It may have been the most encouraging news to come out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in recent months, but not all Congolese citizens feel assured. On 05 November 2013, Kinshasa’s most notorious ‘Maï-Maï’ foe, the M23 rebel movement, declared an end to its armed insurgency, claiming it would only use “political means” to achieve its goals. As if to prove its sincerity, the M23 also called upon fellow soldiers, even those who fled across the border into Uganda, to drop their weapons and cease hostilities with the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) – also known as the Congolese Army. The UN welcomed the statement, saying the defeat would send an “intimidating message” to the dozens of other Maï-Maï – a term Congolese use to refer to militias – operating the region. International leaders also praised the move as a “first step” toward peace, while FARDC soldiers celebrated their victory in the streets. All positive developments aside, one burning question remains: how long will this peace last?
The Birth of the M23
The M23 is a self-styled protector of the DRC’s ethnic Tutsi, and a breakaway faction of the insurgent Congrès National Pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), which engaged in a series of clashes with the government in Kinshasa until signing a peace agreement on 23 March 2009. In the deal, most CNDP forces agreed to amalgamate themselves into the FARDC. However, the date of the agreement has been etched into the minds of some 300 CNDP soldiers, who labelled the accord a “sham”. For them, the agreement was doomed from the start. The administration of President Joseph Kabila promised to allow the CNDP more participation in DRC politics; it also swore to provide security to the Maï-Maï-plagued Kivu provinces by setting up a community policing system, whose ranks would be filled with former CNDP soldiers. Neither of these vows turned into real progress. Making matters worse, the 300 CNDP soldiers claimed that Kabila’s government threatened to redeploy their forces away from North Kivu, one of the regions they promised to help protect, before the agreement had even been implemented. Angered these and other failures, including the inability of Kinshasa to raise their army salaries and improve working conditions, as well as heed to their demands of ending political corruption, the 300 ex-CNDP soldiers took matters into their own hands. On 04 April 2012, the soldiers, led by General Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda, officially established a new rebellion movement: the M23. Suddenly, Kinshasa was forced to deal with yet another Maï-Maï amid a myriad of their militias which had already wreaked havoc in the restive eastern Kivu provinces.
The Ugandan Connection
More than a year after its foundation, the M23 swelled from its diminutive size of 300, to over 5,500 personnel. Armed by a seemingly endless supply of weaponry – most in the international community later blamed neighbouring Rwanda for arming the rebel group – the newly-found Maï-Maï began to engage in its fare share of wanton violence, such as rape, murder and arson, most of which occurred in close proximity to Goma. This proved disastrous, not only for the well-being of locals, but for the public image of the M23. To be sure, the M23 had proclaimed itself as a kind of ‘saviour’ to the local population, particularity the ethnic Tutsis. Its raison d’être, or so it claimed, had been to improve the livelihoods of those in the Kivu provinces. At first, it appeared to have won favour with residents, many of whom allegedly suffered violence, including rape and pillaging, at the hands of the Congolese ‘sanctioned’ military apparatus that is the FARDC. However, sympathy for the M23 soon turned to outrage, as the rebellion movement began controlling local villages and demanding that children be conscripted into their ranks.
Given this history of violence, it is understandable that not all residents in Kivu areas such as Goma, or those who have the misfortune of living near the M23’s former hideout in Bunagana, are satisfied with the rebel group’s cry for peace on 05 November 2013. Moreover, reports that a number of the M23 rebels have fled across the border into Uganda have only raised their suspicions. Like Rwanda, Uganda has been charged with fostering insurrection in the neighbouring DRC. And just like Rwanda, the Ugandan Government has consistently denied these claims. In particular, the Ugandan Government has been accused of manipulating developments in the DRC for economic purposes – namely to assert his country’s authority over the oil-rich shores of Lake Albert, the location of which lies directly in between eastern Congo and western Uganda. For Uganda, primary access to Lake Albert is significant, as it claims some 2.5 billion barrels of oil reserves at the site.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni may not be directly responsible for the M23’s prowess – indeed, he has been praised for his mediation efforts between Kinshasa and the rebel group – however, some DRC residents are not entirely convinced. Should Museveni’s administration actually be involved in some of the DRC’s security setbacks, it may have more reason to do so than to simply maintain an economic advantage. To be sure, Uganda is constantly faced with the threat of sporadic attacks from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a hard-line Islamic rebel group opposed to Kigali. Whilst its power has largely waned thanks to the superior firepower of the Uganda Peoples Defense Force (UPDF), the group has since moved its base to the eastern DRC. Moreover, it is now believed to have enlisted the help of another DRC-based Maï-Maï, the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU). Like the ADF, the NALU is opposed to Museveni’s government; and it, too, has been attracting some unsavoury militant elements, including Al Shabaab affiliates. Adding to the controversy are reports that suggest DRC President Kabila may also be playing the Maï-Maï game by supporting the ADF with weapons via Hutu paramilitary organisations. Thus, for Museveni, arming militias like M23 could be an effective short-term security strategy. The M23, comprised of mainly Tutsi fighters, is generally hostile to Hutu groups allied to President Kabila. As such, Museveni may be enticed into offering his support to those M23 forces which fled into his country’s borders, if only to prevent against further assaults from the ADF and other anti-Ugandan militias.
A Sceptical Citizenry
In addition to fears that M23 rebels seeking refuge in Uganda may wind up with more firepower from their neighbouring state, the residents of the DRC’s East are also uneasy about the M23 forces in their own country who claimed to have surrendered. For critics, the M23 only demands a cessation to bloodshed when Kinshasa has the upper hand. Indeed, the M23 has tried this tactic before. In late December 2012, merely a few weeks after the M23 promised to ‘withdrawal’ from Goma after taking the city 20 November 2012, there were already reports of the agitators regrouping along the eastern border, ready to engage in another round of deadly fighting with their government foes. At the time, DRC residents, corroborated by numerous accounts from in-country aid workers, claimed the December 2012 armistice arrangement had been doomed from the start, as thousands of fighters had begun reassembling moments after discussions ended. The resident’s fears of a resumption in violence proved all too real when the M23, once again, clashed with FARDC. The M23’s fortunes, however, would not last long. The rebel movement suffered from a series of setbacks over the next few months, thanks largely to the UN, which authorised the deployment of forces from – among other African nations – Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa. By August 2013, mere confidence from M23 that it could hold the eastern city of Goma no longer sufficed. Suddenly, Kinshasa had the UN’s artillery and air support, and the FARDC enjoyed a number of decisive victories over their rebel enemies. Fearing that Kinshasa would put an end to their movement altogether, the M23 predictably called upon the government to ‘talk’. However, like the negotiations before it, the tenuous ceasefire arrangement soon turned into assaults between the rebels and the Congolese Government. And the violence continued – that is until FARDC removed the M23 from Kibumba, located near Goma, before ultimately ridding the rebel group from its main base in Bunagana on 30 October 2013.
Whether Kinshasa will listen to the M23’s latest pleas for an end to the bloodshed remains unknown. However, history suggests the M23 may just be biding time in order to rearm and redeploy – with the assistance of neighbouring states – back to the eastern Kivu provinces. If that is the case, President Kabila’s administration may be better served ignoring the rebels, and instead capture the belligerents with international assistance. Kabila would also be better off not playing the role of the victim in the DRC bloodshed. His administration, like those in Rwanda and Uganda, has also been accused of playing the ‘Maï-Maï game’ by supporting rebellious factions that seek to overthrow the governments of the DRC’s regional neighbours. This strategy has not paid off, and only furthers the cycle of violence in his own country, a development which could see the emergence of the M23 once again. In order to rectify this, Kabila should, with the help of Ugandan Government, quash anti-Kigali forces within his own borders. This might encourage Museveni’s administration to apply more pressure to M23 refugees within Uganda. However, perhaps the best course of action for Kabila’s government is to adhere to the original accord reached with the M23 in 2009. Now that the M23 has promised to resort to “purely” political means to achieve its aims, Kinshasa could ‘call their bluff’ by turning their demands, including improved governance, democratic progression, and end and to human rights abuses, into action. Should the M23 back down from these negotiations, the blame can only be rest upon the shoulders of yet another Maï-Maï group accused of rampant violence in the Congo.