unifying the nation and renaming the country Zaire and himself Mobutu Sese Seko, Katanga became Shaba and the river Congo became the River Zaire. Mobutu’s Zaire was, along with the white minority rule states of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, a stronghold in counterattacking the Marxist liberation movements of MPLA in Angola, FRELIMO in Mozambique, ANC in South Africa and SWAPO in Namibia, while supporting the rivals UNITA and RENAMO, as well as obtaining US and Chinese support in anti-Soviet stance. Mobutu unchallenged power started to crumble in front of the crescent economic problems, but especially after 1990 due to the changed international scenario following the end of the Cold War. In 1993 rival pro and anti-Mobutu governments were created, but it will be 1994 the crucial year for the modern history of Congo-Zaire.
After Rwanda’s genocidal Hutu regime was overthrown, more than two million Hutus are thought to have fled into DR Congo fearing reprisals against them by the new Tutsi-dominated government. Among them were many responsible for the genocide. They quickly allied themselves with Mobutu’s government and began to attack DR Congo’s population of ethnic Tutsis. Rwanda’s Tutsi government started to back rival militias, fighting both the Hutu militias and pro Mobutu Congolese government troops. In May 1997 Tutsi and other anti-Mobutu rebels, aided principally by Rwanda, captured the capital, Kinshasa, and Zaire is renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo with Laurent-Desire Kabila installed as president. But Kabila failed to expel the Hutu militia, as Rwanda was hoping, and Kigali organised a punitive measure to oust the president.
In August 1998 rebels, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, rose up against Kabila and advanced on Kinshasa after capturing much of east DR Congo. Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola sent troops to repel them and assist Kabila. The war, that will last five years, has been named the First World African War. During the five years’ war, President Kabila is assassinated by a bodyguard in January 2001, and succeeded by his son Joseph. The UN Security Council authorised a 5,500 strong UN force to monitor a ceasefire signed in 1999 in Lusaka, but fighting continued between rebels, once former allies, Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) supported by Uganda and Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) backed by Rwanda, between rebels and government forces, and between Rwandan and Ugandan forces. Only in 2003 the war ended when the last Ugandan troops left DRC. The peace deal signed in South Africa between the Kinshasa government and main rebel groups gave to their commanders and opposition members portfolios in an interim government.
After the war, DRC struggled to find peace, threatened by continuous military rebellions and rebels attacks. In 2004 and 2011 reported coups failed in Kinshasa, while in the east fighting between the Congolese army and renegade soldiers from a former pro-Rwanda rebel group started evolving in the birth of the M23 rebellion.
The DRC Puzzle: Internal Deficiencies and External Influences
Congolese army victory can find explanations on both military and political basis. The army after the embarrassing Goma’s defeat by M23 rebels, was reorganised by Kabila in an attempt to bring discipline and organisation to a fighting force that has always been identified with poor training, corruption and disorganisation. The army has often been accused of atrocities not less serious than the ones committed by rebel groups, undermined by mutinies and rebellions based on ethnic lines or money allegiances. Kabila’s efforts seems to have brought some fruits as no abuses have been reported in the recent campaign and valuable, if not decisive, was the support from the UN forces. However, now that victory has been achieved over the M23 rebels, the question mark is whether DRC will be able to crush the other groups that still operate in eastern Congo. The government lacks founds, equipment and resources to ensure a bright future without selling out its rich materials to the next “friend”. The UN assistance shows that the Congolese army desperately needs support from a well-trained force, and that its presence represents also the best control over abuses committed by Congolese soldiers. Kabila will need to ensure therefore that the army not only will be equipped but also disciplined to avoid that human rights abuses can offer any further reason for external interventions. Beside the purely military operations, Kabila will need to strengthen his political weight and strategy; in the past we assisted to rebellions being crushed and followed by general amnesties that lead to rebel commanders reorganising their armies or planning coup d’états. Kabila will need to balance government’s response as to ensure that rebels should be protected when they had disarmed, but those guilty of serious crimes should not be given an amnesty. In this optic it is crucial the cooperation of the Congolese government with the International Criminal Court as a mean of legitimization and justice towards the victims of warlords.
The UN forces shared with the Congolese government the shame of leaving Goma without defences, powerless in assisting crimes and violations not only by M23, but with a long history of overlooks in the years of instability of DRC. The UN peacekeeping mission has been in DR Congo since 1999, at the time of the First World African War, and it is one of the biggest peacekeeping operations in the world, with almost 20,000 personnel on the ground. Its mandate is to protect civilians, help with the reconstruction of the country, assist the democratic process in organising elections and has launched military operations against various rebel groups. Nevertheless, UN has been accused of inability in containing the violence and protect civilians from human rights abuses. In 2009 a report by UN-commissioned experts acknowledge these accusations, with rebels continuing to kill and plunder natural resources with impunity, supported by criminal organisations in Africa, Western Europe and North America. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the UN of becoming complicit in atrocities against civilians citing the example of August 2010, when the UN force was accused of not doing enough to stop the rape of more than 150 women and children within miles of their base near Luvungi. To reflect a change on its status, the UN force changed its name from the UN Organisation Mission in DR Congo, known as MONUC, to the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission, MONUSCO. This led the UN forces to back actively the Congolese army with tanks and helicopters in attacking rebel bases as well as increasing operations of surveillance. It is expected that the UN mission will soon have drones that will offer better insight into rebel movements and arms supplies.
Along military and logistic advantages, the Congolese government knows that its rich resources make DRC the centre of appetites from different countries, African and non. Rwanda and Uganda have been identified as the two major players in this saga. UN investigators and Congolese officials have accused Rwanda and Uganda of supporting the M23 and other rebel groups. Both governments deny the allegations. Both countries have helped the rebellion that ultimately led to Mobutu’s regime collapse, but soon after, although for different reasons, they turned against Kinshasa.
Uganda has been often accused of supporting rebels to achieve resources and control east Congo, sometimes taking as justification actions to chase Lord’s Resistance Army rebels seeking refuge across the border with DRC. Uganda for example was the last country to leave DRC following the peace plan after the five years war in 2003; nevertheless the mood seems to have changed in recent years following Kampala’s offer in hosting talks between Kinshasa and the M23 as well as joint military operations to destroy LRA rebel bases in Congo.
But if Uganda seems to be a problem on a way to solution, it is the small Rwandan Tutsi government that rise concerns, being the most powerful and directly interested in DRC dynamics. Like Uganda, Rwanda has supported the overthrow of Mobutu, mostly for chasing the remnants of Hutu militias responsible for genocide. Kigali strategy was to install a friendly government in Kinshasa to block and wipe out the Hutu army known as FDLR. Since the war in 1998, this has been the main reason advocated by Rwanda for any direct military intervention or indirect backing of Tutsi rebellions in DRC to undermine and pressure Kinshasa government for a more effective stance against Hutu rebels. The M23, for example, has been widely speculated to be financed and armed by Rwanda and, although Kigali denies, UN, DRC and International Criminal Court acknowledge this involvement. But a question arises, why then M23 have been defeated in such short time if they enjoyed this support? Having considered the military operations led by DRC and UN, it is without doubt that Kigali stepped down its supports to the group. On one side this has always been part of Rwanda’s strategy: alternating strong pressure on DRC and offer assistance to ease rebellions. Often this overture has played a twofold strategy: a propaganda measure to distance Kigali’s government from the international outcry for supporting barbarous warlords and also to blackmail Kinshasa in acting more decisively against FDLR. Taking into account the above, still there is another reason that led to Rwanda’s change towards M23 rebels: US role. In the past US military gave greater support to Paul Kagame regime, especially when Kabila during the war in 1998-2003 called in troops from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, all countries that had no friendly relations with Washington during their independence struggle and clashed against white minority rule governments. However, in recent years the US have changed policy: they are seeking to cultivate relations with Angola; Zimbabwe seems to have been abandoned from their agenda, as Mugabe is more interested in staying attached to his power rather than pursue military adventures; international pressure versus Tutsi militias made difficult to justify Rwanda backing now that collusion and support have been uncovered. The US has since withdrawn that military support, accusing Kigali of backing the M23 rebels, believed to use child soldiers and being responsible for atrocities.
Ultimately it is clear that if Kabila and DR Congo wish to bring to an end this long history of blood, the moment could not have been more favourable. Nevertheless, the Congolese government will need to act decisively in sorting its armed forces to transform them in a loyal and reliable force. The task is not easy for a country destroyed by years of conflicts, and in a continent where it is not unusual to see armies defecting or rebelling. DRC share the common malaise of governments being “hostages” of their own armies, and similarity can be seen with another giant, Nigeria. Both countries have an ethnic and religious diversity that often has been source of conflict and clashes manipulated by politicians or military sectors. However, Nigeria has a strong military apparatus that maintained a sort of unity along the years, preferring to occupy the political scene by coups and accusing politicians to be destroyer of the harmony and peaceful coexistence between tribes. DR Congo instead appears on the other side of the spectrum, with on one hand an army incapable of loyalty and constantly split by the whims of unsatisfied commanders and on the other with a central government powerless in controlling the territory. Kinshasa will need in addition to sort the other rebel groups, starting from the FDLR, as the only way to pacify the country, and eliminate any interference from Rwanda and other neighbouring countries. It is this double dimension, government-military relation and internal security that could unlock the situation; however, until now it has been like the dog who bites its tail.