The M23 Insurgency and Instability in East Congo
On March 29th, a helicopter belonging to the UN mission in the Congo crashed while on patrol. There were reports in some outlets claiming that M23 rebels shot down the aircraft, while other reports stated that the group denied responsibility. In total, eight peacekeepers perished in the incident, and the Congolese Army was quick to blame the shadowy March 23 network.
The M23 movement has an interesting backstory, as it was on the eponymous date of March 23rd, 2009, when the Congolese government signed a peace deal with a group called the National Conference for the Defense of the People (CNDP). As a result of the peace deal, CNDP militants were integrated into the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC). Members of CNDP mutinied against the government in 2012, citing frustrations over the government’s lack of will to implement the peace deal, and they subsequently formed the March 23 movement. At the time, M23 was led by General Bosco Ntanganda (aka “The Terminator''), who would later be convicted of war crimes.
Like the CNDP’s fighters, M23’s militants were ethnic Tutsis mostly residing in North Kivu Province, and they were vehemently opposed to ethnic Hutu military and political power, as well as that of other rival groups such as the Mai-Mai. M23 marshaled the momentum of the preceding mutiny into a flow-blown offensive by mid-2012, advancing on government positions throughout the east and eventually capturing the provincial capital of Goma. Along with the help of other regional militias such as the Mai-Mai, FARDC forces recaptured the city in December 2012, after M23 fighters surrendered and began to withdraw. However, a new level of political murkiness followed.
One of the most important questions that must be asked is how M23 has been able to remain off the radar for a decade following its ouster from Goma. A common charge that has been levied by Kinshasa is that M23 is supported by the government of neighboring Rwanda. The accusation has been denied repeatedly by Kigali. Similar accusations have been made against Uganda.
The charges against Rwanda raise an interesting point. There are currently at least 70 active militant groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo according to a report released by the African Center for Strategic Studies. Another report released on March 1st of this year by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect estimates that the number of active groups is at least 120. Some of these groups can trace their roots not only back to Rwanda but also to Uganda and even Burundi during the turbulent times of the 1990s in these respective countries.
One clear fact remains: despite the presence of UN Peacekeepers, the administrations of Laurent and Joseph Kabila and that of the current President Felix Tshishekedi have not been able to restore order let alone show adequate governance in the Kivus or in Ituri province to the north. No matter how often they complain about neighboring states interfering in the internal affairs of the DRC, the authorities in Kinshasa themselves have an undeniable hand in the security crisis that destabilizes the Kivus.
The eastern DRC has been in crisis for two decades now. Often the blame for the situation on the ground has been placed on Kinshasa with some fair justification. It appears that some of the neighboring countries have grown comfortable with the presence of their own insurgents on Congolese soil, giving them an excuse to send their forces into the country on punitive expeditions and so forth. This tactic is sure to secure them some enduring leverage with the current leadership in Kinshasa, and thus we should not expect them to cease this behavior any time soon.
This game of exploiting insurgencies, however, plays into the narrative of the Congolese government that foreign governments are supporting these groups to the greater detriment of the DRC. It is a vicious cycle that is currently playing out, and the local population is treated as mere pawns in what is ultimately a broader game on the continent to secure natural resources as argued by the International Crisis Group and even Human Rights Watch. Sadly, there appears to be no end in sight.