A new rebellion in eastern DRC
In March 2012, a group of disgruntled ex-soldiers formed a new rebel group including remnant of Laurent Nkunda’s now defunct National Council for the Protection of the People (CNDP) and called it the March 23 Movement or M23, thus adding yet another layer to an already complicated conflict complex in eastern DRC. This began as a mere mutiny against inhumane treatment of what we have known to be dispirited, poorly paid and battle-fatigued soldiers by their officers. It became a rebel movement after the mutineers insisted on the full implementation of the 2009 peace accord, which was intended to end a devastating insurgency by the CNDP in the eastern DRC. As was the case with the CNDP, the Congolese government and some international actors accuse Rwanda of sponsoring this new round of rebellion, which the Rwandan government has vehemently denied, arguing that its only interest in the troubled region is to bring about peace and stability. This piece provides a preliminary assessment of the new spark of conflict in a region already infested with many armed groups involved in low-intensity conflict and the role of Rwanda.
A complicated theatre of conflict
The M23 rebellion is part of what has become a common trend in resource-rich eastern DRC where armed groups mushroom out of either defections of the badly-organised DRC army or emerge out of group rivalries in this war zone. The last terrible rebellion involved the CNDP, which was formed in 2007 by Laurent Nkunda, a former general in the Congolese army who also was associated with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)’s efforts to contain the Rwandan genocide. This led to suspicions that the CNDP like a number of its predecessors was a creation of the Rwandan government to be used as a proxy in the battle to control natural resources and to protect the Banyamulenge, who are Congolese Tutsis of Rwandan origin residing in the Kivus. The rebellion ended when Rwanda arrested Nkunda in 2009 and his successor, Bosco Ntaganda, signed a peace accord with the Congolese government which saw CNDP fighters integrated into the Congolese army. But given the poor state of affairs in this army, the integration was never successful in minimising underlying tensions that had caused soldiers to defect in the first place.
As a result, the integrated fighters maintained a parallel chain of command within the army and they resisted being relocated from their stronghold in the Kivus, where Ntanganda, in particular, is believed to have built a considerable empire, supported by the illegal exploitation of minerals and incessant human rights abuses. Even though Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of recruiting and using child soldiers during an earlier rebellion, suspected close ties with top officials in the Congolese government have, until now, assured him and his followers of tacit protection from the authorities. In this sense, President Kabila’s recent call for Ntaganda’s arrest is seen as an attempt on his part to win international legitimacy after he won the disputed 2011 elections.
In addition to exposing the tenuous nature of peace agreements and security arrangements in the eastern DRC, the M23 rebellion has focused attention on Rwanda’s role in the region generally and in the DRC conflict, in particular. It is not just the Congolese government that has accused Rwanda of backing Ntaganda and the M23, MONUSCO and Human Rights Watch, have issued statement accusing Rwanda of supplying rebels with weapons and fighters, while also providing safe passage for Ntaganda and his forces in and out of Rwanda. A leaked report by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC also alleges that top officials in the Rwandan government and military, including the Defence Minister, Chief of Defence Staff and the military adviser to President Kagame, have been in constant contact with Ntaganda and the M23.
The Rwandan government has strongly denied these accusations, with Kagame and his foreign minister making their own counter-accusations that the Congolese government and the international community are trying to make Rwanda the scapegoat for their failures to decisively deal with the DRC’s security problems. They have trumpeted their efforts at making peace with their Congolese counterparts in the past few years, while also accommodating thousands of Congolese refugees that have fled the fighting, to demonstrate that Rwanda is actually contributing to building stability in this unstable conflict zone. On their part, the M23 have denied that they are proxies of Rwanda, notwithstanding the historical relationship between Rwandan officials and M23 rebels.
However, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence building up to suggest that Rwanda may not be as innocent as they want everybody to believe. First, it is a fact that Rwanda shares the concerns of these fighters about alleged persecution and marginalisation of ethnic Tutsi refugees in eastern DRC. Secondly, key elements of M23 are actually former operatives of the CNDP, which was known to have close links with Rwanda where its leaders is said to have been arrested. Thirdly, Rwanda has not hidden its interest in neutralising the ex-FDLR rebels that are based in eastern DRC and suspected to be plotting against Rwanda and, partly for this reason, Rwanda has got involved in the conflict theatre before. Fourthly, Rwanda’s commitment to protect the Banyamulenge is seen as critical to the making of the new Rwanda and it is something Rwanda is willing to go to war for. Fifthly, land-locked and resource-poor Rwanda needs access to the natural resources of eastern DRC to fuel its economic stability and growing consumer culture and, hence, Rwanda has been fingered in the illegal exploitation of the DRC’s natural resources. This entrenched interest in the DRC gives Rwanda a strong incentive to want to continue influencing developments in the country.
In fact, the leaders of the CNDP who now lead the M23 rebellion, notably General Ntaganda, had been given influential positions in the Congolese army as a gesture to appease Rwanda at the time when Kinshasa and Kigali were patching their bilateral relations. However, this, as some have suggested, was seen by Rwanda as an opportunity to extend its influence west of the Kivu provinces. The re-organization of FARDC, including the dismantling of the parallel chain of command maintained by ex-CNDP fighters in the army and the relocation of the latter outside the Kivus would undermine Rwanda’s influence and interest in the resource-rich area. From this perspective, the political solution to the rebellion that is suggested by Rwanda, with its emphasis on the full implementation of the 2009 accord, could be interpreted as an attempt to secure its influence in the Kivus rather than a genuine concern for peace and stability in the region.
A much more constructive and credible way for Rwanda to demonstrate its commitment to peace and stability in the region is to lend support to the efforts of the Congolese government in re-organising FARDC in order to instil discipline in its ranks and strengthen its operational capacity. This would require Kigali to, among other things; use its influence over the ex-CNDP fighters in the army to promote their re-location from the Kivus to other parts of the country. President Kagame and his government could also demonstrate their sincerity to peace in eastern DRC by cooperating with the Congolese government and the international community in apprehending and subjecting to prosecution recalcitrant elements like Bosco Ntaganda and Laurent Nkunda. But it is the responsibility of the DRC to demonstrate political will to stabilise its eastern provinces and remove conditions that have entice Rwanda into this no-man’s land.
Ms Mhlanga holds a BA Hons in Politics from the University of Limpopo and is a NRF research assistant at the IGD. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.