Heavy fighting broke out on 15 November in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo between M23 rebels and government forces (FARDC), breaking a virtual truce that had lasted on the frontlines between these forces for nearly three months.
M23 (The Mouvement Du 23 Mars) began in April 2012 as an army mutiny by several hundred soldiers who accused the government of breaching the terms of a March 2009 peace deal under which the rebel group they then belonged to, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) morphed into a political party while CNDP fighters joined the army.
A spokesman for the FARDC in North Kivu, Col Olivier Hamuli, said the M23 attacked FARDC positions east of Kibumba, about 30km north of Goma, from 8am on 15 November, but were repulsed and fighting had ceased by the evening. Local media and UN observers who visited Kibumba after the fighting were shown the dead bodies of a dozen combatants identified by FARDC as M23 members, some of whom the army said had Rwandan identity documents.
Rwanda has persistently denied accusations, repeated in two UN panel of experts’ reports on DRC, that it has been supporting the M23 rebels (whose armed elements in October adopted the name Congolese Revolutionary Army).
M23 accused the government of breaking the ceasefire. M23 spokesman Vianney Kazarama told IRIN that its forces had been attacked at 5am on 15 November near the Ugandan border north of Jomba, and subsequently on three other fronts.
The FARDC says at least 44 M23 fighters died in the fighting.
Is this the end of the truce?
Further hostilities seem likely in the near future. About a week before the latest clashes a military source told IRIN an offensive involving some 3,000 FARDC troops was expected in mid-November, and the governor of North Kivu Province, Julien Paluku, on 16 November gave members of M23 an ultimatum to surrender or be crushed.
A ceasefire had held along the main front line to the north of Goma since August, but there had been reports of M23 fighting alongside other armed groups in attacks on army bases in Masisi Territory, west of Rutshuru, every few days since 12 October.
The UN says these attacks were mounted by “presumed M23 elements”, suggesting they were guerrilla raids and the attackers were difficult to identify.
M23 has not taken control of any large population centres in these operations, which were probably intended to put pressure on the government rather than to take territory.
Jason Stearns, director of the Rift Valley Institute’s Usalama Project, in an October report on the M23 commented that with only an estimated 1,500-2,500 fighters, the movement lacked the manpower to expand its territory.
It is currently confined to Rutshuru, where it seized a strip of territory about 90km north to south along the Ugandan and Rwandan borders during battles with FARDC in June and July.
Can FARDC decisively defeat M23?
On paper the government forces number 105,000, plus tanks and aircraft, while M23’s small force is entirely infantry. Until the latest fighting the rebels had won most of their major battles against FARDC, but external support for those victories seems to have been vital.
The UN group of experts has concluded that Rwanda has backed M23 with recruits, arms and ammunition and direct support from Rwandan army units when it has come under pressure. The group has also accused Uganda of providing support, including military reinforcements in late July. Both governments vehemently deny the accusations.
External support for M23 could dwindle given mounting international condemnation of the movement.
On 13 November, the US government “designated” the group’s leader, Sultani Makenga, freezing any assets he has in US jurisdictions and barring US citizens from doing business with him.
Probably in response to the UN group of experts report, Uganda on 13 November closed a border crossing near Bunagana, where M23 has its headquarters. The International Crisis Group (ICG) Congo analyst Thierry Vircoulon said the move would hurt M23 financially as it had been taxing traffic at the crossing, but would not of itself prevent continued military support from Rwanda.
The BBC has reported that there is reluctance among UN Security Council members to condemn Rwandan and Ugandan officials over alleged support to the M23.
In its September report on the DRC, ICG says a military solution to M23 is “unrealistic”, while Stearns comments that “the Congolese army cannot defeat the M23 with military might alone.”
Even with international pressure, Stearns says, it will be difficult to ensure that the support allegedly provided to M23 by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda has been cut.
How much support is there for M23 in DRC?
M23 has held no elections, and has so far met with almost unanimous condemnation from the DRC’s political spectrum.
According to Stearns, it has a narrower support base than its predecessor movement the CNDP (which won only a single national assembly seat after its transformation into a political party). Stearns’s research finds that the great majority of M23 officers are from the Tutsi ethnic group (as were most CNDP officers), and that it has failed to attract Hutu elites who were important allies to the CNDP in its early stages. He stresses that the M23 cannot be identified with the wider Congolese Tutsi community either.
Hutus are the great majority of the population in Rutshuru and the largest ethnic group in Masisi, while Tutsis are a small minority in both territories although more numerous there than elsewhere in the DRC.
Like the CNDP before it, M23 says it is fighting to defend North Kivu’s Kinyarwanda speaking population (Hutu and Tutsi). Kinyarwanda speakers have come under attack several times in recent years: in 1993, when they were targeted by communities who saw themselves as more “indigenous”; and in 1994-1996 when the arrival of Hutu refugees in the wake of the Rwandan genocide led tens of thousands of Congolese Tutsis to flee into exile. Hundreds of Tutsi civilians across the country were killed at the outbreak of wars in 1996 and 1998.
In the past decade, however, the Tutsi have succeeded in protecting and expanding their land holdings in North Kivu. These ranches are not reported to be under attack by neighbouring communities, although many Tutsi civilians fled Masisi at the start of the M23 rebellion.
Tutsi farms are mainly surrounded by Hutu smallholders, many of whom resent the extension of ranches as this has denied them access to farmland. But these smallholders are also under pressure from surrounding ethnic groups and to that extent have a common interest with their fellow Kinyarwanda-speaking Tutsi neighbours.
The key importance of a Hutu/Tutsi alliance to the M23 was underscored by the North Kivu governor on 16 November when he claimed that Hutus made up 85 percent of the M23’s rank-and-file and gave them an ultimatum to abandon the rebel movement.
Many of those foot soldiers may have been press-ganged into the rebellion, according to research by Human Rights Watch.
Stearns notes that M23 has succeeded in persuading recognized elites from the ethnic Nande community, the largest ethnic group in North Kivu, (although not from other communities) to join the movement.
M23 has also, according to Stearns, forged alliances with nine armed groups in eastern DRC, including factions of the Raia Mutomboki (Angry Citizens) coalition. Most of these groups have only a few hundred fighters but they have managed to inflict some defeats on an army preoccupied with M23.
An investigation by the UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC found that the Raia Mutomboki and their allies the Mai Mai Kifuafua “arbitrarily executed” at least 246 civilians in Masisi between April and September 2012.
On 14 November, the Jesuit Refugee Service called for “increased attention to be urgently provided by the international community, one which answers the pleas for security and humanitarian aid and pushes Congolese political, civil and military authorities to guarantee the protection of these populations [in Masisi]. Otherwise free reign will continue to be given to militias responsible for the killing of innocent children, women and men.”
ICG’s Vircoulon and Stearns comment that M23 has bought its alliances with money and they may not last.
The FARDC in September announced a plan to integrate several armed groups into its forces but so far only the Nyatura, an ethnic Hutu militia, have joined in large numbers (perhaps 400).
Despite the evidence of war crimes committed by M23, and by its leaders when they were in the CNDP several (non-Tutsi) residents of Goma told IRIN they thought M23 treats the general population no worse than the army does and that they shared the group’s espoused aim of decentralizing government, as stipulated in the DRC constitution.
In the Kivu provinces, there is a suspicion among several people IRIN interviewed that the M23 also has tacit support from many senior army officers. About a quarter of the army’s top ranks in the Kivus were made up of former CNDP officers. According to Stearns, about half of these have joined M23. Some of the others may be sympathizers.
How could the rebellion be brought to an end?
The UN Security Council has threatened sanctions against those backing M23 with arms, and Rwanda has already seen some cuts to overseas aid as a result of its alleged support for the group. The DRC government is lobbying for such pressure to be ramped up. Stearns argues, however, that even with increased pressure, a negotiated settlement will have to include a partial reintegration of the M23 into the army.
Stearns and the ICG agree that the regional proposal for a “neutral force” of 4,000 men to guard the Rwandan/DRC border is a distraction from the main issue and is unlikely to be funded. They also call for longer-term governance reforms to underpin a peace settlement.
Local agreements between communities, particularly on land issues, could help assuage Tutsi concerns about their rights - concerns the M23 has used to justify its rebellion.
A Congolese Tutsi ex-politician and landowner Emmanuel Kamanzi recently ceded 25 hectares of one of his cattle ranches to a community in Masisi Territory in a deal brokered by UN Habitat which the North Kivu Federation of Agricultural Producers has recommended as a model for settling other land conflicts. Kamanzi told IRIN he envisaged more such deals, and greater collaboration between agriculturalists and cattle ranchers, who could help the agriculturalists market their products.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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