Congo: M23 Down but Not Out

A road in front of Goma airport, where the Uruguayan battalion is deployed, with Nyiragongo Volcano to the right. (Photo: Derick Wolf)

When the M23 (March 23 Movement) marched into Goma, the regional capital of North Kivu, in November 2012, it marked perhaps the lowest point in the 15-year U.N. peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo known as MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in Congo). In 2009, then-named MONUC managed to hold the city of Goma, despite the mutiny of Congolese military forces and being under siege from the CNDP (National Congress for the Defense of the People). In contrast, in 2012 U.N. forces did not fire a shot when the M23 took the city. MONUSCO calculated that a prolonged firefight in a densely civilian-populated area would have done more harm than good. One year later, in a major turn of events, the M23 surrendered after a series of military offensives lead by the FIB (Force Intervention Brigade) and FARDC (Armed Forced of the DRC). While this was a major victory for the United Nations and the Congolese government, ultimately if MONUSCO and the FIB are to be successful, they will have to defeat, disarm or negotiate the surrender of the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda).

Background on the conflict  

The original cause of the Congo wars is often obscured and over-simplified by the media who often perpetuate the myth that they were fought just over "blood minerals." Most newspaper articles refer to the Congo wars as civil wars, when they were primarily an external invasion involving nine African armies and several dozen local and foreign militia forces. Rwanda originally invaded the Congo to wipe out the Hutu militias and former members of the genocidal government and military of Rwanda. The new Rwandan army under President Paul Kagame (then vice-president and defense minister) attacked the Zairian refugee camps, killing between 150,000 and 200,000 people in an act that could possibly constitute genocide. Most of the casualties were women, children and the elderly, and many more deaths were caused by starvation and disease. The international community largely overlooked this atrocity in large part due to its failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide. In addition, the current Congolese government was also culpable. At the time, President Joseph Kabila was a rebel commander in the AFDL (Allied Democratic Forced for the Liberation of Congo/Zaire), and Kabila's father, the late Laurent Kabila, was the head of the AFDL. Following the end of the First Congo War, Rwanda and Uganda refused to leave the DRC, causing the Second Congo War, a conflict that has been estimated to cost the lives of 5 million people. While the formal war ended in 2003 with the signing of the Sun City Accords, the proxy war between the Congo and Rwanda did not really end until the defeat of M23 in 2013.     

For almost 20 years, Rwanda has had a consistent pattern of behavior. Rwanda arms proxy militia forces to act as cover for foreign interventions in the Congo. The original purpose was to protect Rwanda from the former Hutu militias that committed the actual Rwandan genocide and later became the FDLR. Over time, the reason for intervening in the Congo shifted. Rwanda first supported and helped create the AFDL, which they used to overthrow Joseph Mobutu. After the AFDL turned on Rwanda, they created the RCD (Rally for Congolese Democracy) to fight and occupy the DRC. After the war ended, when General Laurent Nkunda's CNDP forces, primarily made up of ex-RCD fighters and Congolese Tutsi's, rebelled in 2004 against the FARDC, Rwanda began supporting them as well. Ostensibly the CNDP began its rebellion in response to an FDLR massacre against Tutsis. However, if that was their objective it made little strategic sense for the CNDP to sack Bukavu other than to procure resources. In 2008, when the CNDP tried to take Goma, Rwanda sent hundreds of troops across the border posing as rebels. In 2009, a deal was brokered between Kinshasa and Kigali that permitted Rwandan military forces to enter the DRC and attack the FDLR directly. As part of the deal, General Laurent Nkunda was captured and put under house arrest in Rwanda. For a time, the proxy war temporarily stopped. The CNDP was integrated into FARDC between 2009 and 2012, but in many ways the FARDC brigades were being integrated into the CNDP. After the botched 2011 national elections, Joseph Kabila calculated that he would need to make a gesture to the international community to assuage their international opprobrium over the conduct of the elections. President Kabila decided to try to arrest General Bosco Ntaganda, who was wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed in the Ituri. Predictably, General Ntaganda did not go quietly and enacted his own rebellion from primarily former CNDP units, creating a new rebel movement, the M23.

Defeat of the M23

A combination of factors led to the defeat of M23. To begin with, the original schism between clans within the former CNDP (now the M23) was never healed. Factions loyal to Laurent Nkunda always felt betrayed by Bosco Ntaganda after he helped place Nkunda under house arrest in Rwanda. This schism within M23 most prominently manifested itself in February 2013 when M23 factions turned on one another. Col. Sultan Makenga, with the alleged support of Rwandan special forces, then ousted Bosco Ntaganda from the leadership role of the M23. The internal M23 schism resulted in several hundred deaths, and while factions loyal to Bosco rejoined M23, the movement was never the same and they lost the support of Ntaganda's financial and recruitment network. The fall of Goma was also a major catalyst that spurred the international community into action that directly led to the creation of the FIB. For years, the FIB was flouted as a concept (including by this author), but was never implemented due to a lack of political will. If MONUSCO was to have any chance of success, they would have to take on the rebels once and for all.

Another major factor was a shift in U.S. foreign policy. The Obama administration shifted its policy in 2013. The United States criticized Rwanda's support for M23 both publically and more explicitly in private by Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UNSC meeting. The United States cut military aid to Rwanda that was not earmarked for Rwandan peacekeeping missions. The Obama administration also appointed former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold to act as the U.S. Special Representative for the African Great Lakes and the DRC. Feingold strongly pushed Rwanda to stop support for M23. President Paul Kagame of course denied supporting the M23, but President Kagame's denials were as credible as President Putin's denial of sending troops to Crimea. Despite these diplomatic efforts, MONUSCO officers speaking on the condition of anonymity reported that small groups of Rwandan troops entered the DRC in August 2013. MONUSCO estimated that their numbers totaled 900 troops and brought with them a substantial ammunition and other military hardware. Without Rwandan military support, the M23 would have been easily overrun in the Kibati hills overlooking Goma, but they were able to hold out several days despite a joint MONUSCO and FARDC military offensive until they eventually retreated.

The most important factor that led to the defeat of M23 was the military component led by FARDC and FIB. Traditionally the Congolese army has one of the worst human rights records in all of Africa. FARDC units were usually comprised of units that lack basic training, pay and equipment and have at times turned to mutiny, pillage and rape. When Goma fell in 2012, President Joseph Kabila saw the writing on the wall and knew if he didn't do something to reform FARDC, his own political survival would come into question. Kabila purged from the ranks the most corrupt members of the officer corps from the eastern battalions by sending them to Kinshasa for "retraining." Once in Kinshasa, Kabila sent more competent replacements, including the recently assassinated Colonel Mamadou Ndala. As a result, when FARDC troops retook formerly rebel-occupied territory, they broke with tradition and in large part did not prey on the local populace. FARDC troops also benefited from increased logistic support, from Kinshasa, the West and the United Nations. Air superiority was another major factor. The South African contingent of FIB deployed several Rooivalk combat helicopters that also proved decisive. Kinshasa also deployed several helicopter gunships of its own to aid in military offensives.

FDLR disarmament

Following the defeat of M23, MONUSCO and FARDC received a much-needed boost in moral. By defeating the most powerful of the rebel groups, the balance of power shifted in eastern DRC. MONUSCO and FARDC were no longer forces that occasionally annoyed militias, but rather a force to be reckoned with. For the last six months, FARDC and MONUSCO have scored impressive victories over ADF-NALU and several Mia-Mai factions, most recently with the surrender of Mai-Mai Morgan. There are estimated to be more than 50 paramilitary groups in the Congo, but little by little they are being whittled away. Taking on the FDLR will be the most important factor if the military offensives are successful.

In 2003, the FDLR was estimated to have between 10,000 and 12,000 troops. Now their forces are a shadow of their former selves, with only 1,000 to 1,500 troops. Only a small percentage of FDLR forces actually participated in the Rwandan genocide, perhaps less than 5 percent. The vast majority of its members are young men, descendants of Hutu refugees and regular Congolese civilians who grew up in the Congo. They were told that if they ever returned to Rwanda they would be killed by the government. The FDLR is a bigger threat to the Congolese civilian population in the area than it is to Rwanda. There is no way the FDLR can hope to take on Rwanda's well-trained Spartan army. Diplomatically, the FDLR has recently signaled that it is open to peace talks. The United Nations should exploit this opportunity to negotiate the surrender of FDLR, offering the average fighters amnesty and a new life if they enter into the DDRRR program (Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration, Repatriation and Resettlement). Going after the FDLR may be more of a challenge than other rebel groups. In the past when they have been confronted by offensive military actions, they have simply retreated into the Congo's vast terrain and ungoverned spaces. In addition, the FDLR has rounded itself with its own dependents and the civilian population, making the differentiation between hostile forces and civilians difficult.

If the FDLR is eventually disarmed, it will also have the benefit of helping the Rwandan people politically. Presently all political dissent within Rwanda, peaceful or otherwise, is systematically stomped out by President Paul Kagame. The most common accusation is that anyone opposed to the current government is either a terrorist working for the FDLR or promoting genocide denial and hence in league with the FDLR. Paul Kagame has even accused Paul Rusesabagina, the real life hero of Hotel Rwanda, of being a terrorist member of the FDLR. Recently the government of Rwanda arrested Kizito Mihigo, a prominent Tutsi singer who promoted reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis, accusing him of planning grenade attacks with the FDLR and the RNC (Rwandan National Congress). In truth, the fact that the RNC has both Hutu and Tutsi members, including former members of Kagame's cabinet, is a greater political threat to Kagame than the FDLR. The current government is attempting to link the FDLR and RNC as one entity, even though their ideologies are incompatible. If the FDLR is removed from the equation, then the government of Rwanda loses its most important scapegoat and reason to reenter the DRC.

Waiting to strike

While the M23 has surrendered, it is not entirely certain that the M23 has been defeated. There is ample evidence to indicate that the M23 is waiting in Uganda and Rwanda to regroup and then reenter the Congo by force of arms. Some factions of the M23 have recently received amnesty. Members of the M23 in Rwanda and their families are theoretically being detained, but they are also given a degree of freedom to leave their camp. In Uganda, ex-members of M23 have even more liberties and it's not clear if they are fully disarmed. Strong anecdotal evidence indicates that many former M23 members have been recruited by President Yoweri Museveni to join Uganda's "expeditionary force" in South Sudan. For President Museveni, this kills two birds with one stone. Having between 1,500 and 2,000 primarily young, unemployed men with AK47s within your borders is an accident waiting to happen. Sending them to South Sudan gets them out of Uganda, and they can act as cannon fodder to augment Uganda's army against former Vice President Riek Machar's rebel forces. If the FDLR does not surrender and is not disarmed, it will only be a matter of time until the M23, with the backing of Kigali, regroups and reinvades the Congo. Twenty years ago the United Nations failed to prevent the Rwandan genocide, and 18 years ago the United Nations failed to disarm the former génocidaires inside the Zairian refugee camps, causing the first Congo War. In order to prevent a third Congo war, MONUSCO and FARDC must end the cause of the Congo wars once and for all: the FDLR.

Derick Wolf reported from Goma, DRC.