More than 170,000 people have escaped their homes in the past four months in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo amid an offensive by a previously dormant armed group that has reignited regional tensions between Great Lakes states.
For several months, the M23 rebel group has fought Congolese troops in North Kivu province. UN experts say its sights are set on Goma – a major city of nearly two million people – though the group has offered ceasefires and called for talks too.
Kinshasa accuses Rwanda of backing the regrouped rebels – just as UN investigators did in a previous M23 insurgency a decade ago – though Kigali denies involvement. The two countries agreed to reduce tensions yesterday following talks mediated by Angola.
Anne Sylvie Linder, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross sub-delegation in Goma, said the fighting has resulted in “a serious humanitarian crisis” that aid groups have been struggling to respond to due to insecurity.
Though some displaced people have returned home following pauses in combat, they “move again each time the fighting renews”, Linder told The New Humanitarian during a telephone interview early last month.
The M23 insurgency adds to a long list of security troubles in eastern DRC, where more than 100 armed groups are active. Conflict has displaced 700,000 people this year, while over 5.5 million are displaced overall – the third highest figure in the world in 2021.
President Félix Tshisekedi, in power since January 2019, has tried to address insecurity through different military initiatives in the east. He has imposed martial law; allowed Ugandan troops into the region; and approved the deployment of an East African force.
Non-military measures have been developed too. Recent peace talks with armed groups were held in Kenya, while plans to disarm and help fighters back into civilian life are in the works. Tshisekedi has also been involved in regional diplomacy.
Yet analysts, local officials, and civil society leaders from different parts of North Kivu and neighbouring Ituri province told The New Humanitarian there has been little positive change during Tshisekedi’s tenure, which will be judged in polls next year.
On top of the M23 crisis, many cited attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – a Ugandan militant group that has pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State – and the CODECO militia, which has killed dozens of people in recent months alone.
“When we instituted martial law, we had hoped that this time we would overcome the militiamen,” said Tembos Yotama, a national parliament representative from Butembo, a town in North Kivu. “[But] we never recorded attacks of such intensity before [the decree].”
This briefing looks at the new M23 rebellion, details developments with other armed groups in the region, and analyses the different measures Tshisekedi has taken to try and reduce violence since taking office.
Who are M23 and why are they back?
Named after a failed peace deal signed on 23 March 2009, the M23 is descended from a line of Congolese rebel groups that chart a course back to the 1990s, when genocide in neighbouring Rwanda spilled over the border, triggering regional conflicts in DRC.
The group led the last major rebellion in the east back in 2012. It seized chunks of North Kivu, including Goma, before government troops and UN peacekeepers forced its fighters into Rwanda and Uganda, which were both accused of supporting the rebels.
A pact between Kinshasa and the M23 was inked in late 2013, but little of it came to fruition. Demobilising and offering amnesty to fighters would have gone down badly with a Congolese public largely hostile to the rebels.
Elements of the group returned to DRC in late 2016 though fresh clashes weren’t reported until last November. Recent battles saw the group – which UN experts say has several hundred fighters – reach Goma’s outskirts and capture the border town of Bunagana.
“When a new DDR programme was announced, it was an opportunity for the M23 to push their agenda.”
Though the timing of the current escalation is unclear, analysts believe the M23 is trying to force negotiations with the government – especially as a new disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programme is being rolled out for rebel groups.
“When a new DDR programme was announced, it was an opportunity for the M23 to push their agenda,” said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group (CRG) at New York University.
Stearns said there’s “no certainty” Rwanda is backing the M23, but that the group’s firepower – which includes long-range weapons, according to the UN – and reports from the ground, “suggest that it’s very likely”.
Josaphat Musamba, a Congolese researcher and PhD student at Ghent University in Belgium, said “it is clear that there is support” behind the M23, citing the fact the rebels reappeared in DRC after having been cantoned outside the country.
Rwanda could be backing the M23 to bolster its influence in its mineral-rich neighbour. Other regional states, including Burundi and Uganda, have deployed troops to eastern DRC in recent months with Kinshasa’s authorisation, leaving Kigali feeling marginalised.
Rwanda has a long history of intervening in DRC. It backed rebellions and sent troops across the border in search of the Hutu militias that carried out the 1994 genocide of Tutsis. These wars killed millions of people in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Still, Kigali denies having a hand in the current violence and has accused DRC of firing rockets into its territory. It also claims the Congolese military is collaborating with the FDLR, an armed group that traces its roots back to Rwanda’s Hutu genocidaires.
Analysts say the M23 should not be understood solely as a Rwandan pawn. The group, and its antecedents, have all been led by Tutsi officers, whose mobilising power draws on the discrimination North Kivu’s Tutsis have faced due to their Rwandan roots.
Rwandans and Congolese of Rwandan descent have, meanwhile, faced a backlash since the M23 crisis restarted. Videos on social media show machete-wielding men searching for them, while politicians and diaspora voices have spread hate speech.
Where are the other major conflict spots?
The M23’s foreign links – and abuses its fighters committed a decade ago – help explain the media attention and public criticism it has received. But many other armed groups also pose a serious threat to civilians in eastern DRC.
To address that threat, Tshisekedi has placed North Kivu and Ituri under martial law since May 2021. The measure gives military officials the power to ban public assemblies, prohibit movement in certain places, and search people without court orders.
“Generals who should be concentrating on military operations are dealing with matters outside their competence and for which they were not prepared.”
Rights groups say military rule has been used to curtail a whole range of civil liberties, while residents say it has negatively affected the way their local administrations are run.
“Generals who should be concentrating on military operations are dealing with matters outside their competence and for which they were not prepared,” said Stewart Muhindo an activist with LUCHA, a civil society group campaigning for political reform in DRC.
Civilian deaths have also more than doubled in the past year, according to the UN, leading many to question the value of the initiative.
“Martial law is a bad solution to a very real problem,” said Espoir Ngalukiye, who is also part of LUCHA. “It was done for political reasons, but no armed group has put down their weapons since.”
One of the deadliest groups in eastern DRC is the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo, or CODECO, which claims to represent the interests of Ituri’s Lendu community.
CODECO factions are notorious for targeting civilians – especially from the Hema group. Fighters killed at least 60 people at a displacement camp in February, and dozens more at a gold mine in May. Some 1.7 million people are displaced in Ituri overall.
Another group that regularly menaces civilians is the ADF. The rebel movement has origins in Uganda – where it fought the government of Yoweri Museveni – but moved over into DRC in the 1990s.
The ADF has IS links, though UN investigators haven’t found evidence of its operations being controlled by the global militant group. Experts fear overstating the ties could lead to an ineffective war-on-terror response that overlooks ADF’s local characteristics.
After ADF was blamed for deadly suicide bombings in Uganda in November, Tshisekedi allowed the Ugandan army to conduct a military campaign against the group in North Kivu and Ituri.
“While we thought that we’d overcome the ADF in just a few weeks, we’ve rather found that the areas of violence have spread.”
“While we thought that we’d overcome the ADF in just a few weeks, we’ve rather found that the areas of violence have spread,” said John Musombolwa, a lawyer for a civil society group in Mambasa, which is in Ituri and has been affected by ADF attacks.
Analysts say combating the ADF may not be the primary goal of Kampala’s intervention. More important are economic factors such as securing Ugandan oil fields and a road project constructing new trade routes into DRC – a valuable export market for Uganda.
The trade plans and military pact appear to have rankled Rwanda and contributed to the M23 crisis. “Kigali saw this operation as a threat,” said the CRG’s Stearns. “There’s a deep distrust between Uganda and Rwanda.”
Military operations in eastern DRC by neighbouring Burundi may also have deepened Rwanda’s sense of isolation, even if ties between Kigali and its southern neighbour have improved since the death of former Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza.
In December, hundreds of Burundian troops reportedly crossed into DRC’s South Kivu province in a clandestine operation designed to combat the RED-Tabara rebel group, which opposes the government in Bujumbura.
The presence of RED-Tabara and other Burundian and Rwandan armed groups in South Kivu has aggravated various complex conflicts there in recent years. As is the case across eastern DRC, civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence.
Can peace talks and a regional force stem violence?
Despite the failure of military operations, Tshisekedi has approved the deployment of an East African military force. The decision was taken shortly after DRC joined the East African Community, a regional trade bloc, in March.
It is unclear when the force will become operational, however, and how it will fit in with existing interventions. Inviting more foreign soldiers into eastern DRC has also raised fears of a free-for-all of the kind seen during wars of the past.
Edgar Mateso, a civil society leader from North Kivu, said he was concerned about “aggressor countries” operating in DRC and argued that foreign interventions had proven unsuccessful over the years.
“For decades, we have known several international forces deployed in Congo in the context of peacekeeping operations,” Mateso told The New Humanitarian. “[Yet] nothing has changed on the ground. What we need is a national solution.”
Away from military operations, DRC has launched talks with rebel groups. A first round of discussions was held in April in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, though foreign rebel movements like the ADF and dangerous local militias like CODECO were absent.
“Gathering warlords around the table, and giving them a per diem, won’t solve the deepest problems.”
Onesphore Sematumba, a researcher with the International Crisis Group, described the talks as a “complete improvisation” in which “nothing was planned”. He said if negotiations restart then there should be a clear agenda.
“To open a real conversation about insecurity in the east, civil society, traditional leaders, members of displaced communities, will also have to be involved,” Sematumba said. “Gathering warlords around the table, and giving them a per diem, won’t solve the deepest problems.”
Muhindo of LUCHA said peace talks shouldn’t result in rebels getting a free pass for crimes they’ve committed. Had M23 fighters been punished for abuses a decade ago, “there would not be a resurgence in 2022”, Muhindo argued.
“Of course, we need dialogue, but a dialogue that will not sacrifice justice,” the activist said. “Until now, all the dialogues in Congo seem to consecrate the impunity of militiamen by granting them a general amnesty or integration into the army.”
What are the plans for disarming fighters?
Plans to disarm rebels are also moving forward after several years without a national initiative in place. A strategy for the new Disarmament, Demobilisation, Community Recovery and Stabilisation programme, or PDDRCS, was adopted in March.
The scheme aims to correct some of the mistakes of past DDR initiatives, which struggled to address the political factors driving armed group mobilisation and failed to prevent fighters from rejoining rebel movements.
This time around, decision-making powers are supposed to be decentralised to local authorities and communities that have been victims of armed groups and are expected to receive demobilised fighters.
Still, there is scepticism about the programme. The nomination of Tommy Tambwe – a former rebel and controversial figure in the DRC security landscape – as a coordinator has triggered criticism from rights groups and angered some armed group leaders.
Another sticking point is army integration. Kinshasa has said this will only be possible on an individual basis, and that the wholesale integration of entire rebel groups – a feature of past DDR campaigns – will be avoided this time.
This policy may help break cycles of impunity and mean fewer incentives for rebels to pick up weapons in the future. Yet joining the military remains a key motivation for many armed groups in the country.
“Some are ready to go back to civilian life, but others want to be integrated in the army or the police,” said Musamba, the researcher. “But [the government] can’t reward rebel fighters with promotions.”
Kinshasa will also need to convince rebels to trust its promises of assistance. That may be hard to do after recent let-downs: Thousands of combatants surrendered after Tshisekedi took office, but they received no support and many returned to arms.
For Chober Agenonga, an international relations professor at the University of Kisangani in northern DRC, the challenge of supporting militiamen willing to lay down their weapons is “the big obstacle to the peace process” in the country.
Agenonga said ex-combatants left to fend for themselves may commit abuses against civilians: “All commitments not accompanied by support are followed by relapses [from the rebels]… it pushes them to commit atrocities.”
Muhindo Mughanda, a professor of political science at the University of Goma, said armed groups are fighting for a reason, which the government must engage with if the new DDR process is to succeed. Reducing conflict means tackling corruption, building a disciplined army, and reducing poverty and inequality – “the ingredients of insecurity” – he explained, adding: “We must fight against all of this to hope for a lasting peace.”
Claude Sengenya reported from Butembo, and Patricia Huon from Johannesburg. Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.