The recent break out of conflict between the DRC government and the M23 rebel group evokes memories of the same conflict in 2012/2013, when Joseph Kabila was in power. Under Kabila, the government struggled with what to do to or about the insurgent group, even as it was clear that the issue in contention was the implementation of the 23 March 2009 agreement between M23’s predecessor group, CNDP, and the government. This time is no different. It is as if history is repeating itself.
Ten years ago, it was clear that simple implementation of the agreement and related respect by the government of its commitments were what was necessary to bring about peace. The insurgents, among them remnants of CNDP, adopted the moniker M23, in April 2012 when they first took up arms against the Kabila government. Only people who were new to the affairs of post-Mobutu DRC would have been taken by surprise when M23 emerged. Seasoned observers had seen it coming.
Although the DRC government was quick to mobilise its armed forces, the FARDC against M23, in combat the group routed them, forcing them out of numerous locations in the Kivu region within a short period of time. Units of the FARDC were literally crumbling with every contact they had with the insurgents. The most significant of M23’s exploits was the capture of Goma, the capital of North Kivu, bordering the North-Western Rwandan town of Rubavu. When attacked, large numbers of FARDC troops melted into local communities, removed their uniforms, and threw away their weapons. Many fled to Uganda, leaving behind large arsenals which M23 would pick up and put to use. De facto, the FARDC was a significant supplier of war material to the insurgents.
The rapid collapse of FARDC units shook and shocked observers, but not long-time observers of the DRC and anyone who was familiar with the Congolese army and the problems, among them neglect, which have afflicted it for a long time. Interestingly, the routing also raised the question of whether it was simply M23 wreaking havoc on the FARDC, or whether the group had the support of a highly organised and lethal third force.
A quick consensus emerged among Western governments, courtesy of Western media, NGOs and sections of academia, that the Rwandan army was supporting the insurgents, not only with weapons, but also logistics, and even money. In some instances, it was alleged that units of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) were fighting alongside the rebels. Sightings of lorryfuls of RDF troops crossing the border into the DRC, apparently in broad daylight, were reported. Other reports mentioned fresh graves of soldiers reportedly killed in battle, in a cemetery in Kigali. Also, reports emerged that the insurgents were being trained at Kanombe barracks in Kigali, very close to the airport, also in broad daylight. Some of these claims came from UN experts. One of the leading experts was Steve Hege. He was later discredited because of his reported sympathies for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), but not before the accusations, even the really outlandish ones, had stuck, having been recycled endlessly by media across the world.
The accusations against Rwanda served the then DRC government well. According to close watchers, including DRC-based analysts, its military and intelligence services were cleverly amplifying claims by NGOs and human rights groups and feeding false information to their political leadership in Kinshasa, willing journalists, and local and international activists. Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, not known for giving the Government of Rwanda any benefit of doubt, helped further amplify the accusations. They did not stop there. In one instance a Human Rights Watch staffer in Kigali was identified as helping smuggle some people, including a young police officer, into a neighbouring country. Once outside Rwanda, they claimed they had fled from attempts by the government to conscript them into M23. They were looking to apply for political asylum in third (Western) countries. De facto, M23 had opened up an opportunity for some individuals to try and secure visas to Europe and the Americas.
Inside Rwanda itself, pressure began to mount on the government from Western embassies to, among other things, cease its alleged support for the insurgents. The OECD group coalesced easily around common, if not necessarily flawless assessments of the situation, and went on to try and co-opt multi-lateral aid and development organisations into their thinking. This was in order for the “international community” to come up with a common position.
Meanwhile inside the DRC, from the Kivu region to Kinshasa, popular opinion about Rwanda and Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese had soured considerably. Congolese Kinyarwanda speakers, wrongly but deliberately labelled “Rwandans”, even by people who should have known better, came under both psychological and physical attack. Some were uprooted from their homes and farmland. Others were killed, and thousands forced to flee into neighbouring countries and beyond.
On the battle front, the UN’s supposed peace-keeping outfit, MONUSCO, availed its forces to assist the FARDC in combatting M23. Immediately, questions arose about why it had never – and up to now has not – shown the same kind of resolve, even zeal, against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the insurgent group that seeks to overturn the current political dispensation in Rwanda and which the government of Rwanda says collaborates with units of the FARDC in parts of North Kivu.
Eventually, the insurgents were forced to leave Congo by the deployment of the multi-national Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), led by elements of the South African National Defence Forces (SANDF). Having decided to live and fight another day, they split into two groups, one literally melting into Uganda, the other into Rwanda where they sought sanctuary and were interned in cantonments until further notice.
At regional and international levels, before the rebellion collapsed, frenetic efforts were made to threaten M23 into ceasing hostilities. According to sources close to the group’s top leadership at the time, although alleged to have been their puppet master, Rwanda sought very early on to dissociate itself from M23 and its activities. Apparently, it was the intransigence of the DRC government with regard to implementing the March 23 Agreement and, crucially, the former’s decision to cooperate with the FDLR that rendered the dissociation difficult. Within the region, alongside pressure on the rebels to cease hostilities, efforts were made to push or pull the Kabila government into negotiations with them. At the centre of these efforts was President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who was later joined by former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, acting under the auspices of the ICGLR and the AU. The efforts also produced meagre results. Meanwhile, plans by the AU and the ICGLR to organise troops to go into the DRC to help neutralise insurgent groups, among them M23, presumably, also fell flat. One important reason the efforts failed was lack of resources. And then the FIB came and forced the rebels out of DRC.
On the surface, it appeared as if the worst of the crisis was over. But no one who has been alert to events in the DRC for the last 2 decades could have been fooled. Sure enough, earlier this year, the rebellion flared up again, and again for the same reasons as previously. It is important to point out that the current rebellion was started by the group that fled to Uganda in 2013. Sometime in 2016, feeling that their issues could be forgotten, they started returning to DRC, following their leader, Sultani Makenga, who set up base in the Virunga mountains.
Since their return to war, following the refusal by the Tshisekedi government to implement the March 23 Agreement, despite months of engagement, the story of 2012/2013 is literally being reproduced. On the war front, the FARDC is once again being routed in the same way it was being routed a decade ago. During this past decade the Congolese government has done little to build a credible military that is capable of ensuring security throughout its entire territory. Although the international community has responded more cautiously both in terms of condemning M23 and accusing Rwanda of fanning the war, Western NGOs, media, and sections of academia are producing the same script: it is all the fault of Rwanda which they are again accusing of equipping M23 and sending troops into the DRC to fight alongside them. In many cases, very little effort is made to analyse what is at the root of the conflict, except to claim, in some instances, that it is all about Congo’s wealth which its neighbours, using “proxies” such as M23, want to get their hands on. In other words, we are back to where the story ended in 2013. What lessons were learnt from the previous crisis which may inform how to deal with the new flare-up? This will be the subject of another article, to follow shortly.