When Congolese General Bosco Ntaganda, fearing arrest for alleged crimes against humanity committed during the Second Congo War, fled to the bush with a few hundred loyal men in April, there were few signs of the explosive rebellion to come. What began as one man’s crusade to avoid arrest has mutated into a powerful military and political force that has seized control of swathes of North Kivu, threatens to undermine President Joseph Kabila’s authority, and could even plunge the region into war.
In March Thomas Lubanga, Ntaganda’s co-accused at the international criminal court (ICC), was found guilty of recruiting child soldiers. Ntaganda, once considered integral to the fragile peace in Congo’s eastern Kivu provinces, was isolated as international pressure on Kabila to bring Ntaganda to justice began to bear fruit. Kabila made a speech suggesting Ntaganda could be arrested and tried in Congo, and within days Ntaganda was gone, fleeing to his stronghold in Masisi.
Ntaganda had integrated into the army along with thousands of fighters from the Congrès National de la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) rebel group under the terms of a peace agreement signed on 23 March 2009. The former CNDP fighters had overwhelmed the Congolese army in North Kivu and seriously threatened the provincial capital Goma, allowing them to secure significant privileges at the peace talks. Many of their fighters were made colonels in the regular army and posted their native Kivu provinces. Ntaganda was put in overall charge of the army in the east, and the ex-CNDP elements preserved parallel chains of command that allowed them to build lucrative smuggling rackets shipping minerals into neighbouring Rwanda.
The birth of M23
Ntaganda’s April mutiny initially failed to gather much momentum. However Kabila simultaneously attempted to press ahead with reform of the army, which involved deploying some ex-CNDP units out of the Kivus and dismantling their parallel command structures. This provoked a broader mutiny by the ex-CNDP fighters under the name ‘M23’ – a reference to the date of the 2009 peace accord. The M23 leadership is made up of former CNDP fighters who demand a re-visitation of the 2009 deal. They have distanced themselves from Ntaganda, though analysts are convinced that the ICC-indictee is helping to orchestrate the rebellion.
A recent investigation by the UN Group of Experts on the Congo unearthed substantial evidence of Rwandan support for M23. Rwanda had backed the CNDP in 2008, and profited enormously from the mineral smuggling controlled by the ex-CNDP soldiers in the Kivus between 2009 and 2012. The CNDP was seen as a Tutsi concern, backed by the Tutsi government in Kigali, and M23 has not escaped the Tutsi label either. However the conflict transcends ethnic concerns. Control of the lucrative minerals and business interests in the Kivus drives the M23 leaders and is at the heart of Rwandan involvement in the conflict.
With Rwanda helping the rebels to arm and recruit, the Congolese army has been powerless to prevent M23’s advances throughout July. Descending from their positions in the hills on the Rwandan border, the rebels seized Bunagana (a strategic town near the convergence of the Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan borders), Rutshuru, Kiwanja, Rumangabo, Rugari and a host of smaller villages. They are now a few kilometres from Kibumba, where the Congolese army defences are massed just 30 km from Goma. Monusco, the UN stabilisation force in the Congo, has supported the Congolese army with air strikes against M23 positions as well as the usual logistics and intelligence assistance, but with little positive effect.
M23, for their part, claim to be ready to negotiate. The limit of their ambitions, they say, is those 2009 accords; implement them properly, and they insist that they will put down arms. Kabila, however, refuses to negotiate directly with the rebels, publically claiming that they are a proxy force for Rwandan interests in the region. There are suggestions that he has privately reached out to M23, but that the rebels consistently raise their pre-negotiation demands (for example insisting that M23 chooses the next Defence Minister) and want talks to be conducted in public.
Publically, Kabila says he will only engage directly with the Rwandans. Kigali, however, strongly denies any suggestion of support for M23, has recently attempted to discredit the UN Experts’ report and its authors, and will not take responsibility for the rebels. Given this impasse, other regional players, notably Uganda, have intervened in an attempt to find a negotiated solution.
A regional solution?
Between 5 and 8 August the leaders of countries in the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) met in Kampala to debate the crisis. This was a follow-up to a 15 July meeting in Addis Ababa, where an international ‘neutral force’ had been proposed to patrol the border between Congo and Rwanda. The details of this neutral force were supposed to be finalised at further ICGLR talks held in Goma between 14 and 16 August.
The proposal, however, remains only vaguely defined and faces a series of hurdles. Most pressingly, the questions of who will pay and who will contribute fighters – who has the soldiers available, and which countries would constitute a ‘neutral’ force acceptable to the governments concerned? The force would take a long time to organise and deploy, and it is unlikely to have the support of the Congolese people, who have for over a decade lived in the presence of Monusco forces that, in the eyes of the Congolese, do little to protect them from atrocities committed in a succession of violent rebellions and wars.
The question of neutrality in the region became even more sensitive when rumours emerged of the presence of Ugandan combatants fighting alongside M23 around Kiwanja and Rutshuru in mid-July. There have also been reports of trucks of fighters crossing from Uganda into M23 territory near Bunagana. This is all unconfirmed, but on a recent visit to Rutshuru I saw the local M23 commander driving a car with Ugandan number plates: hardly substantive proof of Ugandan involvement, but enough to raise suspicions.
Kabila’s mistrust of Rwandan and Ugandan interests in eastern Congo led him to seek alternatives to the ICGLR neutral force before the Kampala summit. Angolan president José Eduardo Dos Santos is apparently open to a Congolese request for troops; reports in Uganda recently stated that President Yoweri Museveni flew to Angola ahead of the ICGLR meeting to dissuade Dos Santos from deploying his army in eastern Congo.
Museveni and Rwandan President Paul Kagame apparently pushed the idea of a regional ‘neutral’ force at Kampala, but it was rejected by Kabila. The Congolese president has returned to Kinshasa and may again be seeking a bilateral agreement for reinforcements from Angola; on 13 August the Congo and Angola announced the formation of a joint commission and Congolese vice minister for Cooperation and Foreign Affairs, Dismas Magbeng Monzia, expressed gratitude for Angolan help in the east. Congolese delegates at the Goma conference, meanwhile, privately said that they would prefer a force from SADC – the South African Development Community, of which Angola is a member – than one drawn from their regional neighbours.
There is on-going speculation regarding the true objectives of M23 and its Rwandan backers. The UN Experts report suggested that the endgame is the secession of the Kivu provinces and perhaps even Ituri. This supposedly independent territory would, the theory goes, be controlled by its politically powerful neighbours in Kigali and Kampala.
Analysts suggest that, if true, this would explain Ugandan involvement. If Rwanda is plotting the secession of the Kivus, the Ugandans cannot ignore the possibility of a new country on their border. Moreover, individuals within the Ugandan political and military establishment profited enormously from the Ugandan occupation of Ituri during the Second Congo War. The possibility of a mineral rich puppet state on the border may be too much for these individuals to resist.
As seductive as this grand conspiracy theory may be, secession and annexation of parts of another country would be red lines for the international community. The evidence of Rwandan support for M23, though contested by Kigali, has already prompted a number of international donors to suspend aid to Congo’s diminutive neighbour, formerly the darling of the western donor community. Even the UK, a long-standing Rwandan ally largely thanks to Tony Blair’s fanatical support for Kagame and his regime, froze £16 million of aid. It was just a suspension, of course, but such a move would have been unthinkable before this crisis. Attempts to annex Congolese sovereign territory would, presumably, be met with an even firmer response.
What is more likely is that the Rwanda-backed M23 fighters are seeking a repeat of the resolution of the 2008 CNDP rebellion; if they seriously threaten Goma, Kabila will come under huge pressure to negotiate and M23 will hope to secure the privileges the CNDP extracted in 2009.
The fly in the ointment, however, will be the loyal Congolese army and the Congolese people. These groups will furiously resist any concessions to M23 and any attempt to reintegrate the rebel leaders into the army. The Congolese government soldiers are particularly exhausted and upset; under-paid, undersupplied and demotivated, were their former comrades to obtain powerful ranks and good salaries as a reward for mutiny they too may take up arms. Kabila cannot afford to be forced to the negotiating table this time.
And yet a military solution is distant. The army is still full of M23 elements who have not officially defected. They pass materials, money and, crucially, intelligence to the rebels. The assistance of foreign troops like the Angolans may be Kabila’s only option, but the consequences of more armed forces in this region are potentially catastrophic. Relations between the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda are already tense; the possibility of a descent into regional war lingers ominously on the horizon.